Ninety-five years ago today, the First World War came to an end. After four years of war that involved approximately seventy million military personnel and ultimately led to the deaths of about nine million of those soldiers, an armistice was agreed upon and the Central Powers ceded victory to the Allies.
Ninety-five years ago, at the age of nineteen, my grandfather was one of those men. William Alexander Macnie (known as “Mac” to family and friends), was born and raised in then British Guiana, the son of a Scottish expat. With a lineage stemming from the UK, and as a citizen of a country that was part of the British Empire, my grandfather joined the war effort.
Enlisting with the Seaforth Highlanders of Scotland, a historic regiment of the British Army that represented a large portion of the Northern Highlands of Scotland, Mac became a Second Lieutenant and saw active duty for the final three months of the war.
He fought in the trenches of France (in a kilt, no less), became a hand grenade thrower and trainer, and upon completion of his service received the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and the Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG), which is awarded to men and women who render extraordinary or important non-military service in a foreign country.
Twenty-one years later, when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939, the British colonies in the West Indies once again offered full support to the Allies. British Guiana offered personnel for the British Armed Forces, land for an American military base (located just south of Georgetown), and raw materials for war production. An American Zeppelin even regularly patrolled the coast, searching for German submarines.
Both sides of my family were involved in the war efforts of WWII, based out of British Guiana. On my father’s side, Mac oversaw the management of munitions in and out of B.G. On my mother’s side, two cousins enlisted.
My mother’s father, Francis Fernandes, had two brothers: Charlie and Lennie. Each one of them had a son who joined separate Armed Forces.
Carlos Fernandes, son of Charlie, joined the Airborne Division of the American Army. He also later served in the Korean War.
William “Bill” Fernandes, son of Lennie, saw active duty during WWII with the British Navy. According to my mother, Bill was only sixteen or seventeen when he enlisted. He definitely looks like a fresh-faced teenager here:
I am beyond proud of my kin for their efforts during both World Wars. They were each about ten years younger than I am now when they served, and I could not imagine experiencing what they had to go through. I’m also not one to glorify war, but times were different then. Without their sacrifices our world would be a much different place today. We should never forget where we came from in order to ensure the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
I wanted to take a moment today to honour not just my family members that have served, but also all veterans, living and passed. We must never forget.
To end today’s post I’d like to share a poem that holds great importance on this day, as it inspired the wearing of the red poppy.
Written in 1915 by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian solider, physician and poet from Guelph, Ontario, In Flanders Field was composed in the back of an ambulance. McCrae was stationed in the Flanders region of Belgium and was present for the second battle of Ypres, witnessing firsthand the casualties caused by the German’s first use of poison gas against the Western Front. On May 2, 1915, McCrae’s close friend, Alexis Helmer, was killed in battle at Ypres. McCrae interred Helmer himself, after which he noticed the red poppies that quickly sprung up amongst the soldiers’ graves. From that experience this moving poem was born:
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.