On March 30, 1918, during the First World War, a young man from Lochlin, Ont., in what is now Toronto’s cottage country, was riding his horse near the Arve River in France. He was a private in the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) Regiment, and though he couldn’t have known it then, he was taking part in what Canadian military history would come to know (not entirely accurately) as the last cavalry charge, during the Battle of Moreuil Wood.
The target was the German 23rd Saxon Division, which held a strategic location it had little interest in relinquishing but that the allies needed to seize.
As the private advanced on the German positions, he saw an enemy soldier taking aim at him with a rifle. He pulled back on the reins of his horse, bringing both hands to his chest. That was when the German fired. An instant later, the bullet struck, shattering bone in his left forearm and knocking him off his horse. The wound was severe but had his arms not been raised, the bullet would have gone into his chest instead.
If that had happened, you wouldn’t be reading this. Because the private was Morley Walter Gurney, my great-grandfather. I exist today because his radial bone took the bullet that would otherwise have headed into his heart.
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This is Gurney family lore. We take our family history seriously, and the military history component of it is particularly well-known. Morley’s medals and honourable discharge papers are prominently displayed at the family cottage, not far from where he was born in 1892. (His son’s honourable discharge, my grandfather’s, is right next to it.)
I never knew Morley; he died when my father was young. But in contrast to many veterans, he was happy to talk about his wartime experiences. His stories have filtered down over the decades. My grandmother tells me she sometimes wondered if he talked about it so much because he could never quite get over his experiences during the Great War.
So we knew a lot of what he went through and did between 1915 and that day in March of ’18. Or we thought we did. Millions of military records from the First World War have been digitized and released by the Canadian government; my great-grandfather’s is one of them. A few months ago, my father found them, and we spent hours pouring through the files, learning more about his time overseas.
Anyone who’s looked at a military record knows that most of what you’ll find is very boring. (Pay sheets. Page after page of pay sheets. Eye exam reports. Fitness exams. And so on.) But there’s also the bare bones of a soldier’s story there for anyone able to read through the military’s thick soup of jargon and acronyms.
And the story was as it was told to my grandmother, my father and then me. A small town boy, who’d served in a militia unit during peacetime, was living and working in Toronto when war broke out. He signed up, shipped out and spent three years fighting on the Western Front.
Until March 30. That’s when the real paperwork starts.
Hit in the arm, his radial bone shattered, he was evacuated by a Canadian field ambulance unit. From there, he was off to an Australian military hospital, and then eventually home to Canada, where he spent months in rehab. His recovery included repeated surgeries, X-rays (then a relatively new technology) and a tonsillectomy after he became ill during his rehab. Assigned to rehab in Toronto, he received permission to leave his post — the hospital — to marry his girl, my great-grandmother. The kids they would later have put down the Gurney family Toronto roots that now extend to my two children.
The hospital records are a fascinating glimpse into the stories he never told, at least not to anyone who passed them down to us. It’s not a story of the proud country boy riding off to battle the Empire’s enemies, and exciting times he would have with his fellow troops. It’s a story of a man who’d supported himself before the war working with his hands — a masseur, no less — coming home with a left arm that barely worked. It’s a story of learning how to use that arm again, through painstaking effort. And it’s a story of post-traumatic stress, though no one called it that then.
It was my sister who found the document, buried among all the others. It has the stark but accurate title of MEDICAL HISTORY OF AN INVALID and is stamped July 2, 1919, almost 16 months after he was hit. It documents his recovery but also his continuing partial disability. Near the bottom of the document, scrawled in refreshingly clear handwriting, is the simple note, “Noises startle him. Sleeps poorly at times.”
Seven words. But they broke my heart.
How much agony, fear, frustration, and grief are covered by those two short sentences? What did he think of while laying awake in that Australian hospital, then on the ship home, and then in the Toronto military hospital that became his home? What was he really hearing when noises startled him? Artillery? Rifle fire? The screams of fallen men, including perhaps the memory of his own cries as he slammed into French dirt, his arm ruined? What dreams broke up his sleep?
If he told anyone, it wasn’t anyone who told me. But we can all fill in the blanks with our imagination.
Those seven words also put into a whole new context a letter my dad found years ago, written decades later by Morley to his son Jack (my grandfather), who was then off flying with the Royal Canadian Air Force, fighting the next war.
Memory doesn’t serve me to quote it at length. But the letter simply states that at home in Toronto, Morley woke up gripped by a profound fear that his son had died. He was writing a letter of love and hope to his distant son because he knew he couldn’t get back to sleep.
My grandfather did not die in that war (though he came close a few times, including a crash that killed every other man on the crew). But I understand the fear a father would have for his son. And after I read his war record, I came to appreciate that sleeping poorly wasn’t something he got over. His arm eventually healed. His soul never did, not fully.
These two Gurneys are not unique. Millions of Canadians have served. More than a hundred thousand died. But as Canadians stop and remember today at 11, my thoughts will go to them. Wars cost is not just measured in deaths and dollars, but in shattered arms, broken sleep and panic attacks that linger for decades. My father and I were spared this burden. I pray my children will be, too.
That’s Remembrance Day to me. That’s why I won’t forget. I can’t.