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Ashes: A Heart-Wrenching Tale of Friendship, War and Courage.
by Christopher de Vinck
Learn More | Meet Christopher de Vinck
This is a war to end all wars.
Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States, 1917
My father was a general, a major general, in the Belgian army. He didn’t start that way. He had been a private during the First World War, an ordinary engineering student, who volunteered to fight for his country.
Everyone in Belgium knew about my father after the war. An ordinary student who became a private and who, it seemed, fought off the German invasion into central Belgium single-handedly.
In 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, the German army advanced towards France, but was stopped by Belgian troops at the Yser River, helped by intentional flooding, which temporarily stopped the battle. When the brutal fighting began again, under heavy fire from across the river, my father ran to an army supply truck, grabbed a shovel and began digging a trench. His commanding officer yelled at him to get down, but my father refused. ‘The flood waters will soon go down! We can build a trench and keep the Germans on the other side of the river! We can save Belgium! Vive la Belgique!’ And he kept digging.
Inspired by my father’s courage, his commander ordered hundreds of soldiers to start digging too. Moments later, my father was shot by a sniper across the river and fell face-down into the trench. A bullet ripped through his left arm above his elbow, shattered the bone, tore out the other side and disappeared into the darkness. My father fell unconscious into the mud as blood drained quickly from the three-inch hole in his broken arm.
Thirteen hours later he woke up surrounded by white sheets, the smell of blood and urine, and the voice of a doctor saying to his nurse, ‘Do you think I should cut it off from the elbow or from the shoulder?’
Assessing the size of the wound and the damage in the bone, the nurse replied, ‘Just cut it all off.’
In the midst of the pain, and before the morphine, my father rolled his head slowly back and forth on the operating table and pleaded, ‘Please, don’t cut off my arm. Please . . .’ And then he lost consciousness again.
In modern times, if my father had suffered a gunshot wound, doctors with their microscopes and microsurgical techniques could have repaired his arm. In 1915, the best they could do was respect his wishes, stitch him up, and save the arm, which became just a prop, a dangling appendage, for the rest of his life. I spent much of my life as a child terrified that one day I too would lose an arm and look like him.
Sixteen hours later, in a field hospital in Belgium, my father stirred, licked his lips, and asked for water. As he listened to the water gurgling from the jug to a glass, he reached across with his right hand and patted his left shoulder. Then he slowly began to run his hand downward, against the gauze and bandages, down to his elbow, down slowly inch by inch, until he touched the tips of his cold fingers on his left hand. His arm was still attached.
When my father asked the nurses about the battle, they told him that, because of him, a half-mile trench, in places only 45 metres from Germans bunkers, had been built. He later learned that this section of Belgium sustained some of the bloodiest fighting in the war: 76,000 German casualties; 20,000 Belgian deaths. But because of the ‘Trench of Death’, as it became known, that had begun with my father’s shovel, that one small section of Belgium never fell to the Germans and inspired all of Belgium to hold on and resist the German invasion.
At the end of the First World War, my father was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the highest military medal for service to his country. The king himself pinned it onto his uniform, and the newspapers announced his heroics on their front pages: NATIONAL HERO: SAVED BELGIUM WITH A SHOVEL. His name was engraved on the reverse side of the medal: Joseph Lyon – my father.
PART I. NEUTRALITY 1939
As Belgium struggled to recuperate after the devastation of the First World War, the country reminded all of Europe that Belgium was declared a neutral territory in 1831, and would continue to be a buffer between France and Germany.
I was 18 years old in 1939. My hair was brown. I had read Gone with the Wind in French, and my friend Hava Daniels found an advertisement for the film in an American magazine, and thought Clark Gable, the lead actor, looked like Otto the baker. I spent the autumn going to the opera with Hava.
We were Flemish, but of course everyone in Belgium had to speak both Flemish and French. At one time all the officers in the army spoke French, and all the soldiers spoke Flemish. Poor Belgium: half-Dutch, half-French.
I wasn’t interested in politics. My father was afraid I spent too much time reading novels. He worried that my legs would be weak because I didn’t walk enough. He thought I would go blind because I read so often beside the dim parlour light. He was also disturbed when I said ‘Damn it!’, imitating an American seamstress in a book I was reading.
My mother had died when I was born. I cooked, mended my father’s uniforms, kept the washerwoman busy, and said the rosary three times every night, on my knees before a statue of Mary that I kept illuminated with penny candles.
My father was destined for a military career. He had wanted to be an artist, painting miniature scenes of Belgian farmland onto porcelain plates, but his father had felt that this was nonsense and had sent him to military school where he excelled in mathematics. After his fame in the First World War, he completed a Communication degree at the University of Ghent, was appointed the Military Commissioner of Communications for the entire Belgian army, and was given the rank of major general.
To me, he was just my father.
Our typical days began at the breakfast table where, each morning, he would ask me questions about life. ‘What would you do in a panic?’ he asked once as he buttered his toast. I could hear the scraping of the knife on the hard bread.
‘Run?’ I teased.
He did not laugh. A major general in the Belgian army did not run.
‘Simone,’ he said as he raised the butter knife in the air, ‘you will need to know this someday. Think of life as a sailboat.’ He lowered the knife and looked at me as I sat in my seat with a cup of tea in my hand, anxious to run off to school.
‘Pretend you’re on a small sailboat on a lake. You are guiding the ropes to control the shape and direction of the sails, when suddenly a strong wind blows down from the mountain and begins tipping the boat over sideways and rocking you violently. What do you do?’
I was tempted to say that I would jump in the water and swim away, but that was the same as running in fear. So I said, knowing he expected more of me, ‘Push the sailboat into the wind?’
‘Just let go of the ropes, Simone. Just let go and let the sails flap helplessly. The wind will no longer fill the sails, and the boat will quickly right itself so you can ride out the storm. Remember, in a panic, just let go of the ropes.’
We would spend our evenings together too. One night, after supper, my father sat beside the fireplace with his military documents on his lap. I liked seeing him with a blanket on his knees, writing notes on the pages as I read in my chair beside him. After an hour, he stopped, looked up from his work and asked, ‘What have you discovered in your book tonight?’
If I said something vague like, ‘Something sad,’ he’d ask me to be more specific.
So, I replied, ‘Sister Bernadette has assigned us an English novel — A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens’. I’m at the part where Sydney Carton pretends he’s Charles Darnay so that Charles is freed from prison, escapes the guillotine and is united with his love, Lucie.’
My father closed his papers. ‘I remember a line from that book: A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.’
That is how my father and I got along. He asked serious questions, or shared something that he read or remembered.
On another summer evening, while we were sitting before the flames in the fireplace, he handed me the newspaper and said, ‘Simone, you need to know what is happening outside your books. Here, read this.’
My father flattened the newspaper on my lap and pointed to an article about Albert Forster. I stared at him blankly. He sighed.
‘Albert Forster is in charge in Poland. He’s a Nazi and calls Jews dirty and slippery. He’s a monster, Simone. Look here at what he says: Poland will only be a dream.’
I looked up from the newspaper. Being an officer in the army, my father knew much about political and military events.
‘That man wants to invade Poland,’ my father said, as he lifted the paper from my lap and tossed it into the fire. He and I watched the paper smoke, turn black, and then flare up into orange flames.
I did not know then that the first torch of the war was soon to be lit, but my father knew. I did not know then that the monster of war was on its way to get me.
Many years later I would learn that two to three million Polish Jews and two to three million non-Jewish ethnic Poles would be victims of the Nazi genocide.
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