The first time Will Bird travelled to France and Belgium, he carried a Ross Rifle on behalf of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s 42nd Battalion (Black Watch of Canada). Also: a guidebook, from which he quoted to his fellow soldiers as they advanced across the Western Front in the latter years of the First World War, identifying landmarks, narrating local histories. “What’s the use of coming over here,” he reasoned as he marched into danger, “if you don’t know what you’re looking at?”
That was a bit of bravura, obviously. Bird and his comrades in the infantry would go on to face all the horrors we associate with war on the 1914-18 Western Front: mud and gas, the mayhem of machine-gun and shellfire, death. Bird survived almost three years in the middle of it all, and when he returned, 13 years later, it was as a writer. I carried his memoir And We Go On with me last week as I roamed through France and Belgium, trying to understand and maybe make some sense out of the slaughter of those years. I can’t say I succeeded in that, though it was a profoundly moving experience all the same.
In 1931, a reporter’s notebook in hand, Bird wandered the battlefields he’d survived as a soldier to file a series of articles for Maclean’s magazine. This was mostly a documentary exercise for him, a gauging of what had changed and what hadn’t. The war’s destruction was still very much in evidence at and around the former front. He writes of meeting fellow veterans scouting the lanes they’d fought for, and of finding the detritus of war — bayonets, helmets, mess tins — in old trenches and hedgerows. In 1931, he hears reports of cattle that are still dropping dead from leaks of poison-gas from buried German arsenals.
There is, in Bird’s reportage, an edge of disappointment: he’s not sure he approves of just how the French are rebuilding, and extent of all their new industry. It’s with an almost proprietary eye that he views what he sees as ugly new architecture, or finds fault in all the “flaring” advertising he sees in the towns he’s re-visiting.
I wondered as I travelled many of these same roads what Bird, who died in 1984, would have made of what I saw as I navigated to this year’s centenary celebrations. Today, in places where millions of men fought and died in mud, the scars of warfare have been largely smoothed out and covered over. You can still find traces of traumatized landscapes near memorials at Vimy Ridge and Beaumont-Hamel, but even those only hint at former horrors.