Robert Roy Poole Brown was a boy when he went to war. There is no other way to describe a 17-year-old than a boy, even in 1916, when different times and expectations made boys into men faster than today.
In 1916, Brown had just graduated high school and started his first job as a bank clerk. A little more than a year later he was shot down in the mud of Passchendaele and buried in a Belgian cemetery alongside countless other Canadians.
Reporter Catherine Litt tells Brown’s poignant story in today’s Daily News, as experienced through his letters to his father Alex Brown. Through his handwritten letters we see his transition from a wide-eyed private in London to a more subdued 18-year-old corporal fighting hand-to-hand combat in the streets of France.
We hear nothing of his last hours on one of the worst battlefields of the First World War and know only he suffered a serious leg wound that claimed his life. We can imagine, however, the pain and shock and horror of his dying by listening to others who have also been told to walk in dust and mud on foreign battlefields with a rifle, other boys who have seen such suffering. In a recent interview with TRU’s student newspaper The Omega, Rocky Mountain Ranger reservist and TRU student Max Birkner, 24, tells a reporter what went through his mind when he served in Afghanistan in 2010.
“I have vivid memories of waking up the day or night of an operation thinking today is the day, today I will die,” Birkner said, “and imagining the shock of being in an explosion and waking up in a chopper, flying over the fields with bone splinters and dirt and blood surrounding my knee with a black nylon tourniquet keeping me from bleeding out.”
According to The Omega’s story, Birkner was 17 years old when he enlisted in the reserves. He, too, was a boy, who learned about manhood, in part, over the barrel of a rifle.
This Sunday we gather collectively at 11 a.m. in parks and community centres across the country to honour the acts of boys like Brown and Birkner.
It’s not likely, however, that we will see these memorials for what they really are. Too often at remembrance events we hear phrases like, “They gave their lives . . .” or, “They made the ultimate sacrifice.” Those phrases seem disingenuous about what really happened, and make me sad and angry about how little we have learned.
Soldiers like Brown didn’t give their lives, their lives were taken away. They didn’t want to die, nor did they choose to go over the tops of muddy trenches with a sense of national sacrifice in mind. They were told to go.
One hundred years later, we continue to do the same. The fact that we still direct young men and women to face death and hand it to others is a shocking reminder of how little the world and human political and social systems have changed. Of how stupid we remain. That’s what we should think about Sunday as we show respect and feel sorrow for those who were killed in conflicts not of their making or choosing. We should feel ashamed that humanity still has no other means to solve problems than with mass violence of the most extreme kind. Remembrance Day should make us as angry. We are still chiseling the names of our youth into rock cairns. And that is profoundly sad.