EDITOR’S NOTE: Jacqueline Carmichael is a Port Alberni writer and the granddaughter of WWI soldier George “Black Jack” Vowel, whose wife Laura Vowel and son John Vowel settled in Port Alberni in the 1950s. She is also the granddaughter of long-time Port Alberni resident Charles W.C. Chapman, who came to the West Coast in the 1930s with his family, and also served in World War I. She is working on a book of poetry about Black Jack’s Great War experience.
Walking in my grandfather’s footsteps on the Ypres Salient in Belgium and near Vimy Ridge in France and then in Cologne, Germany, I gave myself five days learn something about the Great War that shaped my family.
As a trench-bound World War I soldier, Kansas-born George Anderson “Black Jack” Vowel was an immigrant homesteading near his parents, Caloway and Ellen Vowel in Hanna, Alberta when the call came for Canadians to come to the aid of Great Britain, newly at war with Germany.
His war-time pen pal Louisa Bebe Watson (Peat) saved the letters he wrote her, and he is mentioned in her book, Mrs. Private Peat, as well as one by her husband, the famous Private Peat.
A member of the 15th Alberta Light Horse, George signed up with the 10th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in September, 1914.
He arrived in the trenches by Feb. 22, 1915 and was quickly plunged into the first major action seen by the First Canadian Division in the fierce Second Battle of Ypres.
In a letter marked June 19, 1915 Trenches, France, George there were few of the original Tenth Battalion left. “We had another fight in Festubert on the 21 of May and lost a lot more of the boys. I am thankful to say that I came through both of them alright.
“Words cannot describe the scenes we went through at Ypres and I have often wondered since how so many of us ever got through alive. The 10th Battalion was fighting for six days. We went four days without anything to eat and some of the boys never had any sleep during the six days and nights … We will win out in time but at what a cost.”
Hunkering down in dugouts near the front, he seemed to have a knack for dodging a bullet, describing frequent narrow escapes, particularly on late-night runs to distribute rations to the boys in the trenches.
“The bullets were ripping the dirt up all around me for a bit, but none of them was marked Black Jack,” he recalled.
In a letter dated January 28, 1916 in billets, George told Bebe the front was “just the place for the person that likes thrills.”
“The noise made by high explosive makes the hair stand and then along comes the flying steel and fragments slithering through the air making the most horrible sounds imaginable which makes a cold child run up and down the spine and puts a sinking sensation in the pit of the stomach and the brain starts urging the feet to beat it and the feet refuse to act and the knees get wobbly … About the time his knees get wobbly his nerve breaks and he goes bugs. I have seen several cases of it and it isn’t a pleasant sight to see.
The Germans were the first to use gas in warfare at Kitchener’s Wood on the Ypres Salient in 1915.
Both grandfathers were gassed in the Great War. For Black Jack, this was possibly at Kitchener’s Wood, where the 10th Battalion held the ground.
“They stayed here, but the casualties were enormous. The good news was that Ypres remained in Allied hands a second time. The bad news – the losses and the use of chlorine gas,” said Belgian battlefield guide Raoul Saesen.
The veterans of Kitchener’s Wood were permitted to wear a unique shoulder badge, an oak leaf with acorns.
“In 1919 Marshall Foch SC Allied stated, ‘I think the finest act of the war was the counterattack of the 10th and 16th Battalions of the Canadians after the British had been frightfully punished by German gas,’” Saesen said.
In one letter marked only “Flanders 30 (October),” desperate to keep letters from Bebe coming in, he scribbled a letter while under fire.
“We have been having quite a time lately, plenty of bombardment and the like. They have started strafing again so if my spelling is bad don’t blame me. I am doubled up in one corner of the dugout trying to make myself as small as possible and not making very much success of it. The beggars don’t care where they throw the darned shells anyway – they are liable to hurt someone yet.”
100 YEARS LATER ON THE FRONT
I realize I am on the Western Front a hundred years to the month after my grandfather received a Military Medal for bravery on October 11, 2016, apparently for single-handedly taking out a trench full of Germans in France.
I am startled by how close all the places my grandfather fought are. The two major arenas of World War 1 were in an hour’s driving distance of each other. Waves of hundreds of thousands of soldiers poured in undulating crescents over the gently rolling landscape – land that is still, in many cases, pitted with craters and trenches.
Bones are still discovered every month all over the former Western Front – and each time the police have to come and inspect them, to make sure they really date to the Great War era, and a specialist checks to see if a German boot or a Commonwealth button or a fragment of leather from an Anzac hat can place the tissue fragment with one side or another for burial purposes.
But that’s not all that’s lying around.
In 2013 alone, the bomb disposal unit found 105,000 kilos of unexploded ammunition in this area, guide Raoul Saesen said.
THE CONDITION WE’RE IN
The conditions were atrocious – and often wet.
“I was coming out last night for a turn in billets when I fell into a shell hole. It was pretty near full of water, so I got soaked to the neck, and I hit against a couple of dead Boches in it, too. Not nice. Reached the billet dripping wet. Have got a couple of sugar boxes, one at my head and one at my feet. Have coke brazier underneath. If I lie here about three hours and keep turning, I guess I’ll be dry by about then,” he wrote.
Often assigned to supply or kitchen duty, he frequently cooked and delivered rations to the front, dodging bullets and mortar fire as he ran.
At one point, just after contracting blood poisoning in his foot, George was told to report to duty as an aerial gunner. However, briefly sidelined with dental problems, he never did end up spending time in an airplane –a blessing no doubt, as the fly boys had a terrible survival rate.
He also was seriously ill with the mumps, possibly at Lijssenthoek, the regional military hospital. Unlike battlefield cemeteries like Passchendaele where only some of the graves are identified with the bones that lie beneath them, at Lijssenthoek cemetery, almost everyone is identified, because before they were corpses, they were patients in varying states of triage.
I visited the interactive museum there, and saw the notches on the fence posts representing the number of war dead buried there each day of the war.
“This cemetery reads as a block calendar of the Great War. For every day of the year, somebody is buried in the cemetery,” said history buff and battlefield tour guide Luc Dequidt.
As the tide turned and the Germans retreated, George came across a field of bodies of dead Germans on August 10, 1918 at Beauchamp le Benix. “We are camped on ground taken from Fritz. Dead Germans lying about everywhere,” he wrote. “The boys must have went through them like a whirlwind.”
Over four years of war, Canada had mobilized 620,000 soldiers. Of those, 67,000 were killed, and 250,000 wounded.
On the day of Armistice, Nov. 11, 1918, a note in his journal read: “Returned Boots” with the date underlined.
By November 18 of that year, he was in Cologne, Germany. “Cologne is quite a modern looking place. Went through the cathedral, one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world.”
I visited the Cologne cathedral. Begun in 1248, its twin spires tower 515 feet above the city, forming the largest church façade in the world and attracting 20,000 visitors a day. I thought about my grandfather, wandering around it and looking up, just like the rest of us.
Discharged from the Army on May 5, 1919 in Toronto, George Vowel returned to Alberta, snapping his war journal shut with a final entry: “Arrived home today finished with the Army after 4 years nine months absence.”
Back in Hanna, he married Laura Knutson, a young local woman who had emigrated with family from Norway via North Dakota 13 years before.
Like many of his generation, he didn’t talk about his war service.
George and Laura had four children: John, who would become a Port Alberni resident in the 1950s, Donald, Jacqueline Louise, Margaret (Peggy) and Barbara.
George Anderson “Black Jack” Vowel died in May, 1955 when his tractor overturned on him in Alberta’s Peace River country.
Laura Vowel moved to Port Alberni in the late 1950s, and lived on Georgia Road.
Son Don Vowel, who followed his father’s footsteps by volunteering for service in World War II, working transport in Europe. He heard from another source of his father’s gallantry.
“There was an older fellow in the same outfit I was in. Him and my dad had joined the army together in the first World War,” Don recalled. “He told me a lot of things about George Vowel. He said there was never a better soldier ever lived – he had more guts than a slaughterhouse. I can understand that of him, having known him. That’s the way he was, he wasn’t afraid of anything.”