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Nov-04-2013 20:04printcomments

My Personal Bookends of War...
Frank Lace and A German Oberleutnant

In the sombre wars of modern democracy there is little place for chivalry.
- Winston Churchillon Field Marshal Erwin Rommel

Armistice Day
Courtesy: theguardian.com

(DAYTONA BEACH) - This day we used to remember as Armistice Day, a day that can be celebrated by hawk and dove alike. And a friend of mine sent me a faded newspaper clipping, a sepia-colored snapshot of the back of a truck, or lorry, or whatever they called those primitive transports in The Great War. There are eleven guys spilling over the small truck box, drenched with mud, from ankle boots and puttees to the British-Tommy-style steel pots, all of them wearing tired grins, each with one arm upraised in either greeting or farewell. The caption: "Canadian troops hitch a ride, returning from Vimy Ridge, April 1917."

I search those exhausted grimy faces, because any one of them could have been my Dad - until I remember that his deliverance, his return from Vimy, was not in a lorry. He came out of the line on a stretcher. In an ambulance.

Pacifists don't get it - at least when they talk about "glorifying war." The war just mentioned, World War I, was probably the stupidest war in history, with millions of men killed over a bit of screwed-up, pock-marked real estate in rural France - because some Serbian nutcase picked off an Austrian archduke.

The subject at hand is the incredible heroism of some guys - Canadians and Germans - who gave everything simply because it was asked of them. Whether they understood it or not. Whether they agreed with the field-grade officers who urged them on, or whether they believed in the idiot generals who committed them mindlessly, or not.

Mortal men, mortal men, as Falstaff reminded King HenryV. And nothing has changed in 600 years.

Vimy is perhaps the icon, the dead symbol of that four-year atrocity. It still stands like the Canadian monument at its base as both a triumph of heroism and a lasting caveat of the complete idiocy of war.


My father took a bullet that shattered his hip half way up that murderous Ridge. He limped for the following 75 yeas of his life, refusing the pension to which he was entitled. Because? "There are a lot of guys who need it more." They simply don't make men like that any more.

The Canadian Corps, four divisions totaling 36,000 men, attacked Vimy Ridge, operating together for the first time as a single unit, massing at the base of the Ridge throughout the evening and night of April 10, and then, following a creeping artillery barrage, commenced the assault along a front extending more than four miles. They moved out at 5:30 A.M. on April 11, facing a driving wind carrying freezing rain, sleet and snow. It happened to be Easter Monday.

Dad's regiment, The 48th Highlanders of Canada, was part of the northernmost division, facing the least length of terrain to the summit, but confronted by an escarpment dubbed Hill 120. Almost immediately, they came under withering machine gun fire until, with flanking movements, the machine gun emplacements were removed with bayonets and grenades.

The Hill 120 sector was the last to achieve its objective, but Dad wasn't there to see it. It's said that you don't hear the bullet that hits you. Perhaps there was a whistling sound, but like a tree falling in an insensate forest, it produced only silence. The trauma of the impact knocked him down and knocked him out, and his first recollection was that he was lying in a battalion aid station.

There, the first medic who spoke to him told him that he'd been carried in over the shoulder of a German officer, who lowered Dad carefully onto a stretcher and then waited patiently until someone came and took him away. Dad was never able to see him, to thank him - doubtlessly for saving his life.


    Danke schoen, oberleutnant.

If telling that story is to glorify war, I plead guilty.

____

Frank Lace is my other bookend of war. I knew Frank in Toronto more than 50 years following my Dad's epiphany at Vimy. The bare, biographical facts of Frank's life are outstanding enough, but they don't tell the whole story.

Frank was a Toronto boy, graduated from Upper Canada College in 1928 and the Royal Military College at Kingston four years later. He didn't do anything warlike for the following seven years, but he was re-activated in 1939 when war was declared, and four months later went overseas as a major with the Canadian Third Division. His rapid rise says something about Frank's competence, first as a regimental commander, then as 2IC of the Division, and finally Commanding General of the Second Canadian Division in Holland when the Canadian First Army comprised part of Montgomery's Corps, along with the British Eighth and the British Second Army.

While Omar Bradley dealt with Bastogne and the Bulge, and Patton's Third Army, farther to the south, drove ahead, shortening his supply lines, Monty's troops liberated Belgium and the Netherlands. (Incidentally, I've discovered that, to this day, any Canadian taking advantage of a tour guide and visiting Holland can be assured of being treated like royalty - partly because of the extended presence of Frank Lace and many thousands of other Canucks.)

Brigadier General Francis Dwyer Lace was awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) and the O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire). I have no detail as to the conduct that produced those distinctions, but historically neither of them have been considered chopped liver, neither "came up with the rations," as old soldiers used to describe routine campaign ribbons and decorations. And Frank was more than once Mentioned in Dispatches, which is not chopped liver in any army.


But that isn't the full story of Frank Lace's war. Ned Ely, formerly President of Wood Gundy in Toronto, who was my mentor and boss, and who also served as a field-grade officer after Normandy, told me that at one point Frank, as the youngest general officer in the British Commonwealth, and possibly the whole damn war, Frank commanded a beefed-up division of 16,000 men. At the age of 34!

In wartime London, there were often jokes about the youth of some American light colonels in the Army Air Corps. None of them touched Frank's record.

Frank Lace died at the age of 94 in 2005, after a long, rewarding career and a life of service, in recent years performing routinely in such capacities as a trustee of Toronto General Hospital.

There was one thing that Ned Ely didn't need to tell me, because I knew the guy. Very rarely in a lifetime, most of us encounter what I'm talking about. Frank Lace, in every respect, was a class guy. His incredible "war record," in the final analysis was devoted to liberating the people of Holland, not the killing of German soldiers.

Those are my personal parentheses, the bookends in which I enclose my perception of the two World Wars. Not to glorify war, or even to justify it. Just to remember Frank Lace and - a quarter of a century earlier - an unknown German oberleutnant, who saved my father's life, and so made mine possible.

________________________________________

______________________________________________________

Bill Annett grew up a writing brat; his father, Ross Annett, at a time when Scott Fitzgerald and P.G. Wodehouse were regular contributors, wrote the longest series of short stories in the Saturday Evening Post's history, with the sole exception of the unsinkable Tugboat Annie.

At 18, Bill's first short story was included in the anthology “Canadian Short Stories.” Alarmed, his father enrolled Bill in law school in Manitoba to ensure his going straight. For a time, it worked, although Bill did an arabesque into an English major, followed, logically, by corporation finance, investment banking and business administration at NYU and the Wharton School. He added G.I. education in the Army's CID at Fort Dix, New Jersey during the Korean altercation.

He also contributed to The American Banker and Venture in New York, INC. in Boston, the International Mining Journal in London, Hong Kong Business, Financial Times and Financial Post in Toronto.

Bill has written six books, including a page-turner on mutual funds, a send-up on the securities industry, three corporate histories and a novel, the latter no doubt inspired by his current occupation in Daytona Beach as a law-abiding beach comber.

You can write to Bill Annett at this address: bilko23@gmail.com

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