Last night I saw the new film version of ‘Billy Bishop Goes to War’ by John Gray and Eric Peterson. My love of this play – operetta or musical, really – began nearly thirty years ago. I saw the CBC TV production of this play in 1982. Since then I have seen three stage productions and this film. I can recite some of the scenes, I know most of the words to most of the songs, I cry at the same places, and I am riveted by this story every time. This play began my interest in history, in particular the history of war and warriors in the twentieth century. And, frankly, it is a pretty decent place to start this fascination. The play doesn’t glorify war, hell, it doesn’t even glorify Billy Bishop, it puts a truly human face on the whole endeavour. We see a portrait of a man in battle, in war. A young man, a twenty year old kid, terrified of being peppered with bullets while charging a Bosch machine gun nest on horseback. A man who joins the flying corps so as not to die cold and damp in a filth sodden, muddy trench with the stinking corpses of his friends. A man who learns to stuff his emotions deep into the recesses of his psyche. A man who finds he relishes dogfights and the RAT-TAT-TAT-TAT of his Lewis gun. A man who watches two of the last men he shoots down plummet thousands of feet from their shattered aircraft to their deaths. A man who is glad to be finished with that in the end. A man who is thrilled to meet the King, speechless in his presence, and yet the war had made him contemptuous of the Empire.
Billy Bishop and my grandparents turned me into a historian. In grade eight we had to give speeches. Other kids gave speeches about hamsters or soccer. I delivered a well researched speech about Billy Bishop. In grade eleven I delivered a presentation about the 1942 Dieppe raid. I had photos and charts and the audio recording of the CBC radio report of that crushing defeat. In university I wrote a paper about the 1942 Quebec conscription plebiscite and the ensuing crisis. My master’s thesis was an examination of post-World War II veterans’ policies and programmes. The two world wars of the twentieth century fascinate me. I don’t know much about troop movements or which battle occurred when. What interests me most is the people. What choices made and why and what that meant for the grand scheme. What makes one man mow down a nest of enemy soldiers single-handedly while another breaks down so completely he cannot move or speak? What compels one woman to join a resistance movement while another chooses to collaborate? And, how do these same people put it all away to return to civilian life?
I never miss Remembrance Day services. Sometimes I stand outside in the cold at a cenotaph listening to the prayers and poems, weeping at the thought of the thousands of men and women sacrificed since the Great War. Sometimes I attend the services in an arena with thousands of other people, some of them octogenarians whose twenties were spent at war, some of them freshly returned from Afghanistan. Sometimes I watch the services from Ottawa on TV. It doesn’t matter to me how I remember, just that I remember. Both my grandfathers came home, but it is unlikely they were the same men who left Ontario for the war in Europe. My friend’s sister has served in Bosnia and Afghanistan. She has lost friends to war. She is home now and doesn’t suffer from PTSD. But it is unlikely that she is the same girl I knew in high school. I think of her on November 11, too.They shall not grow old, as we are left to grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.