Guest columnist Christopher Brown shares his thoughts with Review readers on Remembrance Day. Lest We Forget
I am building a wee house for my 6-year-old granddaughter and want to run power to it. You know, a fancy chandelier inside, a handsome carriage lamp at the front door and a few random outlets for whatever. However, wishing to keep the whole construction to code, I realized that I would need to dig a 30-inch deep trench 70 feet in length between my house and the little house.
I went to my trusty shovel emporium in the barn and tackled the heavy gravity-impacted clay with every shovel I own; long handled spade, short handled square – heck, I even have a shiny Lee Valley ” trenching shovel”.
Seemingly what I lacked was stamina, fortitude and grit. I abandoned this approach and with the wonders of the internet, quickly located a Vermeer 30-inch x four-inch gas-powered trenching tool, which I swiftly rented.
All I needed was a pickup truck and a two-inch diameter trailer hitch ball. Easy Peasy! Drive 30 minutes (because GPS tells me so and provides the map) hitch up the trailer with the trench digging beast, tap my Visa to pay a rental fee and drive home to dig the 70-foot trench. I get home and crank the trenching behemoth into action and marvel at the way that the massive, chained, carbide-toothed blade lowers into the dense clay with the ease of a hot knife into a block of butter.
Pretty soon I get the hang of this machine and steer it the 70 requisite feet to the code 30-inch depth. It chugged and whirled through the compacted clay and with the cleverly designed, integrated auger all of the debris was deposited neatly in a pleasingly regular row alongside the left of the tidy trench. Sharp-cut edges through lead heavy clay, no rocks, no boulders just mother earth lifted upwards and outwards like a babe from a cot I thought!
And then I thought once more:
Maybe the only reason that we can enjoy such mechanical advantages and convenience is because extremely brave soldiers and sappers died in the thousands roughly 100 years ago in the trench warfare that typified World War 1. Courageous Canadians, Brave Brits and soldiers of all the allied forces found themselves far from the comfort of their own hearths, in a Godforsaken and barren wilderness of mud, strewn with entanglements of barbed wire, armed with stupid short shovels they were ordered to “Dig”, “Entrench”.
The incentive being the obvious – that if you didn’t dig that hole quickly you would be quickly ripped apart by the barrage of bullets firing from the newly upgraded machine guns of the enemy.
The mechanics of warfare changed swiftly over those four bloody muddy years, 1914 to 1918, but the life of the soldier – digging hundreds of miles of trenches over the no-man’s land of Northern France – varied little. No bulldozer, no front-end loader, no hole diggers or fancy Lou-Tec Vermeer trenching tools, just battle fatigued men miles far from their homes wearing khaki, woolen uniforms and clad with water-logged boots and putties, armed with an Enfield rifle in one hand and a folding spade in the other. In the torrid heat of August when the clay is as hard as the stone, in relentless and lashing November rains when the earth transforms to quagmire, during the endless Winter months of sleet, snow, hardening frosts, frost bitten toes, blistering hands and hardening hearts.
Spring brought no relief, just more rain, more mud, more flood, rats as big as cats and three more years of futility to follow.
Meandering zig-zagging trenches across the Zeitgeist of their time. Not 30-inches deep by four-inches wide and 70-feet long, but a totality of hundreds of miles, eight-feet deep, 12-feet wide from baum to baum and flooded with a toxic mix of cold water and acrid urine, infested with lice and sewer rats, injured men and a corruption of bodies embedded in the clay.
“Fall back lads! Gas masks on! 50 feet retreat and dig”, bullets whistle overhead, shells explode numbing the ears, shrapnel slashes through soft flesh, clouds of deadly Mustard gas swirl in, barbed wire snags and tears as you stumble across a muddy, cratered terrain, pull out that shovel to dig once again!