The World is a Stage - Laurel Beechey
Twenty one years ago, in 1993, I was asked to by the Tillsonburg Legion to research what it was like in Tillsonburg during WWI. I read some microfilm, but I went to the retirement centres and nursing homes to find the people that actually lived through that war to end all wars.
Although the research was to be about the home front, I found several men who actually fought in the war. As they were all old and not long to be of this world, I realized that if I didn’t get their stories right then, they would be lost forever.
One interview, was with a gentlemen who was not shy in telling his tumultuous tale. He had three brothers who enlisted soon after July 28, 1914 the day the shot echoed through the world. All four boys lived through the war, although wounded.
He, himself, had to wait until he was 18 before going off to war in 1917. At first he was sent to Russia fighting for about a month and was involved with building a barracks. As the Bolsheviks, with Lenin as leader, took over the country, they appealed for peace with Germany, so in the spring he was then shipped to Italy to fight in the “hills”. Because of the rocks, trenches were not used, however the hills were tunneled. Guns were mounted on the outside while ammunition and men were on the inside. He recalled receiving packages from home and sleeping with them as a pillow so they would not be stolen.
I had begun realizing while he told his story that this man had not been on our side, he had been the enemy. It was a jolt to me, for both my grandfathers had fought in WWI, and I had not ever considered that I would meet their enemy. The man’s story went on, in fact once he started it poured out of him.
By the fall of 1918 their army could no longer hold the line. This gentlemen became very agitated and emotional when describing their troop’s retreat through Austria. He had been with the artillery using 14-pound, shelled guns. They were behind their front lines lobbing shells over their own men at their enemy, trying to slow them down.
By this time they did not have any horses left, as they had all starved to death, so the men had to pull those guns themselves. He cried as he recalled that retreat, for too often they had to step over or on bodies or pieces of bodies, often their own comrades. The smell was horrendous.
In his unit’s last battle, 200 men started fighting and only 13 were left alive at the end. They just stood there in shock, having no idea what they were supposed to do. He remembered that he had been fighting British and Canadians at that time, and in our time, that day, we were both crying and holding hands. I have tears today recalling the agony he was going through telling me his story. It was not a far distant memory; he took me there. But the story was not quite finished.
His return to his home was also very emotional for him to recall. It was very dark and he could not get in his parent’s home so he had to wake the family, who were terrified, not knowing who it was at their door. They found him outside, covered in lice and parasites and outside is where he stayed until he had been stripped, cleaned and his clothes burned. Ah, but when he told me of seeing and speaking to his mother, he broke down again.
Now at home, with the war over, life was not good. There was a shortage of everything. Permits were needed to even grind the little grain they could get. He recalled his parents using a hand meat grinder for the job, and eating very rough bread. The government during and after the war had taken everything. Families tried to start over but found it impossible. He moved to Canada in 1926, from Hungary, at the age of 27. A great wave of guilt washed over him as he told me this, for he had confessed to fighting and killing men from Canada, less than 10 years before, yet our country took him and so many others in.
We were both exhausted from the emotional turmoil and tears spent during his story. Could I forgive him? I, who could not even comprehend what he had gone through. All he did was what he was told to do, trusting his own government was right. Could I forgive myself, for being so naive to not understand that 99 per cent of ‘the enemy’ were not monsters and never in the sights of our guns? The real enemies were in safe war rooms hundreds of miles away, away from the blood, gore and stench.
The gentleman had one last disturbing fact to share with me; no one had ever asked him about the war and his experiences. They did not ask, so he did not tell them. He was 94 years old when I asked, and 75 years of pent up horror poured out. I hope it gave him the peace he needed. It gave me nightmares.
His one request, for when I told his story, was to not give his name until after he died. I obeyed that request, but today it is honour to tell you his name: Frank Latos. And how proud I was to have been privileged with his story.