Wednesday, July 22, 2015

World War Wednesdays: Profile of a Local Hero

     So far, I've done a number of features in recognition of some of the major faces of both world wars, including some of our well-known local heroes. In contrast, one of my main goals and most valued aspects of working at Elgin County Archives is discovering more about the vast number of regular Elgin County boys who enlisted and did their hometowns proud. I have wanted to start featuring the stories of some local heroes on here as a way to ensure that their contributions are never forgotten, and I stumbled across one in particular that is a perfect first feature. This week, we're focusing on Arthur Freeman, a St. Thomas veteran of both world wars and example of a true humble hero. All content is courtesy of Elgin County Archives, with gratitude.

     In January of 1980, the St. Thomas Times-Journal interviewed 83-year-old Arthur Freeman, who had a number of memories and reflections to share with readers. He posed for the camera holding his military medal for extraordinary bravery during the First World War, which bore the description: "For conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during operations on Passchendaele Ridge from Oct. 29 to Nov. 2, 1917 "He remained on duty during almost the whole of this period himself. At all times, notwithstanding heavy hostile fire, he kept his gun in action and his crew organized for attack. During the intense enemy barrage on the night of Oct. 31, his platoon officer gave him permission to withdraw from his section to a less exposed position, which he declined to take advantage of, pointing out that he desired to be in readiness for any counter attack  and held this post, protected his gun from becoming mud-clogged by lying himself along side it. Throughout he did more than his duty at all times". If you remember anything about the First World War and the meaning of the word 'Passhcendaele', you'll know that's a big deal.

    Mr. Freeman, however, had his own feelings about the infamous embodiment of hell on earth. After having seen the movies; read the books and articles, he asserted that everyone has a different account of what happened. He said that people often associated Passchendaele with mud, but he remembers it being worse at the Somme."We lived like bloody rats, deep in the trenches," He said. "You learned to keep your head down."

     Indeed, Mr. Freeman was a good authority on conditions of all the major First World War battles- he saw action at Passchendaele, The Somme, Vimy Ridge, and Ypres. Reflecting on those experiences, he said, "I often sit here and think how we lived. But a hundred people could write the history of the war as they saw it ... there wouldn't be two of them alike."

     As the story's headline proclaims, even heroes come in small packages. In his reflections, Arthur admitted he was really too small physically to meet army regulations. "I was about three inches too small in the chest and a couple inches too short," he remembered. "I guess I was one of the smallest in the regiment. I wasn't big for my age." Remarkably, at just 21 years old and 5 feet, 3 1/2 inches tall, it was he who remained when others would have fled at Passchendaele. He single-handedly held off the enemy placing himself in extreme danger while protecting the men in his crew.

     Mr. Freeman's experiences can be seen as fortunate from the beginning. He joined the 91st Elgins in May of 1916 and was fighting by November. Remembering that rushed time, he said: "All we'd had was squad drill — it was bloody ridiculous. But they didn't have time to train us.. There we were, a bunch of kids. If the Germans had counter-attacked we would have had no idea what to do — we were so disorganized". Though he was hit twice with shrapnel and grazed once with a machine-gun bullet, remarkably, he was never injured seriously.

   Looking back on his experiences and referring to the present time, Arthur wondered, "You wonder why we have to have war... They should have learned from the last two wars .— nobody wins, everybody loses." While he felt honoured by receiving the military medal, he insisted that he had only done his duty, and regarded it as recognition of his entire experience, not just at Passchendaele. "I was more entitled to a medal at the Sommes in 1916 than at Passchendaele. But you do what you have to do and say to hell with it. That's the way I see it anyway."
Arthur Freeman, left, and Howard Vair, representing the 91st Overseas Battalion, lay a wreath in memory of the departed warriors during an annual reunion.

    Mr. Freeman finished his reflections with praise for the then-upcoming Elgin Military Museum, which he felt would be a valuable contribution to the county. He finished his interview by saying: "Kids today, or anybody... they read about it (the war) but they wonder what things really looked like... It's good to preserve history".

     That last part has really stuck with me, and I think about it often. It seems like a small message from the past that reinforces what I try to do every day, with the blog, my work, studies, and my writing. I hope that stories like Mr. Freeman's connect with you in the ways that they do with me, so that we can maintain our appreciation for the heroes like him for generations to come.

Thanks for reading,


No comments: