Former Enemies Are Now Friends

Colour photograph of a statue commemorating the Christmas Truce of 1914, with a German and a British soldier reaching forward to shake hands.040: Former Enemies Are Now Friends
November 10, 2017

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In this episode we speak with LAC employee Tim Hack about the amazing journey he undertook to reconnect with his great-grandfathers, who fought on opposite sides of the First World War. Tim came across the Canadian Expeditionary Force files right after starting work at LAC. This discovery inspired him to retrace his great-grandfathers’ footsteps across northern Europe. Listen to his audio diary from the trip, as well as our pre- and post-trip interviews with him.

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Podcast Transcript

Former Enemies Are Now Friends

Geneviève Morin (GM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Geneviève Morin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

As we move into November, we pause to reflect on the sacrifices made by the men and women who have gone to war in order to preserve our values and freedoms. The Canadian Expeditionary Force, or CEF, was comprised of over 640,000 men and women who served in the First World War, and was critical to the success of the Allied forces. LAC has undertaken the enormous task of digitizing all 640,000 of these service files in order to make them available to the public for free. As of October 2017, 80 per cent of these files can be accessed on our website.

For many descendants of First World War veterans, the act of researching the service files of their relatives opens up a world of new information regarding their families. For one LAC employee, this wasn’t enough. In this episode we speak with Tim Hack about the amazing journey he undertook to reconnect with his great-grandfathers, who fought on opposite sides of the First World War. In his role as Digital Imaging Specialist, Tim came across the CEF files right after starting work at LAC. This discovery inspired Tim to retrace his great-grandfathers’ footsteps across northern Europe. He was gracious enough to share the audio diary of his trip with us—we’ll be hearing that shortly. But before Tim embarked on his trip, we invited him into our studio to talk about where this journey began and what he was hoping to achieve by walking in his great-grandfathers’ footsteps, one hundred years later.

You’re here today because we understand you have a very special connection, a personal connection to the CEF files you were working on. Can you explain a little further on that?

Timothy Hack (TH): Yes, my great-grandfather, Richard Morley Bird—everyone knew him as Richey—he was a soldier in the CEF. So I got to actually hold his file, which was a very special experience.

GM: Did you know that you had a great-grandfather who had been in the war?

TH: Yes, I did. But my family didn’t know any of the details about his service. He passed away, unfortunately, when my grandmother was just twelve years old. And she was his only child. And he never really had a chance to pass along any of his experiences because she was so young and you don’t really want to talk about something horrible like that with a young girl. So we never really knew any of the details about his service.

GM: And I understand that there’s another half of your story, that you also had a grandfather fighting on the German side—or a great-grandfather fighting on the German side.

TH: Yeah, my great-grandfather on my dad’s side fought for Germany in the First World War.

GM: That’s fascinating. Were you surprised at the amount of information you found in your Canadian great-grandfather’s file?

TH: Yeah, I was. I should point out that the file is just the start of the research. You kind of have to keep going into the war diaries of the various units and daily orders and that sort of stuff. But once you start really digging into it, yeah I was quite surprised by the details you could find.

GM: And you had to learn how to dig because I—

TH: Yeah.

GM: And it is fascinating. It’s kind of like a hole that just keeps getting deeper and deeper as you head down it.

TH: It was bittersweet once you start learning stuff and think, “Wow, I’m getting a better picture of my great-grandfather.” But you’re also a bit sad to think that, “Oh, I don’t think my grandmother even knew some of this.” And it was also emotional for me because unfortunately she passed away September of 2013, and I started working at LAC in November of 2013. So I was like, “Oh, I would have loved to have shared this moment with her.” And now I’ve got so many questions I’d love to ask her but, you know.

GM: What about your German great-grandfather?

TH: That one was a lot more difficult to find out details because a lot of the—he was in a Prussian province, which was part of one of the German kingdoms at the time. And a lot of their soldier files—most of their soldier files—were destroyed during some bombing in the Second World War. So those same records that we have for our Canadian soldiers just don’t exist for a lot of the German soldiers of the First World War.

So as far as I can make my best guess, I believe he was in the heavy artillery and there’s a couple of units that were based near where he lived at the time, which are my best guess of which units he was in. And he had been in the war from the beginning because we have a photo of him in his uniform in 1914. And it was in 1916 when we believe he was wounded. He is—the only, I guess you could say, official proof that he served is his name is in the German casualty list that was published during the war. I was able to find his name.

But other than that, there’s a lot of guesses, and maybe, and I-think-this-is-probably-what-he-went-through. But unlike the Canadian one, there aren’t any records where I can verify, yes, this definitely happened. So I have a good idea of what his experience was.

GM: Armed with all this knowledge, you’ve planned a trip to visit the sites and memorials connected to your great-grandfathers’ stories.

TH: Yeah.

GM: Can you explain why this is important to you?

TH: It’s important to me because I want to remember what they’ve been through and just that feeling of knowing that if I hadn’t gotten this job and started to research them, that the knowledge of what they had done and what they had gone through, eventually would have been lost to time and nobody in my family would have ever known.

So it’s like a pilgrimage. If I can walk in their steps, it kind of reinforces the experience of what they went through and it will help me remember what they went through. And I want to pass on that knowledge to other people so that it can keep going on down through the generations of my family.

One of the things I want to get out of this is to I guess bring closure to the First World War in that I’ll be there with my mum and my dad, who are descendants of opposite sides of a conflict. And if you had said at the time that eventually down through the years, that you could reconcile the two different sides and that we’re at peace now with Germany, especially with how vicious that conflict was, I think I want to get a feeling of hope for the future out of that.

GM: How do your parents feel about this whole experience, this upcoming experience and what you’ve discovered so far?

TH: I think they’re quite excited about it as well. I think they’ve been shocked. Like I said, nobody in my family knew any of these details. So as I keep passing along the information that I discover, they get more and more into it as well. So I’m sure they’re going to be very emotional and excited as well.

GM: It seems like a really nice gift for one for their descendants to offer them. It’s a gift through the generations that you’re doing.

TH: Yeah. Yeah, I would say that’s my motivation, is to bring the generations together—the ones who are already passed, the ones who are here right now. And maybe it will create a good story that I can pass on to generations who aren’t even here yet.

GM: Do you think your visit to Europe will kind of help stabilize the slipperiness of all this information, that you feel that you’re grasping little bits but they keep slipping out of your hands because you don’t have enough solidity?

TH: Mmhmm.

GM: Will physically being there sort of help solidify or make it more real for you?

TH: Yes, I do think so. Because at this point, it’s just like old books and documents and it’s very abstract. But once you’re actually standing at the location where you can say, oh this is where he was gassed, or this is where he was almost killed. To be at those locations, I do think it will all hit home at that point.

GM: Or seeing things that they saw—

TH: Yeah.

GM: —when your great-grandfather was at Amiens and he got his promotion and the church was there and the buildings—

TH: Yeah.

GM: —and the streets. And you’ll be looking at the same things he was looking at.

TH: Yeah, and actually one of the things I’m looking forward to is the hotel that we’ll be staying on the outskirts of Amiens is very close to where the Canadian assembly point was for that battle. So I think it will be mind-blowing for me to think I’m staying at a hotel that was basically where he was just before that battle.

GM: It sounds all at once very exciting, very emotional, very optimistic and very sad.

TH: Yeah, it’s a mixture of emotions for sure.

GM: It’s going to be a great experience. I can’t wait to hear about your trip when we get to see you again.

TH: Thanks. Yeah, I can’t wait to share it with you and with everybody else.

GM: We’ll catch up with Tim to discuss the emotional impact of his trip a bit later in the episode. But first, here’s the audio diary of his travels.

[Traffic sounds]

TH: Today is Saturday, June 3rd, 2017. It’s the first day of the big trip to France and Belgium that I’m going on with my mum and dad. Our airplane landed in Paris at about 5:30 this morning. During the flight as we were crossing the ocean, I did think of my great-grandfather Richey Bird. And I was just wondering what emotions must have been going through him as he crossed the ocean 101 years ago, as he went off to serve in the First World War.

[Bird song]

TH: Sunday, June 4th, second day of the trip. Right now I’m walking along Juno Beach. It’s another lovely day today. The scenery here is quite beautiful and I’m getting a very peaceful feeling being here that’s in stark contrast to what the scenery would have been like here nearly seventy-three years ago. The anniversary of the D-Day landings is coming up in just a couple of days.

TH: Monday, June 5th, third day of the trip. Yesterday when we left Juno Beach, we drove up to Le Havre. And I wanted to see that city because it’s the port where my great-grandfather Richey Bird first landed in France. The battalion he enlisted with—the 193rd Infantry Battalion—was stationed in England, but I guess Richey was getting a bit restless there and he wanted to transfer to a unit that was already engaged on the frontlines. So he requested a demotion in rank so that he could move on to the 42nd Infantry Battalion.

And I can’t explain how much admiration I felt for the guy when I first discovered that fact. I was a bit confused at first when I saw in his personnel file that he had demoted himself and I started to wonder why. And then it was once I started doing more research and found out that you could only transfer to another unit if there was a spot available for your current rank and that if there wasn’t, the only way for you to transfer to another unit was to demote yourself. And by that point in the war it was 1916 and everybody knew that it was a horrible war and there was no end in sight. And he was under no obligation to demote himself and transfer to another unit.  So I really did have a lot of admiration for him when I found out that that was the reason that he demoted himself.

We went up in Le Havre to the Jardins suspendus, which is a nice garden on a hill high up overlooking the city. And we had a beautiful view of the port. So it was quite amazing to stand there and to just visualize his ship pulling into the port, knowing that as soon as he disembarked he was going to be going straight up to the front lines.

TH: At this point, please allow me to apologize if I’m mangling the pronunciation of any of these place names. We just did something pretty cool. My mum drove us from the town of Mérélessart to the town of Revelles and this is where we’ve stopped for a bit. From 11 p.m. on August 4th of 1918, until 8 a.m. of August 5th, 1918, my great-grandfather Richey Bird’s battalion marched between these two towns as they approached the assembly area for the upcoming Battle of Amiens.

And it was quite amazing for all of us to see physically the distance that his unit had to travel all in one night. And the war diary mentions that it had rained heavily just before then, so it was tough marching as well. As they were marching, nobody except the very highest-ranked officers of the battalion even knew what the final destination was going to be. The person writing the war diary of the unit at the beginning of the march said it was expected to be about 12 miles. But it actually ended up being 23 1/4 miles. And it says that by the end the men were very, very tired and footsore, but they stuck it out well.

TH: Today is Wednesday, June 7th, fifth day of the trip. I am standing inside Advanced Dressing Station Essex Farm, which is the location where Canadian Officer John McCrae wrote the famous poem, “In Flanders Fields.” It did bring tears to my eyes when I saw all of the poppies, the crosses, the Canadian flags, the handwritten notes that had been left by visitors over the years. Some of them look like they’ve just been left within the last day; others look like they’ve been here for quite a long time. It’s the most emotion I think I’ve felt so far on this trip.

TH: I’m at the Hill 62 Canadian Memorial.

[Sound of wind in microphone]

There’s a heavy wind up here today. The smell of the farmland, which surrounds this hill, is very noticeable in the air. It was exactly 100 years ago today, early in the morning, that the Battle of Messines began with the detonation of a series of large mines all along the German lines.

Hill 62 was at the northern-most reaches of the battlefield. The mines were detonated farther south along the ridge from here. Up until the invention of the atomic bomb, it was along this ridge where one of the largest manmade explosions in history happened, supposedly could be heard all the way back in England. The reason I wanted to be here on this particular day for the anniversary of the battle is because from reading the war diary from the Second Canadian Tunneling Company, I found out that a lot of the work they were doing underground—preparing dugouts for the infantry for this battle—was done in the vicinity of Hill 62, or Mont Sorrel, which is just a bit farther along the ridge from here. I know there’s a very good chance that my great-grandfather Richey Bird was within eyesight of this location, if not directly below this location.

You can easily see the city of Ypres from this vantage point. It’s easy to see why it was such a valuable ridge for the Germans and why the Allies wanted to take the ridge from them before they could go ahead with the Battle of Passchendaele later on in the year. I can just visualize the German artillery observers picking out targets all along here and I can understand why the Allied troops always hated being posted to the Ypres salient: the threat of death was pretty much surrounding them every day that they were posted in this area.

It’s just an amazing feeling looking at this peaceful Belgian countryside, knowing that there were massive explosions happening here a hundred years ago. Now what you mostly see is just cattle grazing in the fields, farms all around.

[Sound of wind in microphone]

TH: I’m at Maple Copse Cemetery and my hand is on the tombstone of W. J. Hickman. He was with the 42nd Battalion and he was attached to the Second Canadian Tunneling Company, like my great-grandfather was, although in his case he did not survive long enough to become a permanent member of the tunneling company. And that’s because on the 15th of February, 1917, an accidental fire broke out in one of the dugouts of the trench system where the Second Canadian Tunneling Company was stationed. I believe 12 men in total of the company ended up dying that night along with numerous other men in various other infantry units that were also stationed in that area.

I remember back when I was reading the war diary of the tunneling company for the first time, late one night I was getting into it and I just couldn’t stop. It was a work night and I really needed to get some sleep but I just couldn’t stop reading the war diary and when I got to the entry for 15th of February 1917, it just said something simple like “accidental fire in dugout caused the death of 12 men.” And I remember I just sat in front of my computer screen for what must have been a solid 10 minutes. I just felt kind of stunned, just thinking about how easily fate could have been different for my family, that it was just a cruel twist of fate that took Hickman’s life, but what if my great-grandfather happened to be in that dugout at that time? And it made me think about how lucky I was to be alive.

[Wind blowing]

TH: I left a wooden cross with a poppy attached that you can find at many places around Belgium. And I wrote on it, “From the descendant of one of your comrades. Rest in peace. Wilson, you have not been forgotten.”

[Street sounds]

TH: Friday, June 9th, seventh day of the trip. We’ve stopped in Quiévrechain and it was in this area that my great-grandfather Richey Bird’s unit, the 12th Battalion Canadian Engineers, was working—repairing roads, filling in craters—when the Armistice took effect on November 11th, 1918.

The soldiers at the time described it as one of the eeriest silences you’ll ever hear. And when 11 o’clock came around, a lot of them didn’t even know how to react. But it’s a completely different feeling around here today.

TH: Saturday, June 10th. It was one week ago from today that we landed in Paris to begin this amazing trip. We’ve made the journey up to the Canadian Vimy Memorial. This monument is just as stunning in person as everyone says it is. The drive up through the village leading up to the monument was also pretty moving, seeing many Canadian flags hanging from the houses of the people who live there.

TH: [Traffic sounds] Sunday, June 11th, ninth day of the trip. We’ve stopped at the village of Hulluch. So far I haven’t had the opportunity to talk about my other great-grandfather, Jakob Hack. He fought for Germany during the First World War. I haven’t been able to talk about him because a lot of the Prussian records were destroyed during the Second World War. So unlike with my great-grandfather Richey Bird, I can’t just look up the war diary of Jakob Hack’s unit and plot out the root that his unit would have taken and see which villages he would have passed through along the way.

However, there was a story passed to me by my Aunt Melanie and she had received it from her brother Doug. My Uncle Doug, when he was a kid he met Jakob Hack and had a few war stories translated from German to English. And one of the stories he remembers hearing was about an incident where the Germans released some poison gas during an attack and partway through the wind shifted directions and started blowing the poison gas back towards their lines. And the story as Jakob told it was that a lot of his own comrades ended up suffering gas injuries and a sizable number of them ended up dying.

And it was through my research that I found out about a series of attacks in the Hulluch region in late April of 1916. And it was the second of those attacks where that shift in the wind caused the disaster for the German troops. And I couldn’t quite find any other situation that totally fit the description from my Uncle Doug. So I’m pretty confident that it must have been in the Hulluch region where my great-grandfather Jakob Hack suffered some gas injuries. So this is one of the few spots where I know he most likely passed through, so it’s quite a feeling to be standing here. A lot of the other parts of his service is a complete mystery to me.

[Street sounds and wind blowing]

TH: Tuesday, June 13th. I’ve lost track of what day of the trip it is. We’ve stopped at a German cemetery in the town of Thiaucourt-Regniéville. Like I did for Hickman up in Belgium when I left a wooden cross at his gravesite, I wanted to do something similar for a German soldier. And I’m at the gravesite of Infantarist Nikolaus Schwinn, who died on January 29th, 1918.

I left a message for him on the cross in his memory. I used an online translation to put it in German. I don’t know if it’s going to be completely accurate and I’m not going to butcher the German pronunciation so I’ll just let you know the English version of what I wrote. It says, “Rest in peace, dear Nikolaus. Former enemies are now friends. From a Canadian.”

I chose Nikolaus Schwinn as the German soldier that I would pay tribute to because last year I found three postcards for sale online and I purchased them. And they had been sent by a soldier in a division that was present at the Hulluch gas attacks that I’d mentioned earlier. So I wanted to have them because they were sent by a soldier who was very close by to where I believe my great-grandfather Jakob Hack was. As I’ve said before, tracking the precise movements of Jakob Hack throughout the First World War is very, very difficult. So it means a lot to me to be able to find physical objects that can be tied to one of the few geographical locations that I know he was at. So as you can imagine, I was very excited to find those postcards.

I tried to teach myself some of the old style of German handwriting just so that I could puzzle through the messages left on the backs of the postcards. And when I was finally able to translate them, I got a pretty poignant reminder of the human cost of war. All three of his postcards were addressed to what I presume is a young nephew named Alwin Schwinn and it just talks about simply stuff like how it’s going at school, mentions a toy train, wishing the family happy Easter. So it’s quite a feeling to be able to bring those postcards with me to his gravesite 100 years after he wrote them. And it just makes you wonder how little Alwin and the rest of his family felt when they found out that he had been killed.

GM: Tim came to meet with us again in the studio after taking a bit of time to consider all that had happened on his trip.

Hi Tim, it’s good to have you back again.

TH: It’s great to be back.

GM: I got a chance to listen to the recordings of your trip, kind of got the raw preview of them. And it sounds like you got a lot of stuff accomplished on your trip. Did the experience meet your expectations?

TH: Yeah, it did meet my expectations. I think it exceeded them actually.

GM: How were your expectations exceeded?

TH: Um, the emotions that hit me at certain places were quite overwhelming at times. I knew it would be an emotional trip but I didn’t think just how emotional it would be at times. On one specific day that it really hit me was on June 7th, when we started out the day visiting Advanced Dressing Station Essex Farm, where John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields.” To begin that day with that emotional location—I think everybody who’s grown up in Canada in school has had to memorize “In Flanders Fields” at some point.

And then to go from there to Hill 62, which was kind of the location that inspired me to want to make this trip, I guess it was three years ago or four years ago when I started thinking about it. So to visit that location and then to go to a cemetery of a soldier that served with my great-grandfather, I had to try to redo the recording a few times. I don’t know if it comes across but I was like actually starting to lose my composure. I had to fight to get it back.

GM: It does come through. It does. You feel very—it’s very solemn when you’re speaking and we feel that you really are in a moment there. How did the information you found at LAC add meaning to your family’s experience in Europe?

TH: There was one example in the war diary of the 12th Battalion Canadian Engineers, which is the unit my great-grandfather served with in the last year of the war. I did mention this in the field recordings, but I specifically wanted my mum to drive us from the town of Mérélessart to the town of Revelles because that was the route that the unit marched overnight in the few days leading up to the Battle of Amiens, and that was such a turning point of the war that actually led to the end of the war, basically that battle.

And being able to see the distance for ourselves with our own eyes, to see how far they travelled marching straight in one night, that’s something you can only experience by going there in person. And reading it in the files doesn’t necessarily give you the full picture. And we all agreed afterwards that it was quite a moving experience to be able to do that. And that’s a detail that I could only have gotten from the war diary. You don’t find stuff like that anywhere else.

GM: I think I remember you mentioning the amount of miles or kilometres. It’s almost a marathon that they walked in one night.

TH: It was. It was quite impressive how far they went in one night, actually. And a detail that was in the war diary that I especially liked was the person who was writing it made a special comment that my great-grandfather’s company marched into the final location and they were singing as they were marching. And after that distance, to be so full of spirit to be marching and singing at the same time, it’s those details that humanize the soldiers. I love battle details and strategy and all that, but that little detail about them singing as they marched in—and it so moved the commanding officer that he had to write it down in the official war diary—I just love reading stuff like that.

GM: Do you think that your great-grandfathers could have imagined a future where their countries were at peace?

TH: That’s a good question. It’s hard to say. My Canadian great-grandfather passed away fairly early in his life. And it was in the late 1930s, so he probably already had a good idea that another war was at least threatening if not coming. It’s a thought experiment that I’ve done where I try to imagine what it would have been like for two former adversaries to meet—if they had both lived till the 1970s—to see that their grandchildren were getting married after such a bitter war like that. It is a question I think about, but it’s so hard to say.

GM: We hear stories of that, of veterans from both sides of various wars getting together and meeting and reconciling. But I think I’ve read in some war diaries that at Christmas time, there was always these—or there could have been these mini-truces or these mini-breaks where you could peacefully celebrate as human beings who just share the same experiences.

TH: Yeah, there was early in the war and then that kind of frightened the higher-up generals so they tried to put a stop to that. But yes, that did happen early in the war where even though the fighting right from the very beginning had been pretty bitter, they realized—both sides—that they were all in it together. And there was no kind of hatred towards the other side. Maybe it got a little bitter towards the end of the war? But yeah, I specifically made an effort to visit a statue that was dedicated to one of those Christmas truces and it was kind of neat to see a statue of a German soldier and a British soldier shaking hands. Just because I knew that I personally had both sides represented in my family.

GM: Tim, thank you so much for taking us on this trip with you. It was a very eye-opening experience. It was very enriching and I hope people appreciate that you were able to let us tag along.

TH: Thank you very much for allowing me the chance to kind of talk about my family a little bit and share the story. It was easily the most interesting trip I’ve made in my life. And I really don’t think it will ever be topped in my life. It will have to be a pretty darn interesting trip to be better than this one. It was the trip of a lifetime, I’d say.

GM: To learn more about LAC resources related to the First and Second World Wars, please visit the Military Heritage portal on our website. To view the poignant photos from Tim’s trip, you can access a direct link to our Flickr album on the episode page for this podcast. We’ve produced several podcast episodes related to Canada’s military heritage. You can find them on our main podcast page.

If you liked this episode, please subscribe to the podcast. You can do it through iTunes, Google Play or the RSS feed located on our website.

Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Geneviève Morin. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada,” where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guest today, Tim Hack.

This episode was produced and engineered by Tom Thompson with assistance from Paula Kielstra.

For more information on our podcasts, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.

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