When old soldiers fade away

The meeting came to order as the Officer Commanding pounded the handle of a former German hand grenade atop a former German military helmet. The makeshift gavel brought all hubbub in the room to a sudden halt. And 21 Canadian army veterans seated ’round a horseshoe-shaped dining table all recited a lusty and lurid poem mocking a long-ago enemy – the Kaiser and his generals.

“Good evening,” the OC said. “Welcome to the final meeting of the Byng Boys Club.”

Last Tuesday night, I joined the surviving members of perhaps the oldest veterans’ organization in Canada at its farewell dinner. After 88 years of annual banquets, the members of the Byng Boys Club of Saint John, New Brunswick, were calling it quits. And I was to provide the keynote speech at this – the very last meeting of the club’s existence. It was a command performance I will never forget.

In 1919, a year after the original Armistice brought an end to “the war to end all wars,” some rather hardy veterans of that Great War of Civilization (in that Maritime city) decided to recognize their survival with a club that commemorated their former commander. Beginning at the battle of Vimy Ridge, in April 1917, Lt. Gen. Julian Byng had led the members of the Canadian Corps from 1916-18. So much had the rank and file Canadians adored their commander that in battle they began referring to themselves as “the Byng Boys.”

In fact, late on the first day of the four-day battle against the Germans in occupied France, the first of nearly 100,000 Canadians reached the top of the ridge and began digging in for an expected counter attack. Some of the Canadian army engineers preparing the way for following infantrymen erected a sign on a newly captured enemy position. “Do-Drop Inn. Working Parties a Specialty. Daylight Parties Preferred. Picks and Shovels are Not Provided Here,” the sign read. “(Signed) Proprietors, The Byng Boys.” And when the last of the Saint John WWI vets passed on, continuation of the club fell to veterans of the Second World War and later Korean War veterans.

“You had to have been brought out of battle on a stretcher in order to be eligible for the Byng Boys Club,” the OC told me.

But now it was 2007, not 1919. And after nearly 90 years of assembling, pounding the “potato masher” gavel on the helmet and dining on the memories of past victories and defeats, the remaining members felt they were too old and feeble to carry on the tradition any longer.

Seated at the head of the table, I scanned the faces of the veterans seated before me. Most (as the criteria stipulated) had indeed been wounded in wartime. There were must have been half a dozen colonels and enough medals on those veterans’ chests to fill the display cases of the Canadian War Museum.

What possible new message could I pass along? Well, I began by retelling the story of their organization’s birth – the victory at Vimy. And I noted the incredible human cost of the war – 10,000 Canadian casualties at Vimy alone. But I also recounted what had happened just over a month ago at the 90th anniversary Vimy Memorial re-dedication. Most of the Byng Boys, for health reasons, had not been able to attend. So I told them that the young Canadians in attendance – nearly 5,000 high school boys and girls – had done them proud. Youth had begun to recognize the importance of that extraordinary Canadian moment. In conclusion, however, I did make one rather bold suggestion.

“The Byng Boys, I believe, have one final duty,” I said. “You must ensure that you’ve passed the torch of memory to that new generation.”

And I suggested whatever they felt their message was: “Canada owes much to its veterans” or “Never such holocaust again” or “Make peace not war,” they should ensure that a new generation of Canadians understands their experience. Whether in classrooms, at halls, on Remembrance Day or any other time of the year, I said, “You must keep alive the memory of your experience in the memories of those who care to know it.”

Late that night, the gavel came down one last time. The Byng Boys were dismissed. I shook the OC’s hand.

“Thank you,” I said. “We’ll not see your kind again.”

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