Pte. 39914, George Hague. (Submitted photo)

Pte. 39914, George Hague. (Submitted photo)

Prisoner of War

Reflections, Remembrances and Recollections by Glenn Boychuk

It was an easy decision made in August of 1914 to enlist, for his country was now at war and the Empire had put out a call for volunteers. War was officially declared on August 4; three days later the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F) landed on the shores of Europe in the port cities of Calais, Ostend and Dunkirk. The Great War was about to unfold, the next four years would prove beyond anyone’s imagination the horrors of war.

Now known only to the world as a private, bearing regimental service number 39914, serving with the 3rd Battalion of the West Yorks. He completed his basic army training and like so many other new recruits upon completion of training; was the given position of a rifleman. Immediately there existed a world of difference from his previous employment as a railway porter; in just a matter of months he quickly shed his civilian ways and became a dedicated soldier. Attention to detail, order, discipline and an unwavering devotion to complete whatever task or duty was asked of him became part of his daily routine.

It was a war fought from trenches, each side sending a continuous wall of bullets and artillery shells into each other’s perimeters. Shells exploding overhead that had the capability to fragment and send shrapnel everywhere. Craters formed where shells had landed and exploded into the soft earth, eventually filling up with water they became the graves to thousands of men and horses who simply drowned. Patches of earth were constantly bombarded with explosive shells, soldiers simply vanished into thin air when hit. The names of the missing will never really be known, merely unimaginable casualties of war.

Poison gas for the first time was released across the battlefield, it was something never encountered nor prepared for in its initial stages of use. Men simply grabbed at their throats hoping to get a breath of air into their lungs as the gas steadily took its toll on the human body and the victims died. A truly unspeakable horror, for those who survived a gas attack chronic problems continued for the rest of their lives. For others, the constant shelling left tens of thousands of soldiers “shell shocked” and incapable of coping with the daily strain of being a soldier.

Corpses were scattered about the battlefield, the smell and stench of decaying human and animal flesh filled the air. Written accounts describe accurately how rats living in the trenches fed off the corpses. Dead soldiers were found without any skin, simply consumed as food by rodents. Lice, trench foot, dysentery and a host of other conditions became ordinary occurrences, all the while living in the trenches, the war continued.

Pvt. 39914 became somewhat shell-shocked and was gassed during fighting near Vimy, immediately sent to the rear for hospitalization and within a few weeks was fit enough to return to the front. It was here in an act of unyielding bravery all the while under constant shellfire that he rescued a wounded British officer.

Hoisting him onto his shoulder Pvt. 39914 carried him over the battlefield and into a safe area for treatment, and then simply headed back to his own billet to resume his duties. These past three years seemed like a lifetime for the young rifleman, witnessing daily the death and dying of friends and fellow soldiers, living in earthen dugouts, trenches constantly filled with water, gas attacks, continual bombardment and the end was nowhere in sight. Somehow in the midst of all this, he found himself now taken as a prisoner of war and sent to a POW camp far behind the enemy lines.

For the next year and right until the Armistice was signed and came into effect at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918 he found himself, like thousands of others mere forced slave labourers. The following excerpts and quotes are taken directly from his now 104-year-old POW diary that he had kept.

Pvt. 39914 writes: Soup uneatable and rotten. No bread

One chap complained about rations but was struck by officer…sanitation unhealthy

Seventeen men to one loaf of bread!

Aeroplanes over during the night dropped bombs on St. Quentin platform

Leave Termonde 11 am for Germany about one thousand of us

Move to another camp have to march almost 24 hours

Started work on railway heavy work lifting planks

Wrote to the girl in G.B.

Marched all through the night and next day to a village call Etreaupont to a camp three kilos the other side

Got examined by doctor for weakness

One chap kicked very severely for being late on parade

More troops arrive total now one thousand, rations cut

Captured on the 12th of March near Zonnebeck on an advance post while running wire, 8 of us taken prisoner of war. Corporal either killed or wounded, marched from the line all through the day

Heard that two of the lads just died

Digging a hole out of a engine shed for three tanks, the officer struck one of the lads for not working quick enough

Had to go down to see doctor in his billet. had to be operated on without taking anything, cut calf of leg four inch long and one inch deep to get infection out

Had to go down to the doctor place to get cut again very wet weather big bombardment advancing on Bochime

Historically over 65 million forces were mobilized on both sides during the Great War and 37 million of them were either killed, wounded or reported missing as casualties. Today there are no WW1 survivors left living, the last Canadian, John Babcock died Feb. 18, 2010 at 109 years of age.

He was the last of the 600,000 Canadians who volunteered to serve with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (C.E.F.) to help defend the Empire. Just prior to his death, on Remembrance Day in an emotionally charged statement during the ceremony on television, he passed the Flame of Remembrance onto us and asked us to carry it high. We all should honour his wishes, their sacrifices guaranteed our freedoms.

It takes nothing out of our lives to give 30 minutes to attend a Remembrance Day Ceremony, weather should never be the deciding factor, after all, our soldiers gave years of their lives and some paid the ultimate sacrifice in order to allow us our freedoms. The Great War was never stopped for weather concerns nor did being too busy ever become part of canceling war plans or preparations. It is now up to us; the younger generation to carry on and continue, we must be cognizant of the fact that freedom has a price and our fellow citizens paid for it with their blood in the past and continue to do so even today. It is time that we as a nation stand as one to honour those who stood for us when all hope seemed dim and the outcome was not yet known.

Pvt.39914, George Hague, immigrated to Canada after the war, later settled in Prince Rupert and much like you and I became one of the people who make up the mosaic of this land. His diary speaks volumes of what he saw and experienced yet the three simple handwritten inscriptions inside the cover next to a small 1917 German calendar answers all of the questions one could ask whether it be yesterday, today or tomorrow. In pencil he wrote:

“If ever this book should get lost, will you return it free of cost then I shall thank you.”

“It is not the value of the book but for its history I shall look when back in “Blighty.”

“Hard times I’ve had needless to say and now ask God to grant the day when peace shall reigneth.”

So, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, wake up early and enjoy what is around you, take some time to reflect, and finally gather your family and make your way to the Cenotaph. They did it for us now we can do it for them.

We shall remember them!

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