War and Remembrance

Veterans of WWI and WWII were brave, not privileged.

To commemorate the November 11, 1918 Armistice Day, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau flew to France and paid a visit to Vimy Ridge. There Canadian troops for the first time fought under their own command, and as the monument explains: “The Canadian Corps on the 9th of April, 1917, with four divisions in line on a front of four miles, attacked and captured this ridge.” My grandfather, Lorne Henry Billingsley, was there that day, and he did not return home until after the Armistice. Let me tell you about him. 

He was born on October 25, 1895, in Bracebridge, Ontario, the second of ten children. So it wasn’t much of a privileged existence for young Lorne Henry. In 1914, when World War I broke out, he could have claimed it was a European conflict and nothing to do with him. He opted for a different route. 

On September 25, 1914, leaving family and friends behind, he sailed with the first Canadian contingent for Europe. There he served with the Third and Fourth Field Ambulance and saw action at Armentieres, Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Arras, Amiens and Mons, all scenes of major battles. Lorne Henry Billingsley was one of the first victims of German mustard gas attack, which left him with lung damage. 

Back in Canada he drove a streetcar in Regina, and when doctors recommended outside work, he took up farming in that province. The World War I veteran was only 51 when he passed away on October 12, 1946. By then World War II was over, and from his family of eight children, two sons played a role in that conflict. One was my father, Kenneth Billingsley.

He too could have played it safe by claiming that a European conflict had nothing to do with him. Instead, at only 17, he lied about his age to join up. When this was discovered, the army would not let him serve, but he didn’t retreat back into civilian life or party it up in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. 

Kenneth Billingsley duly joined the Merchant Navy, where he was often in more danger than troops on the ground. For much of the war, German U-boats in their deadly “wolfpacks” were taking down Allied shipping virtually at will. My father served from 1941 through 1945, longer than many ground troops or airmen. 

Soldiers on the ground like my uncle, James Billingsley, wounded twice in Europe, once by a Nazi sniper, knew that without the Merchant Navy the Allies don’t win and National Socialist darkness sweeps over the world. Uncle Jim fought with the Eighth Canadian Reconnaissance, whose “B” squadron liberated Camp Westerbork in Holland, a Nazi transit station for Jews en route to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Sobibor. On April 12, 1945, the Canadians liberated 876 Westerbork inmates, and their actions surely saved many lives.

Lorne, Kenneth and James Billingsley set aside crucial years of their lives to serve their country but none was handed any kind of cushy government job. The privileged types were those who, though of age and able bodied, declined to fight in Europe during World War II. This mixed bag of pacifists, socialists and communists were known as “Zombies,” and as WorldWarIITalk notes, “the most notable Canadian Zombie was future Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau.” 

Pierre Trudeau wasn’t one of the 5,000 Canadians who took part in the raid on Dieppe on August 19, 1942. More than 900 Canadians perished in that operation, which provided valuable lessons for Allied amphibious assaults on Africa, Italy and Normandy. The Canadians’ bravery and sacrifice was lost on defense minister John McCallum, who in 2002 managed to confuse Vichy, seat of the French collaborationist government, with Vimy Ridge, where Canadians fought with great distinction. 

In 2018, on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, Justin Trudeau shows up at Vimy Ridge proclaiming “what I can barely know, you will never forget.” His only claim to fame is his father, who never served, degraded Canada’s military, and as David Frum notes, “traveled to Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union to participate in regime-sponsored propaganda activities.” 

For examples of privilege, white or otherwise, check out Trudeau fils, who also approved of a $10 million payment to a terrorist captured in combat in Afghanistan. For examples of bravery and heroism, remember those who fought on the beaches, in the air, and on the landing grounds. Remember those never surrendered, and those who paid the ultimate price. 

This year would also be a good time to recall Major John McCrae, who like my grandfather enlisted in 1914 with the first Canadian contingent and served at Ypres, in Belgium. There, after attending the wounded, McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields.” In 2018, as our freedoms and way of life face new threats, one section in particular stands out:  

Take up our quarrel with the foe

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high