The article below shares a typical yet extraordinary story of one WWI veteran. His name was Amos Mayse, and among the many things he did in his life, it included being a Minister of God in Emerson, Manitoba. Read about his story below...
The last veterans of the First World War — friend and foe alike — have now joined their slain comrades from the Ypres Salient, Regina Trench, Vimy Ridge, Polygon Wood and Coronel and a thousand far-flung battlefields.
And increasingly, the grey-headed ranks of the Second World War also depart to join the fading divisions that preceded them.
So Remembrance Day becomes increasingly important. It keeps us from forgetting who we are — and why.
Yet one of the things that is sometimes easy to overlook amid the stirring music, the flights of warplanes, the firing of volleys, the spit-and-polish drill and the official laying of wreaths is that among all the things that war entails, all war is always about families.
It is from families that the warriors come. It is families that bear their loss, or worse, that carry the wreckage when broken warriors return. It is families that suffer and it is in families that the most important and intimate remembrances are cherished.
It’s the story of my wife Susan’s grandfather, Amos William Mayse, a man of peace who first went to war as a teenager but whose convictions compelled him to leave his family and return to battle and who carried the scars of these experiences for the rest of his life.
Amos was born in Lincolnshire, England, 132 years ago. There’s a family tradition that he descended from archers in some ancient king’s army, and this isn’t far-fetched since the fearsome longbows that fought at Crecy and Agincourt included levies from the region.
Whatever that history, his parents were farm labourers during the turbulent displacements of the Industrial Revolution and although they valued education — his father taught himself to read at 50 — Amos left school at 13 to work in a coal mine.
At 18, he enlisted with the 1st York and Lancaster Regiment, earned his stripes as a lance-corporal and a year later was in South Africa as a scout with a mounted infantry unit in the Boer War, last of the great colonial wars and a warning of the monstrous horrors that would engulf the 20th century.
Amos was a gentle soldier, not a brutal one. During one patrol, scouting alone about 10 kilometres out from his unit, Amos drew inaccurate fire from a knoll. He dismounted, sent his horse noisily in one direction, stealthily circled behind and soon had his unsuspecting Boer foe in his rifle sight.
His enemy was another teenager, Piet von Troikker. He had a big patch stitched into the seat of his threadbare pants. Amos admitted later that he couldn’t bring himself to shoot an enemy so like himself.
Instead, the confrontation that dusty afternoon became a peace parley — fraternizing with the enemy, starchy imperial officers would call it. They shared meagre rations. The teenage Boer went home to his father’s farm. Amos went back to his unit on a promise that they’d meet as friends when the war was done.
They never did.
The war outlived Queen Victoria, grinding inexorably through massacres, atrocities and suffering toward its 50,000 casualties.
The British invented concentration camps. Thousands of civilian prisoners died in them. Frustrated by the genius of Boer guerrilla tactics, the British employed a scorched earth policy, laying waste to the farms and homesteads of non-combatants. Thousands more perished.
Amos fought in the relief of Ladysmith and in campaigns around Orange River. On Dec. 2, 1900, leading a reconnaissance party, he was shot during a savage little ambush near the settlement of Utrecht in the West Transvaal. He was taken prisoner.
Conditions were harsh. He scratched a desperate message on a spoon – “Mother, I am alive.” But not for long, it must have seemed.
Medical treatment was minimal. His wounded arm went black.
It had swollen to the size of a stovepipe when Boer Gen. Jan Christian Smuts noticed it during a prison inspection.
He asked the young soldier about his wound and then ordered him returned to the British lines for treatment.
Smuts would later command South African forces during the First World War, become the country’s prime minister in 1919 and serve as an architect of the League of Nations, a prototype for the United Nations. Ironically, in the Second World War, he attained the rank of field marshal in the British army he’d humbled so many times.
When his wounds healed, Amos was sent back to war. He was wounded again in 1902, this time shot in the face. Bullets shattered his jaw. He was evacuated by hospital ship a month before the war ended — one of the lucky ones. His unit had suffered 260 killed, missing in action and wounded before it was withdrawn and posted to India.
In a military hospital, his jaw was reconstructed — miracle surgery for the time — although the silver plate inserted into the wound plagued him terribly in cold weather for the rest of his life. He was discharged as medically unfit for further military duty in 1903.
One likes to think he’d met some Canadians during his service as a mounted scout. He said it was just that remembering the vastness of the South African veld; he could no longer abide the narrow, mean, grey streets of England. In any event, barely three months after his medical discharge, he was on a ship for Canada.
He’d also found God. When he got to Manitoba in 1904, he enrolled at Brandon College to study for the Baptist ministry, taking first prize in the oratory competition. He eked out a living as a student pastor in small prairie churches and was a popular draw with his lecture From Home to the Barrack Room, Thence to the Battlefield, and on to the Pulpit.
In 1909, preaching at Neepawa, he was invited to deliver some fill-in sermons at Strathclair, 60 kilometres away. In that congregation, he met Betty Caswell, the slender daughter of retired farmers. The next year they married. Their first child, Shirley, was born at home during a wet, blustery spring snowstorm in 1911.
Six months later, Amos and his family moved to Peguis, a First Nations community west of Lake Winnipeg, where he ministered to the Swampy Cree.
From their house, Shirley would watch dog-teams heading north on the frozen Red River to Norway House and, in summer, canoes and York boats bound for Winnipeg. There was no plumbing. They grew their own vegetables. Amos supplied the larder with wild duck, partridge, prairie chicken and fish.
A second child, Billy, was born at Peguis in the fall of 1912. He was a delicate baby, and not expected to survive, not until Mary Flett, a Metis neighbour, came to Betty’s aid.
Next spring Billy was still alive. Cree mothers provided a mossbag, an ingenious alternative to diapers. There was no playpen. His cradleboard was hung in a nearby aspen where he was entertained by Mother Nature’s mobile — trembling leaves and visiting songbirds.
Life ambled by in the great cycles of spring floods and winter blizzards. Amos was doctor, vet and mediator in local disputes as much as he was called upon to preside over wedding feasts and funerals or to deliver well-attended temperance sermons.
But in Europe, war loomed again, this time between empires. Hostilities began in August 1914. Amos moved the family to Emerson, a farm community on the U.S. border south of Winnipeg.
The war was supposed to end by Christmas. By 1915, it looked like it might never end. Casualties averaged 25,000 a day. Amos decided he must go again, this time not for the adventure — he knew the nightmare — but to be with his parishioners, who didn’t know the nightmare and who had volunteered. One was his dear friend, Albert Pryor.
On Jan. 16, 1916, he enlisted with the 222nd Battalion in Winnipeg and moved his family to the city. His Boer War service got him streamed for officer training and he quickly qualified as lieutenant.
But the men of his congregation were already leaving for France. Amos refused his commission and declined to serve as a padre — he’d be no use to his parishioners in the officer’s mess; he was needed in the trenches, he said — and returned to the ranks as an enlisted man. He arrived in England with his flock in late November 1916.
He was soon promoted sergeant.
When the 222nd Battalion was broken up to supply the 19th Reserve Battalion, members of his Emerson congregation elected to transfer to the depleted ranks of the 1st Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles. It had been raised in Brandon in 1914 but had lost 557 of its 692 men at Mount Sorel in June 1916.
Once again, Amos forfeited his sergeant’s stripes to be with his parishioners.
In May 1917, he was in France. On May 21, the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles relieved the battered Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, which had been holding the line at Vimy.
Amos bivouacked in a wood at the French village of Villers au Bois and wrote a charming letter to his children with sketches of his dugout. Then, on June 17, he went into the front line.
At home, Betty struggled. There were food scarcities. It was difficult to make ends meet on a soldier’s skimpy separation allowance. Billy was having seizures. Shirley was starting school. Betty was ill herself with a bleeding ulcer. She kept a backyard garden. She cut firewood for winter. She took in a boarder.
And she had no word of her husband except for letters, which were often delayed for months as they made their way out of France, through censors’ offices, by steamer across the Atlantic and then to Winnipeg by train.
Fast news was always bad news. A telegram meant a loved one killed or missing – and everyone knew when the dreaded telegram arrived. Sometimes, condolences came in error. Betty got one saying Amos had been wounded in Egypt, although he was in Flanders.
On July 10, 1917, Amos went back up the line. Everyone was tense. Considerable movement had been observed behind German lines, often the sign of an imminent offensive.
By day, barrages of Whizzbangs and Daisy Cutters, Silent Susans and Moaning Minnies, Rum Jars and Flying Pigs harrowed the earth. Hostile aircraft came at dawn, accompanied by the thump of ack-ack. Machine guns chattered and snipers’ bullets pinged overhead.
At night, patrols blackened their faces and slipped into no man’s land; a stinking morass of water-filled craters, rotting corpses buried, churned up and plowed under again by the shellfire, a vision of hell in the stark illumination of flares.
Men slithered through the muck to the edge of enemy trenches and listened. Sometimes they’d throw bombs and flee. Sometimes — a tactic at which the Canadians excelled — they’d lie silently in the mud for an enemy patrol to pass and then dispatch it silently with knives. Others strained to keep watch from the trench parapets for counter patrols, peering through periscopes or holding up mirrors to avoid being picked off by snipers.
On July 17, after eight days in the line, Amos was going to the rear. His last posting was four hours periscope watch. He stood down at midnight. Rain pelted down. His platoon made its way single file back to the reserve trenches.
“Every minute or two, Fritz would send up flares making everything as bright as day,” he wrote later to Betty.
Then, almost to safety, shells began bursting. One landed next to Amos.
He remembered the flash, being lifted up, trying to run when he landed, collapsing and realizing he’d been hit in both arms and both legs and couldn’t move.
Five others were wounded but still able to walk. Albert Pryor could not, moaning piteously and asking about his leg.
Another parishioner named Roberts, a bartender back in Emerson, braved the shellfire to carry the two badly wounded men to some slight protection in a shallow trench. They lay in the mud until stretchers reached them an hour later. Next came the dreadful task of carrying them through bursting shells to an advanced medical post in a dugout. It meant traversing five exposed kilometres of flooded shell holes, collapsed trenches and tangles of barbed wire.
The two pals were separated, probably at triage, for Albert soon died. Amos was evacuated at first light to a military operating theatre and was hurried on to Blighty for more surgery — there was still shrapnel embedded in his wounds. By Christmas 1917, he was back at the front, now ministering to the spiritual comfort of soldiers. But in 1918, he was for the second time discharged as medically unfit for military duty.
He came home to Betty, Shirley and Billy in Winnipeg three months before the war officially ended and returned to work as a pastor and occasional horse doctor in small prairie towns. Among mementoes of the war, his most cherished was the flag he’d used to drape his comrades’ bodies at burial services.
Prairie winters now proved unendurable. The plate in his jaw and his shrapnel wounds were agonizing in cold weather. In 1920, he moved his family to Maple Ridge, was pastor at Haney, at Port Hammond, at Cowichan and at Nanaimo before moving to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and a church on Hastings. He was elected vice-president of the Great War Veterans Association, forerunner of the Royal Canadian Legion.
But his fire-and-brimstone Baptist sermons had mellowed.
“The day is gone by when you can scare a man with talk about hell fire,” he’d written Betty from the front. “Why every day & night here, the boys are in it — & they are absolutely fearless ...”
Bill and Shirley went to Britannia high school. Shirley graduated with a Governor General’s Silver Medal and went on to the University of B.C., where she tied for top marks, good enough for a Governor General’s Gold Medal in Latin and English in 1931 and an MA in 1935. She taught in Vancouver schools for 34 years, among them Britannia High.
Bill went to UBC, too, and distinguished himself as a poet before discovering the student newspaper, The Ubyssey. He left to work at the Province, writing under the name Arthur Mayse and later joined The Vancouver Sun, where he was legislature bureau chief before moving to Maclean’s magazine. He eventually returned to the West Coast, where he wrote novels, short stories, many episodes of the hit TV show The Beachcombers and a warm newspaper column that was so popular it was reprinted for years after his death.
As for Amos, he found solace fishing for trout in the pools and eddies of the Oyster River on Vancouver Island and became such a fixture there that when a regional park was established at its estuary, one of the trails was named in his honour.
But he never escaped his war wounds. He spent more and more time in Shaughnessy Military Hospital and died Oct. 5, 1948. Betty died in 1963. Bill died in 1992 and Shirley in 2005, leaving only his grandchildren and great-grandchildren to remember now.
So perhaps the last word on this Remembrance Day belongs to Amos.
“Now my dear, do not worry about me here,” he wrote to Betty on July 5, 1917, a few days before going up the line for the last time. “I know how anxious you will be but don’t give way to it, hope for the best ... The cuckoo is singing as I write & so you must take its message as being the harbinger of the Spring of Peace.”