Throughout this journey to understand and to effectively tell my Grandfather’s story of his small part in World War 1, I have discovered that there are elements of the story that are best communicated using non-fictional, and perhaps more “academic” styles of presentation. However, this has not been an effort to produce an academic history, and I have found that the deeper messages involving the ways in which my Grandfather and those around him – including me – were affected by the experience are, perhaps best conveyed in creative non-fiction or in fictional formats making use of facts as they are understood within in an imagined narrative event.
My Grandfather’s experience trying to do his duty and carry out his obligations as a moral human when faced with the plight of Assyrian and Armenian refugees in 1918 (see chapter 11) is, to my mind, a life altering, soul shattering event that cannot be conveyed by a mere retelling of facts. The story that follows is an effort to convey the emotional impact of these events. In it I make use of a fictional event, an afternoon fishing with my Grandfather, to express what I believe to have been my Grandfathers true response to the events that took place in Persia, along the Tehran Road, upon which so many Assyrian and Armenian refugees lost their lives.
The Tehran Road
by John Snell
Standing on the last step of a broad wooden staircase leading down to the edge of a small lake, I can feel that the step is slick under my foot. The staircase is shaded by willow and black spruce; it is cool, damp and still beneath the trees. I haven’t been to this lake, this set of stairs or the cabin that sits low and sturdy on the lakeshore a few yards from the stairs, in fifty years, not since the summer of 1968. This place is my Grandparent’s summer getaway in Northern Ontario. As getaway’s go, it’s really not that remote from their home in Iroquois Falls but it’s on a lake and in the trees where it’s cool and pleasant most of the time.
There is a small island about 400 yards off shore where the spine of the earth breaks the flat blue-black plane of the water. Someone has built the loneliest looking cottage on its rocky upland. The day is cool and mostly overcast; the kind of day fishermen – at least sport fishermen – seem to prefer.
I hear the noise of movement in the willows to the right of the staircase and a muffled, “Is that you Namesake?” From the direction of the voice, a man appears, or rather the back of a man, and he is working hard at something. As he turns, I see that he is dressed in an old battered fedora, encircled with favourite fishing lures, a tartan flannel shirt done up to the top button; and, his pant legs are neatly secured in calf high forestry boots.
“Ho, come give us a hand with this dory…. lord it seems to have gotten heavier,” he is pulling on the deck plate of the boat, dragging it from its mooring in a nearby shed to the water’s edge. I see the boat has been cleverly fitted with a set of small rear transom wheels so I grab the front deck plate opposite. “All right…lets get her into the water,” he says puffing with the effort.
With two of us it is an easy task to get the boat into the water and secure it to the dock that extends from the stairs. As we square things away he turns to me, takes off his hat, wiping his forehead with a pristine white handkerchief and says,
“My, don’t you look a lot like your father! Loved that boy – hell of a card player I recall..a bit on the quiet side, but he sure could get things done. Mind you,” he looks closer, “you seem to have your share of the French blood from your Grandmother.”
I extend my hand to shake his and he pauses for just a moment then steps forward, smiling, taking my hand in a firm grip. As we shake hands, he continues to look at me with a look of joy in his eyes. He pulls me close, throwing his free arm around me and as he does this, he puts the other on the top of my bald head and laughing says, “the bald pate, however, I must take full blame for.” I laugh as he moves away, his mind now fixed on getting our fishing trip underway.
It’s true, the genes for the baldness I was bestowed with likely came to me via this man. Of course, he also is bald, save for the remaining band of hair encircling the sides and back of his head and this is neatly cut above his ears. He wears a closely trimmed moustache and short sideburns so white they are nearly absent. His face is long and heavy. He has the eyes of someone who hides little, laughs easily and cares deeply. He is just under six feet tall, heavy around the middle but still moving well. He is my mother’s father, and my, beloved Grandfather.
“Cast us off there, Namesake,” he says to me as he sits in the stern of the boat near tackle boxes and rods.
“Should I go and get the kicker?” I ask, assuming that there is a small outboard motor he has forgotten.
“Oh…I never liked those things…noisy and spoil the air. Scare the fish too.” He is packing a well used pipe with ragged tobacco which he lights, and, with two heavy draws, aromatic smoke fills the air immediately around us.
“You’ll do fine as our propulsive force…,” he says, his pipe firmly seated between teeth and a smile playing about his lips as he nods to the oars in the bottom of the boat. I fit the oars into the locks and grip the bone-dry handles. He pushes us away from the dock as I dip the oars and put my legs and back into the pull that moves us out onto the lake. There is a breeze here, out away from the shore. Where it gently touches the water’s surface ripples form, die, and form again.
“It is very good to see you John William,” my Grandfather says using my given names which, though altered in order, were given to me as his namesake. “The last time I saw you, you were about 3 or 4 years old I think.”
“Yes Sir.” I answer feeling somehow transformed into a boy in his presence.
“Grandad” is my preferred salutation or if you like “Grandfather” or even Will…” he trails off engrossed in attaching a steel leader to his line.
Our first meeting was not a good start. Mother and I were visiting from Manitoba having come to her family home in northern Ontario by train. With little to distract me in my Grandparent’s entirely adult home, I fixed upon a magnificent goose headed shoe horn. It was one of those extra long shoe horns, the goose head was cast in a silver metal and the shaft made of some exotic, highly polished wood. I recall tentatively taking it from the basket near the door as though it were some religious relic. It was not long before the spell wore off and I began some sort of game. Part way through the game the goose head came loose. I was mortified. I ran to my mother and placed it in her lap trying, through now forming tears, to explain that I hadn’t meant to break the hornshoe, but I had worked my self up so that words in an intelligible order, were nearly impossible. Grandfather, seated across the table came over to see what was wrong, and seeing the broken shoe horn said in a mocking voice, “Have you broken my favourite shoe horn?” in his best effort to make light of the incident. I was too young and too wrapped up in having broken something so beautiful to understand the meaning of his effort and began to cry even harder, thinking I had destroyed this man’s prized possession.
“You were entirely without humour at that moment, and I ought to have recognized it,” Grandfather adds as he leans his rod against the gunwale. “Having failed in my efforts to soothe you I fell back on my military training and retreated,” this last phrase in his best stuffed shirt British officer voice as he mime’s a tin soldier’s about face. These he does so well he has made the both of us laugh.
I assume he can parody with precision because he had to take orders from the real article as a junior officer in the British Indian Army during the First World War. “Yes and no,” Grandfather replies. “I was fortunate to have been sent to India and from there to fight in Mesopotamia. By that time in the war, Major General F.S. Maude had been given the job of restoring a beaten, demoralized and disease plagued army in Mesopotamia. He was no fool. Of course, he had to take his officers largely as he found them, but those who played significant roles, including the men I served under, were level headed, clear thinking fellows. We were trained seven ways to Sunday, before we even saw the country. There was no dashing off after the enemy swords held high, no thrown into combat on a few weeks of training.” “Although,” he adds with that playful smile, “I may have seen one or two of the stuffed shirt upper class types on my travels.”
As I pull at the oars, altering my stroke to follow my Grandfather’s directions to our first fishing spot, I notice he has been looking intently at the opposite shoreline where jack pine and white spruce stand as silent green sentinels. He looks up and I follow his gaze, an osprey is fishing too, searching as she soars high above the lake for her likely fishing spot.
“I love this place, this country, it’s less wild now, but still beautiful.” I nod silently, like him I love these lakes and forests of the shield country and was an instant suitor when my parents first brought me here as a child. The dense stands of spruce, birch and surreal pines occasionally part to provide deeply alluring glimpses of ancient bedrock rimmed lakes bending and leading off, somewhere out of sight. Lakes like enclosed and separate worlds; worlds filled with the echoes of ancient mountains worn down to smooth rock basins as water and time slip past. A place that speaks of forever, trapped in slow motion, where, perhaps, a life could be imagined or re-imagined.
“I came here on the advice of a doctor I saw in Toronto.” Grandfather says. “That was back in the 1920’s. I was trying to build a career in a large law firm but fell ill; the malaria I contracted while in India during the war had come back. The quack told me to leave the city and go somewhere with a cooler climate and a simpler life if I wanted to beat the disease. I was never much of a big city man and though his advice may have been thin soup, medically speaking, the idea of a small, rural law practice somewhere in the north grew from that moment until, I finally said my good byes to my friends and colleagues in Toronto, packed my things and left. I think I knew all along that Toronto was not for me, and the doctor’s advice was just a catalyst – perhaps a kind of permission. “
I’m warmed up now and I am beginning to work up a sweat just as my Grandfather announces that we have arrived at a spot he remembers as having yielded a fish or two. I look up and scan the sky above the lake for the osprey – I spot her a few hundred yards distant and in mid plunge, her talons stretched before her in preparation to snatch prey from its watery home. I pull the oars in and slide them along the side of the boat beneath the gunwale. Locating the anchor, a twenty-inch chunk of standard gauge rail, I lift it over the side and lower it to the bottom with the attached rope. Grandfather passes a rod to me, it is ready to go and he nods to me to cast. I draw my arm back, the rod tip describing an arc in the air, and I let the weighted spoon and line go with a snap of arm and wrist. Grandfather waits a moment, absorbing the sun, the air and the view, and then he makes a fluid and graceful cast, dropping his lure into the water with almost no sound.
We sit silently watching and feeling our lines; feeling for the bump or the grab that will tell us a fish has taken the bait. There is little action: the best kind of fishing. Slowly, slowly reel in, linger here, dip the rod tip there, bring in the last few yards, check the bait and recast to plow a new furrow of water. Osprey dashes past, high above us, a fish twisting in her talons, as though mocking our sedentary and plodding efforts.
Grandfather is thinking about those days, long ago when he came to this part of Ontario. “The town had been all but razed by a massive wildfire in 1916,” he says, “and by 1921 it was still being rebuilt. I suppose you could say both town and I were rebuilding, trying to keep the tragedies and unpleasant events of the past from determining the future.”
When he speaks of unpleasant events, he is referring to the illness, the recurrence of malaria, he says brought him to this place. I can’t help but think of a far greater tragedy. One that seems to me a more likely source of his illness and reason for changing the course of his life: it is the story of the refugees at Hamadan in Persia in the last days of the war.
I have spent the last three years trying to get to know this man, carefully following him in correspondence and family photos and anecdotes through his early life and his time in the First World War. I have spent hours sifting through his personal documents and photos from his wartime experience and the more general historical record trying to knit the information together into a coherent narrative. I know that it wasn’t malaria or malaria alone that caused him to leave his world behind and look for a place to heal. I know about the refugees and the Tehran Road.
Near the end of 1918 the Ottoman empire was all but beaten and had been retreating for the last 11 months with the British in pursuit. The collapse of the Turkish army meant that the oil fields of the Caucus were within reach of the British Indian Army in Mesopotamia and were at risk should the newly formed Soviet Army move to control them exclusively. Refugees from the fighting on this front, nearly 80,000 of them, made their way southward to Hamadan in Persia. As they came south they, “seriously aggravated the problem of maintenance along the Persian lines of communication.” according to British General H.H. Austin. Simply put, they were in the way, making it difficult for the British Army to move quickly, northward to seize strategic ground like the oil fields at Baku. Weakened by the punishing trip that brought them the some 200 miles from Lake Urmia to Hamadan, the refugees were forced back onto the road, the Tehran Road, the main route between the Persian and the Mesopotamian capitals, there to undertake a further 300 mile journey through desert and mountain passes to a promised safety at Baqubah. My Grandfather was part of the British unit whose job it was to protect them along the road.
I don’t know the reality of that detail as my Grandfather does, I never will know those horrors as he does, but I want to listen. I am certain that he has never told the full story to anyone except perhaps my Grandmother. A concise factual version of the events was published as a letter from my Grandfather to the editor of the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper in 1923. That telling does not represent the whole story, nor the profound effect the events must have had on those who lived it.
A quiet settles around us.
Grandfather is smoking his pipe, his gaze is fixed on a spot past his line to the shore where we have come from. His eyes confirm that he is not seeing the shore but rather sifting through the past. The breeze has died away; the lake and its tree lined shore are still as though somehow waiting.
Grandfather’s pipe has gone out, he makes no effort to relight it. He takes the pipe from his mouth, absently placing it on the seat beside him, his hand returning automatically to grip the handle of his fishing rod. The content, placid quality of his face has changed: it is as though a storm has formed and is moving and churning across it, distorting his features. Then, he says in a staccato, flat voice, the result of a desperate effort at control,
“I couldn’t get their faces, the lifeless unseeing eyes out of my mind. I couldn’t sleep, in my nightmares they were always there on that god forsaken desert road. I tried to tell myself that more would have died had we not done the little we did. I tried to deny how they came to be on the road. I wanted to believe that they chose to come that way, and to make that killing trip: that we received them as best we could.”
Grandfather pauses briefly, appearing to draw on some reserve of strength, mastering his emotions and in a steady controlled voice continues,
“I had just come back from India to the front in Mesopotamia. It was September, 1918, near the end of the war; my second stretch of combat duty. I was immediately sent to Khanaquin, a town north east of Baghdad on the Persian border. There, we were briefed by a Captain, who told the junior officers present that our task would be protecting Armenian and Assyrian refugees making their way from a British Camp at Hamadan to a new camp at Baqubah. Our job was to keep them from being harassed or killed by tribesmen whose territory they would be travelling through. He also made it clear that they would be “self-sufficient” and that provisions and assistance by our units would not be necessary. What he didn’t tell us was that the refugees were mothers, children and grandparents. Their husbands and sons had been taken from them and conscripted into the fight against the Turks or forced to serve in labour battalions.”
Grandfather fishing line is slack and still in the water: forgotten. He still holds the rod firmly in his lap, and the tip reveals the slight tremor that has gripped his body.
“I was given command of a platoon of 45 men, horses and a few motorcycles, and a 60 mile stretch of the road. They came by the hundreds, and then my tally went into the thousands. We were told there could be as many as 80,000 people coming from Hamadan. They came by camel, on tough little donkeys, they came on foot. Some children and their mothers walked through the passes of those mountains, across the burning sand and through the foothills in a desperate effort to get to Baqubah and safety.”
The tremor is becoming more violent now, the tip of his rod noticeably shaking. I can see that he is gripping the rod tightly, his knuckles whitening. His voice has become hoarse with emotion, the previous mastery slipping away,
“Not one refugee died as a result of bullets or bombs on my 60 miles of the road. Not one, but…we were given no food or medical aid to give them. They died of exposure, heat stroke, thirst, dysentery, hunger and fatigue. That country knows more bloody ways to kill… Many of them should never have started the journey from Hamadan.” Filled with helpless rage, Grandfather falls silent.
The photos of the refugees at Shaharaban come urgently to my mind: the people who had taken shelter along the road, under the shadow of the village walls, unable to go on, what of them?
“They could not go on,” he says emphasizing their utter exhaustion. “They just sat down and seemed resigned to dying there like so many others. There were 40 or so people, children among them,” he said his voice becoming urgent, insistent.
I have looked at the three photos my Grandfather took that day at the walls of Shaharaban over and over, trying to extract the story from the individual images and the images as a series. I know they document a triumph, a time when he was able to act, and to save lives. Somehow, when faced with this impending disaster he was able to convince his superiors to give him the 6 large trucks that carried these refugees the remaining miles to the camp at Baqubah. A triumph over death.
“Yes, a triumph…,” Grandfather says, “We did succeed on that day but that made our failures on the other days seem so much worse – and the refugees kept coming for nearly three months…His voice has sunk to a low whisper now and he is shaking his head and repeating the number,” 57,000, 57,000…” 57,000, the number of refugees that my Grandfather passed on to the Baqubah camp. He is saying 57,000, but he is thinking, and has always been thinking, he can never forget the 23,000. He is openly crying now as he thinks about those mothers, children and grandparents that perished on the Tehran Road. The 23,000.
“I tried to make them see that we needed trucks and food and water, that we could save lives, that this was a crisis, that these lives were important. They were practical, sensible men, surely, they would see. I could only get what was not being used for strategic purposes, left overs, equipment idle without a military objective and because of that failure I watched them die…. sometimes hundreds in a day.” With this he looks at me, a look of pain, and then anger; then he looks away across the lake as though trying to take a deep draft of its serene beauty.
I can see my answer forming in my mind…Grandfather, I know you did what you could. I have seen the photos of the lives you pulled from certain death that day at Sharahban. I know you tried to get the things you needed to save lives. I know that lives were traded for conquest, for oil. You didn’t watch them die, you were made to watch them die. I know.
Down the lake, the osprey has come to roost at the very top of a white spruce tree, keeping watch over her lake.
Sitting alone in the boat, I can feel the rough handles of the oars in my hands and I notice that the overcast is beginning to break, with the promise of an hour or two of sunlight. To the brightening sky I whisper, “I know.”