Hon. Henri Beland—Prisoner of War
A Distinguished French-Canadian in the Toils of the Germans
Harry W. Anderson
THE heart of the French-Canadian
is right. Canada is his country and the Union Jack is his flag. He will fight for both if need be, and he will not hesitate to give service and make sacrifice for country and flag. I know it. It is in me—and I am one with my compatriots.”
Over seven years ago—in the early part of December, 1910—these sentences were recorded. They were spoken by a young, black-haired, French-Canadian parliamentarian, spoken with all the intensity of his race, as he paced the floor of his room in the now fire-destroyed old House of Commons on Parliament Hill. When he exclaimed, “It is in me,” he swung his right hand to his heart in almost dramatic fervor.
The pledge was prophetic. The patriot who at that time voiced his readiness to “give service and make sacrifice” has done both in large measure. For it was Henri Severin Beland, M.P. for Beauce, Quebec, who spoke—then a private member, later a Cabinet Minister, who was destined to be wounded and captured on field of battle “for country and flag,” and is nowa prisoner of war in Germany.
The interview took place late one evening. It was written at the time. Along the corridor, in the room of the late Hon. F. D. Monk, the correspondent had just met and talked for the first time with Henri Bourassa, then flushed with the by-election success of his new-born Nationalist propaganda. Bourassa poured forth dynamic sentences, standing as he spoke and illustrating and emphasizing with a wealth of gesture. Mr. Monk sat in a revolving desk chair, approving and qualifying, interpolating here and there a comment calculated -to “tone down” the blazing oratory of the zealot. From that memorable talk the newspaper man proceeded to another.
. sought Beland. For some days previous an enterprising press had been pubIishmg rumors of the early accession of u Se?“Ce Physician to membership in the Cab,net then presided over by Sir Wilfrid Laurier. To one who had knocked around the Commons corridors, strayed into Room Sixteen and dropped into casual conversation with groups of parliamentarians, particularly en Francais, there was nothing astonishing in the persistency of these press predictions, Beland, the young and rising representative of his race, was the one to know what to expect from the strange revolutionary propaganda Bourassa was preaching.
The quiet French-Canadian was comparatively rarely heard in the House, notwithstanding the fact that he was reputed to be one of its most brilliant and effective^ speakers. He was not at all “showy.” He did not seek the limelight. But behind the scenes he was one of the most important collaborators in the production of the political play. For he
knew the audience. He understood the men and women before the curtain.
DR. BELAND was peculiarly representative of rural Quebec in the House of Commons. He was native to its soil—the son of a farmer— and by intuition he spoke his mind, accurately and adequately. “When in doubt ask Beland,” was the maxim of minister and member anxious to meet approval at the hands of the habitant. For he made few mistakes when it came to interpreting the sentiment of his people. They sent hurryup calls for the young Beauce physician when they found themselves battling .with Bourassa in the historic Drummond - Arthabaska byelection. He came, looked over the ground, despatched a laconic telegram, and threw himself into the fight. But it wasn’t known until after that the significant message the wires carried was: “Naval policy not understood. Election day two weeks too soon.”
Henri Severin Beland was born at Louiseville, Trois Rivières district, forty-eight years ago. Concurrently he attended the elementary village school and helped his father on the farm. But he early developed a love for learning which resulted in his being granted “the chance” so dear to his heart. He entered the Classical College at Trois Rivières, where he subsequently secured his arts degree, proceeding to Laval for his course in medicine. Upon graduation he practised for a year and a half in New Hampshire for the purpose of mastering English, and finally settled in St. Joseph de Beauce, where he was almost immediately elected mayor by a record majority. His public career testifies his remarkable popularity with his people. Wnen serving his initial session in the Quebec Legislature, to which he was sent from civic life, Mr. J. Godbout, the federal member for the riding of Beauce, was appointed to the Senate. Dr. Beland was unanimously chosen as Liberal candidate, resigned his legislative seat and proceeded to Ottawa in 1902. Beauce is an old Conservative constituency, which Mr. Godbout had won for Liberalism by 632 majority in 1887 and subsequently held by 481 and 427. respectively in succeeding elections. When Dr. Beland emerged from his first contest in 1904 the majority had mounted to 2,300, while in 1908 it reached 3,844, his opponent only securing a total vote of 183. In 1911, fighting Bourassa and the new Nationalist campaign, Beland’s majority was 1,364, while in the recent war-
time general election, notwithstanding that he was a prisoner in Germany, he was re-elected by acclamation, both the Unionists and the Opposition claiming him as their candidate.
HIS understanding of the people and his hold upon them—an intense Latin affection—is attributable to the manner of man he is. Dr. Beland never “grew up.” He never got too big for the old home. His holidays were spent among the habitants. His interest was in their problems. The young folks swore by him. In his college days he had distinguished himself in the athletic arena, and when he came to Ottawa he created a new democracy of followers by turning out on the green sward of Parliament Hill, bating flies and grounders to the page boys, and generally “coaching” their baseball team—an unprecedented attention which earned for him the undying loyalty of the little messengers. Some summers ago, of his own initiative and at his own expense, he travelled through rural Quebec teaching and preaching progress in the dairy industry—one of the main agricultural vocations of the province to which he had given special study—the improving of herds, hygienic treatment of dairy products, and the raising of the general standard of the industry. The results, which more than justtfWvhis mission, coupled with his earne_|0r-'i acy of the farmer’s
important part in the development of Canada’s natural resources, a propaganda then in its infancy, resulted in his selection by the Government, along with Sir Clifford Sifton and Hon.
Sydney Fisher, to represent the Dominion on the North American Conservation Commission at Washington eleven years ago, in which Canada, the United States and Mexico participated. He also became chairman of one of the committees on the Canadian Commission of Conservation when it was formed, a position he held until he became a minister of the Crown.
So much concerning the man, and what he has done in the public life of his country. But to Canadians seeking to penetrate the mists which enshroud so much of the nation-making of the potential morrow, special interest will attach to the ante-bellum view of one who so intimately knew and so well could interpret the real sentiments of the people of his province.
It was that night in December, 1910, when talking to him in his room, that the writer put the question : “What is the ideal of rural Quebec for the future of Canada?”
It set him thinking. Without response he lit a cigar, tilted his chair and musingly waited till the ashes formed.
“To prescribe a national Canadian-”
he began slowly.
But he was not to escape. “Not a prescription; a diagnosis,” his questioner persisted. Then, to bring him to earth, the direct: “What of Bourassa? What of the propagandist who has just been telling me strange things in the other room? Is he interpreting or moulding French-Canadian sentiment?” And, finally, the practical, “Will he triumph in Quebec?”
“Bourassa will not win,” the words came slowly now and with earnest emphasis, “because his Nationalism does not practice what it preaches. It preaches Canadian unity, and it practises provincial separation. The French-Canadian farmer is developing—he is doing some homely thinking — and he has his own ideals. He is keenly loyal to the British Crown, make no mistake about that. One of my earliest memories is the devoted
way in which my mother taught me to reverence and love la bonne reine Victoria. But he is peace-loving and jealous of Canada’s national entity. Upon these facts Bourassa plays. But the habitant is not an extremist by nature. He is kindly, lovable and loyal. The blatant so-called Imperialism which devotes itself to beating drums and waving flags is not for him. His loyalty is deeper than these things. Neither separatist nor drum-beater can lead rural Quebec in the final analysis. Its people will range themselves by the bigger and better ideal of Canadian autonomy under the British Crown.”
And then Dr. Beland sprang to his feet and paced the floor. “The heart of the French-Canadian is right,” he declared warmly. “Canada is his country and the Union Jack is his flag. He will fight for both if need be, and he will not hesitate to give service and make sacrifice
for country and flag. I know it. It is in me—and I am one with my compatriots.”
TT was some months later, in the heat of ■*the general election campaign of 1911, that Beland, then Postmaster-General, and Bourassa met on the public platform in their native province. The clash was at St. Hyacinthe on the memorable afternoon when the Nationalist leader and Hon. Rodolphe Lemieux were billed to wage verbal battle. It was Bourassa’s setting and Bourassa’s crowd. Lemieux fought gamely. But he started out to out-bluster and out-roar a huge mob of thousands who had been imported from Montreal especially to bluster and to roar. His task was hopeless, and when the throng smashed down the front of the platform and started to pull the occupants off it, he gave up. Then, when the Nationalist was triumphant and the cause of Liberalism seemed lost, Beland went in with a laugh, and before he got through the crowd was laughing and cheering with him. He won a cordial hearing, something that had looked impossible in the then state of the mob mind. Once before, in the same campaign, Beland turned the some trick at Trois Rivières with an unsympathetic audience, which, however, was not violently hostile like the St. Hyacinthe gathering.
These things were not done by eloquence. Beland is rarely oratorical. He is, rather, apt and ready, master of homely phrases and familiar proverbs, imperturbable in the face of noisy interruption, with enough of the exquisite in him to command respect and guarantee against buffoonery, yet never forgetting for a moment to talk in words of one syllable when that is necessary.
Once again fate threw the two antagonistic compatriots together under more tragic circumstances. When the Great War broke out in Europe the two FrenchCanadian public men were by chance of personal travel in the zone immediately affected by the sudden launching of hostilities. It was Henri Beland who stayed to serve the cause. He proved the sincerity of his patriotic trofessions by actions which have thrilled and inspired Canadians.
F) Fand Madame Beland were in . Flanders when the war cloud burst and the Hun hordes, spurning the sanctity of the “scrap of paper,” drove their devastating course through little Belgium. Within twenty-four hours after Britain had drawn the sword to stand by her pledged word, Dr. Beland had thrown aside his civilian coat, rolled up his sleeves and set himself to service. The first Canadian to come under Teuton fire was this French-speaking parliamentarian, who tendered his services as surgeon to the Belgian forces defending the forts at Liege against the first onslaught of the ruthless invader.
During the brief period in which the brave Belgians held the Huns at bay Beland received his baptism of blood. “The tragedy, the cruelty, the horror of it all still lives like a terrible nightmare,” he wrote of those days. “The bravery of our fellows was grand. They gave their lives by the hundreds. But the suffering and the agonies of the badly wounded made one look to Heaven and wonder: How can these things be?”
When the old forts of Liege finally fell before the great modern guns of Germany !e „ cscaped with the remnant of the Belgian force to Antwerp, where he
was joined for a short time by his devoted wife. Madame Beland had turned over her villa on the sea near Ostend to the Belgian military authorities for hospital use and had volunteered her services as a nurse. Her husband, on his arrival at Antwerp, was placed in charge of one of the temporary military hospitals, and Madame Beland, while training as a nurse, spent much of her time in ministering to the unfortunate refugees who had trooped into the city.
Here, on the arrival of the British marines he transferred his services to the corps who fought under his own flag. He was temporarily attached to the British force as surgeon, and, communicating directly for the first time with his home Government in Canada, formally volunteered his services to the Canadian overseas strength. That offer was at once accepted, and the gallant ex-Minister was commissioned as Major in the Army Medical Corps of the Canadian Overseas Service.
D UT he was not destined to join his fighting fellow citizens on the fields of France. During the closing scenes of the siege of Antwerp when the British evacuated the city, he was, by his own choice, left wounded in the St. Elizabeth Hospital there. The story of Beland’s heroism at Antwerp would never have been known but for the thrilling letter of an officer of the British marines. The proposal was made to him to wait until the wounded men whom he was to attend were brought in out of the zone of fire, but the heroic French-Canadian was not built that way. He went to the post of duty, which was the post of danger, and paid the penalty of a patriot.
The graphic story is best told in the letter of the British officer, dated from Holland on November 2, 1914, and written to one of Beland’s fellow parliamentarians in Canada. It was published in partial form in the press at that time, and is gripping in unembellished tribute. “Dr. Beland,” the officer wrote, “was ministering to four of our poor fellows who had been hit in the bombardment. Despite the caution of officers he went forward to dress their wounds, saying, ‘I am here to serve.’ The bombardment at the time was very severe and a shell bursting near to where he was dressing a man’s leg hit him in three places, inflicting ugly wounds. He was taken back and the corps was anxious that he accompany them to Holland. He refused, telling the subaltern who was sent for him that he wanted to stay at his post. He was, when the British force left Antwerp, at the St. Elizabeth Hospital. ‘Tell my friends at home not to worry. Tell them I am all right,’ was his message.”
The letter justifies the employment of British marines in the defence of Antwerp. It says: “Had it not been for our defence the Belgian army would have found great difficulty in getting away to France, and all we have to regret is that so many of us were forced to come here (Holland) to escape capture.” This British naval officer speaks of Hon. Dr. Beland as “your brave Canadian whose services will never be forgotten by many of our men.”
/~\NE of the last letters of any length and general information which have reached Canada from Dr. Beland—for over two years past he has apparently been restricted to the briefest possible personal messages — was written from
Antwerp on December 9, 1914, after the Teuton occupancy of the city. Portions permitted publication are as follows: “Things have become strict and strained here since I last wrote. Let me give you an idea: You cannot circulate with an auto. Your horse, if you have one, must be registered and accounted for every three or four days, if not requisitioned. To circulate in any way you must have a permit from the Kommandant and a certificate from the burgomaster, and you must not be a subject of one of the Allied Powers. You must have a special permit for your bicycle and pay for a license, which has to be renewed every week. You are not allowed to receive or to have in your possession an English or French paper. This offence is punishable by both fine and imprisonment. No one is allowed to leave the ‘Position Fortified’ which comprises all the region inside the exterior line of forts. If a party should escape the surveillance and pass on into Holland, his family and property are made answerable. These, in short, are some of the fast regulations now imposed on the poor Antwerp population.
“I do not, of course, mention the regular instalments of the war contribution, the principal item being 300.000 frs. every week. Then there are 25,000 cigars every day, 8,500 bottles of wine, and Hie balance in the keeping! My wife has one officer and three men to lodge and feed. It is almost impossible to procure money. The agents (financial) are precluded from cashing coupons as the banks are closed.
“There are only about thirty wounded Belgian soldiers left in St. Elizabeth Hospital. The balance have been sent to Germany as prisoners as soon as they could be moved. A few days ago an ambulance of wounded nurses and doctors was transferred to Germany.
“I have written FiSet (Deputy Minister of Militia for Canada) early in September asking to be attached to the Army Medical Corps, but have not received any word from him. No letter entered Antwerp after the 3rd day of October. The officer Goering, in whose custody I am, said I could remain, though an investigation was being carried on by the Kommandant here. He did not think I would be molested on account of my being a surgeon. But no one can tell what tomorrow will be like. If anything should happen to me the family (probably meaning the household with whom he resided) will take all necessary steps to inform Perley. (Sir George Perley, the Acting High Commissioner for Canada in London.)
“This war has impressed me so deeply that I do not think I can ever be the same man in the future. The destitution of this poor people is something the world will speak about for centuries to come. It seems that the last drop of vitality is pressed out of their substance. Happily Old England and the Neutral States have opened their hearts and purses. It is known here what our Canadians in particular have done and are doing for the relief of the foodless and homeless families in Belgium, and it will not be forgotten for generations if the poor people survive. England, Canada and the United States stand above all in this humanitarian task of restoring life as from the murderous heel of the victor. You are blessed by a nation, an entire nation.
“My good wife is so depressed. She is busy three days in each week visiting the poor of her town. She distributes black Continued on page 63.
Continued from page 46.
bread (we have no other) to them. Three hundred families in that town alone need assistance.
“Do not ask me to try to write about the events of August, September and October. It would require an immense volume. I will have some strange stories for you if we ever (as I hope) meet again. We are all absorbed now by the titanic struggle going on near Dixmude and Ypres. The losses are formidable. A gentleman I met yesterday from Brussels has seen numberless trains of wounded and two completely dosed trains (dead bodies) lying alongside, with steps covered with blood, an awful sight, he relates. All windows were shaded.
“You look to Russia! So do we. But seeing how feverishly the occupants prepare their hold on Antwerp, reinforcing in every possible way, I am dumbfounded by the task awaiting the Allies when they seriously attempt to clear Belgium of their presence. It seems above human power. But, nevertheless, we may be content that the three military goals of Germany, the breaking of the line of forts on MeuseVerdun-Toul, the besieging of Paris and the capture of Calais, have not been reached.’’
FOR some months after he became a prisoner of war Dr. Beland was apparently allowed something approaching freedom of movement under the restrictions of the rigorous German military discipline. This was probably due, as he suggested, to the fact that he was a physician and surgeon. Then, without warning or opportunity to bid farewell to his wife— a Belgian lady—he was hurried away under guard to Berlin and was subsequently incarcerated in a German prison where he has since been kept in close custody. The story told in this connection, and neither confirmed nor denied in official circles, is that his imprisonment was due to the injudicious conduct of an over-enthusiastic admirer in this country who wrote him a letter which made his importance in Canada apparent and which fell into German hands. For
months past it is known that he has undergone rigorous imprisonment and is said to be allowed only two hours per day in the open air of his prison yard. His health is reported to be broken and his hair turned Madame Beland, with like heroism to that of her husband, entered the Allied service as a nurse and placed her picturesque Belgian villa at the disposal of the military authorities as an hospital. Her experience when, some months after the removal of her husband as a prisoner to Germany, she, too, was injured by shell explosion and taken prisoner, belongs to the tragic annals which have earned for Teuton barbarism the fitting name of Hun. Death released her. The appeals made by Dr. Beland to visit the deathbed of his wife were denied, and what he suffered in mental strain at that time is responsible for much of his broken condiInternational war exchange negotiations are not made public and diplomacy is uncommunicative. Both Sir Robert Borden and Sir Wilfrid Laurier have assured Parliament that unabated efforts have been maintained to bring about the
release of Dr. Beland. It is known that the British Government, acting through neutral channels, has more than once made overtures with a view to securing the liberty of Canada’s statesman-patriot in exchange for war prisoners. Germany is said to have demanded too high a price. Rumor has it that the Teuton asked the release of two Generals, a Count and two spies, conditions which could not be met. But there is hope that in recent exchange proposals—this time made by the enemy
—Dr. Beland may be included. Canada will warmly and proudly welcome the return of her distinguished and heroic French-speaking son. He has honored his race. He has honored his land. And he has given, in full and tragic measure, inspiring and noble fulfilment of his vow, made over seven years ago, to “give service and make sacrifice for country and flag.”