London Letter

How I played soldier on the Plains of Abraham

BEVERLEY BAXTER May 9 1959
London Letter

How I played soldier on the Plains of Abraham

BEVERLEY BAXTER May 9 1959

How I played soldier on the Plains of Abraham

London Letter

BEVERLEY BAXTER

Having flown to Canada to attend the marriage of my son in Montreal I flew back to England where in due course the London Letter was to resume its usual background. But hardly had we reached London and settled down to normal life when a wire arrived saying that Maclean’s was doing a special Quebec issue. With a nice sense of encouragement the telegram stated that in my perambulations over the years 1 must have had some experiences in Quebec and they would expect the copy dead on time.

So be it. Having been born and bred in Toronto at a period in which the swiftest form of transport was the railw'ay train, I considered Quebec to be as distant as the Sahara Desert or the Yangtze River. For some reason I felt that the French Canadians were a wicked lot, or at any rate they were Roman Catholics, which was the same thing. Did we not, on St. Patrick Street, Toronto, throw snowballs at the boys who went to a Catholic school nearby? In fact my grandfather, Alderman John Baxter, rode a white horse in the Orangemen’s Parade on the twelfth of July until he grew too portly for the adventure.

But as the years went by, and adventure began to ogle with its seductive gleam, my friend Baptist Johnston urged me to join the Queen's Own Rifles. As an extra inducement the worthy Bap said that if 1 hurried up I could go with the regiment to Quebec where, on

the Plains of Abraham, we would celebrate the tercentenary of the founding of New France.

So, in due course I was supplied with a uniform and, in company with other rookies, was bawled at by terrifying sergeants major who periodically thanked God that we had a navy. Night after night we made our way to the Toronto armories, where we right wheeled, shouldered arms, changed arms, left turned and halted with a bang that nearly broke our insteps.

But Reg Pellatt, our company commander, never bawled us out and such was the friendliness of his disposition that we felt it was worth enduring the disapproval of the bellowing sergeant major.

Finally the great day arrived. We marched to the Union Station and boarded the train for Quebec where on the Plains of Abraham, we would march past the Prince of Wales (later to rule as King George V). Our commander-inchief for the great occasion would be Field Marshal Lord Roberts — the immortal “Bobs” who had won fame and glory in South Africa in the war against the wicked "Boors.”

The traditions of soldiering have never altered, even though weapons have changed beyond recognition, and therefore we were duly drawn up on the Plains of Abraham with regiments from all over Canada about three hours before the inspection was due to take place.

There we stood, admittedly at ease, but there was no sign of “Bobs” continued on page 94

continued from page 10

“How was our generation to know that a popinjay emperor with a shrunken arm was planning a war?”

anywhere. This, to my civilian mind, was absurd so I sat down on the ground to wait until something happened.

Suddenly an officer on horseback looked at me and shouted “Stretcher! Stretcher!" The stretcher bearers, only too delighted to have something to do. rushed over and, despite my protests, carried me to a tent where they threw water over my face, gave me artificial respiration, pounded me in the ribs, twisted my arms, and even tried thrusting my knees into my stomach.

When 1 managed to tell them that there was nothing the matter with me, and that 1 had just sat down for a rest, the sergeant major grabbed me by the arm and told me all about God. At least that was how it sounded. Then 1 was marched back to the battalion and once more took my place in the rear rank.

Field Marshal Lord Roberts appeared on horseback, together with a cavalry escort, and inspected us. I had a dreadful fear that at the critical moment I would drop my rifle but discipline had at last taken command. My purely unbiased opinion is that my salute with the ritle would have been a credit to any Grenadier Guardsman in Whitehall and I much resented the fellow next to me who said that I damn near knocked his brains out. My impression is that it would not have mattered much if I had.

Such are the vagaries of memory that the slow crowded train to Quebec, and the inspection by Lord Roberts, are as vivid today as if it all had happened a mere two or three years ago. Yet I have no recollection whatsoever of the return journey to Toronto although there is clear evidence that I reached the Queen City

and resumed normal existence. At any rate 1 resigned from the regiment and vowed never again to play at soldiering. How was my generation to know that far off in Berlin a popinjay emperor with a shrunken arm was dreaming and planning a war that would make him master of Europe?

Now it is the year 1914. Recruiting sergeants are on the streets of Toronto and it is difficult to avoid them. Finally it was impossible. 1 signed on and became a lieutenant.

We were a mounted unit stationed in Ottawa and it was from there that we entrained for Halifax. But what has this to do with Quebec? Simply that while we were asleep the train must have traveled through Quebec. The great gamble was on, and in my case it was a gamble that was to make England my home.

It is late August in the year 1939. The Baxters with their small son and smaller daughter, were staying on an island in Muskoka listening to the radio from Buffalo. An announcer gave us the stockmarket prices, the baseball scores, and finally, having run out of anything better to report, he said in a casual voice that Germany and Russia had signed a nonaggression pact. This was it!

1 told my wife that she should take the children to Vancouver, which was her old home, and wait until the crisis blew over. I would catch the Empress of Britain at Quebec.

How strange and silent was that train! It w'as crowded with people who had planned a holiday abroad but when we reached the pier at Quebec the news was so bad that most of the passengers stood

on the pier and, quite wisely, decided not to board the ship. Viscount Maugham, British Lord Chancellor, strolled up the gangway with the nonchalance that would be expected from Somerset Maugham’s elder brother. And there was Brendan Bracken (the shock - haired protégé of Winston Churchill), who in a short time would be Britain's minister of information in the battle against Hitler’s Germany. Also there was Lord Beaverbrook, who had been minister of information in the Kaiser's war and was soon to be made minister of aircraft production in Hitler's war.

There was silence and there were tears as the Empress of Britain turned down Canada’s main street—the glorious St. Lawrence River.

We were strangely silent in the beautiful ship but Bracken broke the spell with the comment: “What a lot of two-funnel churches there are in Quebec!” On the Plains of Abraham there had been the battle which was to prove the birth pangs of a nation, and now France and Britain were partners in a war that was only a few days off.

Cherbourg was in complete darkness when we paused there en route to England, but Southampton was blazing with light as we reached journey’s end. That was Friday night. On Saturday night we had that terrible, cruel, moving moment when Leo Amery shouted to the Labor leader to speak for Britain! At eleven o'clock Sunday morning we were at war.

And what of the beautiful ship which had taken us down the long seaway and across the ocean? She was sunk at sea less than a year and a half after we made our crossing.

Now let us bury the past and turn to the Canada of today—a nation of two languages and two races living in amity albeit with healthy political and religious differences. There is an old saying that the French are the only people who really know how to live, because temperamentally they go to bed on the eve of a St. Bartholomew massacre and die daily. Allowing for the slight element of exaggeration there is still a basis of philosophic truth in that saying. Just as the Maritimes are dominated by people of Scottish origin, and just as Ontario and the west are dominated by people of Scottish and English descent, so Quebec remains French even though it has no basic ties with France.

The City of Quebec on a Saturday evening achieves an atmosphere of carnival which has no parallel in any other part of Canada. The streets are gay and the traffic is hilarious. Everywhere you see the priests of the Roman Catholic church mingling with the people and joining in the vibrant scene.

Then there is Montreal, that dual-

tongued metropolis with its towering hills, its sense of adventure, its dignified clubs, its university that maintains spacious grounds right in the very heart of the city. May Toronto forgive me, but there is a touch of truth in the boast that Montreal is the only metropolis on the North American continent.

Twice in the last few months did I visit Montreal and although the snow gods, on the second visit, overdid their welcome there was a white beauty that almost atoned for the crunching snow mounds and the slithering streets.

We cannot rewrite history and therefore it must remain in the book of human records that by force of arms the British won the battle that determined Canada's future but by w'isdom and magnanimity they made a country of tw'o races, tw'o tongues, and two forms of religion into a unity that will grow' in power and authority as the unfolding years run their endless course.

We Canadians of British blood are the descendants of the conquering race but in the years that lie ahead I predict that the influence of Quebec will spread, for

it maintains power of the spirit against the encroachment of materialism.

Nor should we fail to acknowledge that in Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Louis St. Laurent the French gave Canada two political leaders who combined elegance with wisdom, and guided the giant Dominion toward the glory and the wisdom of her birthright.

Therefore as a Canadian expatriate let me exclaim with the lingual facility acquired at Harbord Street Collegiate in Toronto: "Vive Canada! Long l ive Canada!”