By Ruth Edgett
2017 Consequence Magazine "Women Writing War" Prize in Fiction
Canadian writer, Ruth Edgett, won Consequence Magazine's 2017 "Women Writing War" Prize in Fiction for her WWI-inspired short story, "Hill 145." The award was given by American writer, Siobhan Fallon, who wrote the following review:
How is it that our agony has been rendered so gracefully? Asks the narrator in “Hill 145” as he gazes up at a war memorial. And isn’t this both the question, and the answer, to all art about conflict? The experiences of those who have survived war take a violent, ugly thing and try to translate it into something the rest of us can comprehend. Art becomes a way to channel epiphany and empathy into those who are lucky enough to remain unscathed.
“Hill 145” brings us to 1936, to Canadian World War I veterans returning, nineteen years later, to the battleground in France that cost them 3,598 lives. The story is amazingly sophisticated, novelistic in scope and detail, yet intimately probes the guilt of a soldier who outlives all of the friends he swore to protect. On the surface, “Hill 145” paints a rosy picture, with green fields, grazing horses, and poppies in the distance, but the reader, with awful hindsight, knows that in a few short years the evils of the First World War will not only be repeated, but grossly intensified. Ruth Edgett’s “Hill 145” strikes a delicate balance of nostalgia and impending doom, brilliantly illuminating how Vets are “well-practiced at moving between worlds” when reconciling their soldiering pasts and civilian presents.
Below, is Edgett's masterful story, followed by an author's note that explains "Hill 145's" origins:
Laffy in his ear for the ten-thousandth time: “If we’re gonna die, we might as well die tryin’—Right, Georgie?” And, for the ten-thousandth time the clock strikes o-five-thirty, they clamber over top of the trench and Laffy flies to pieces beside him.
He knows it’s a dream, but he keeps on wading through the sleet and the mud anyway, because there’s no time to lose beneath this thundering barrage. Once Laffy and his bloody crater are well behind in the chaos, he frees a hand from his rifle and slaps at his face and chest to clear away all there is left of his friend. It’s a movement he can’t stop, even nineteen years later, and the only thing that can bring him fully awake—always in a sweat and always gasping.
Even so, it takes more than a dozen galloping heartbeats to push himself upright in his deck chair and remind himself this is not April 9, 1917, but July 25, 1936; and he, along with several hundred of his fellow pilgrims, is aboard the SS Duchess of Bedford at Le Havre, France, waiting under a clear summer sky to disembark.
He pulls a handkerchief from his inside jacket pocket and drags it across his face, just as Elizabeth rounds the corner.
“Two other ships are already docked alongside!” she calls, breathless, before she’s even reached him. “Everyone’s still talking about the harbour escort with all the lights and hubbub last night.”
The last time George came ashore here, it was on the quiet and under cover of darkness.
He’s well-practiced at moving between worlds, so he settles back beneath the warming sun, stows his handkerchief and takes the time, now, to admire his wife: Wisps of honey-colored hair framing her flushed cheeks, her keen hazel eyes, the curving lines of the navy travelling suit she sewed to match his jacket with the Royal Canadian Legion crest on the pocket. A man would never know she turned thirty-eight in June and left six children ages eighteen months to fourteen years back home on their lighthouse island in the care of their Aunt Annie and Uncle Aubrey.
George, on the other hand, shows every year of his thirty-eight; feels another thirty-eight after that and, perhaps even, a hundred more. Sometimes he wonders if he’s living an extra, parallel life with his buddies who never made it home. There’s a weight to them sometimes, like he carries them with him.
Elizabeth leans over the rail toward sounds on the dock below. Aside from this voyage, her only sailing experience has been shuttling a row boat the half mile between the landing of Pomquet Island and the government wharf on the Nova Scotia mainland.
“I met a nice man from the Legion,” she says over her shoulder. “He told me they’ve hired scores of train cars, plus a whole bus line and then some to get us around.” She straightens and turns. “He seemed very calm, but I can’t imagine how they’re going to keep six or seven thousand pilgrims from five ships organized through Vimy Ridge tomorrow, let alone for the next three and a half weeks.”
George slides forward in his chair and raises his hands—one behind, one in front—to straighten his khaki beret. “You’d be surprised,” he says, “what military minds can do.”
He knows this pilgrimage is Elizabeth’s trip-of-a-lifetime. He will have memories to reconcile, of course, but he plans to keep most to himself and let her enjoy the spectacle. Still, he needs her to know some things. She already knows that every one of the 78th Battalion was a good soldier: a fighter, a digger, a builder, or whatever he was called upon to do.
If we’re gonna die, we might as well die tryin’—Right Georgie?
He hasn’t told her about this kind of thing, though; or how he still wonders which took more courage: marching into the fire thinking it was his day to die, or hanging onto life battle after battle in an endless war going nowhere. She’s asked, of course, what memory it is that has, for years, catapulted them both from sleep with no rhyme or regularity, but some things a man doesn’t talk about.
He’s happy to talk about the 78th, though. He’s proud of them—all eight hundred who sprang into battle that day, even if only a third of them walked away—even if only eight of them are making the return trip—even if he’s the only one of...
So, he will put up with being fêted and toured and made much of with the rest of the Canadians if it means being allowed tomorrow to salute the unveiling of the great monument that sits on the very piece of Vimy Ridge that the 78th helped capture. It’s the least he can do.
Elizabeth is keeping a diary of the pilgrimage. This pleases George because he can know her thoughts without having to talk about them. A couple of hours into their train ride, he picks up her notes: Such wonderful country we are passing through! George says I’ve been so busy looking that I barely take time to sit and I guess that’s just about right.
He can’t help but smile.
What impresses me most is the trees. There are acres and acres of them set in precise rows, each one with its face washed and hair combed, is what I think, they look so neat…
The fields were not like this when he was last through this country, helping to rip and tear and blow them apart, struggling through the slick and sucking mud, toppling sometimes into mine craters and praying to God that, if he were going to die, it would not be in their turgid water alongside the others who’d already drowned there. He saw no trees then—or what could rightly be called trees. There were only the dark bones of trees against an iron-grey sky, or torn stumps with not even enough remaining to take cover behind.
Everywhere we see patches of poppies, and sometimes a large field of them in the distance looks just like a field of blood.
He closes the book and passes it back.
This is only the first day, and it’s a long one, journeying north by train and bus. There are many old battlefields to visit, speeches to stand for, and memories that make him tired. Finally, after much touring and congratulation, the pilgrims board buses that take them south and west toward Arras, the French town that lent its name to the larger battle for which Vimy was meant as the opening skirmish.
Settled into his seat, George closes his eyes, hoping for a sleep of the weary that will not be disturbed by the parallel sleep of the dead. Elizabeth bends to her journal as the chatter gradually dies down. He must be in a pleasant doze when she starts prattling on beside him.
“Look, George!” She shakes his arm. “They’re lining the street!
It’s growing dusk, and George cranes over his wife’s shoulder to see what she’s talking about. On a street corner, where an old stone barn meets the curb is a sign. “Souchez”, it says. George knows this place.
“See that woman in the upstairs window!”
He takes an elbow to the shoulder as Elizabeth twists and stands in her seat to get a better look.
“She’s waving some—George, she’s waving her knitting!”
Other passengers begin manhandling the windows open so they can wave back. Through the openings comes a chant, scattered at first, then stronger as more people come into the street: “Vive le Canada! Vive le Canada!”
Elizabeth is thanking the man in the seat behind for helping to push her window open, and now she’s leaning out and calling along with the other pilgrims, “Vive la France!”
Perhaps the dead can hear, so George joins in the roaring. She stands back, so he can lean out to get a look at the long line of buses in front and behind, and he sees in the fading light the navy gabardine arms of the men and the multi-coloured arms of their women, all waving. Some are reaching as far as their heads and shoulders, brandishing their berets and hailing.
“Vive la France!”
Cars and pony carts have pulled onto the sidewalks. Shop keepers and customers have rushed out of doors, still making change and bagging their merchandise. Dogs are running alongside the pilgrims’ convoy, adding their voices to the din.
“Vive le Canada!”
Gradually, as the buses move into the countryside, the sounds die away. No one expected that. Many of the men are blowing dust from their noses, or wiping it from their eyes after hanging out the windows, so George doesn’t feel out of place doing the same.
“Wasn’t that something?” says Elizabeth, looking so proud beside him, tears brimming behind her lashes.
George pats her knee, leans back and closes his eyes. “Maybe now we’ll have some quiet,” he says.
Next morning in their Arras hotel room, Elizabeth is dressed, hair already rolled up at the back when George awakens. How could he have slept so long? At home, he rises before dawn and climbs the tower to extinguish the light before she even opens her eyes. But sounds of their boisterous countrymen in the tavern below kept them up last night until well after twelve.
The sun is leaking around the drapes, and as soon as Elizabeth sees he’s awake, she flings them wide so that he must shield his eyes. “Let’s not miss breakfast,” she says. “It’s going to be a long day.”
By the time they reach Vimy Ridge, thousands have already gathered. George is sent to the base of the monument with the khaki berets while Elizabeth is kept back with the blues. They’ve been told to expect speeches and fly-pasts, cavalry formations and displays of great military precision. The sky is clear, the sunshine is brilliant, and the monument fairly glows in the attention.
Up close, staring at the colossal human figures that begin at his level and climb to the very heavens, George wonders: How is it that our agony has been rendered so gracefully? The glare of sun on new white limestone hurts his eyes, and he must blink often and cast his gaze downward. On his chest is a Victory Medal, the surviving soldiers’ consolation for staying alive, but he has never been particularly proud of his. Certainly, not today; not when he stands atop this earth while Laffy and the others lie beneath it.
There comes the instant in King Edward’s speech when a great, draping Union Jack is pulled back to reveal the gigantic female figure of “Canada Bereft.” As George gazes upward, he feels the weight of grief in this stone woman’s face, in the stoop of her giant shoulders and the droop of the laurels she dangles from her hand.
For some time after the ceremony, he lingers to watch her, letting the crowds of pilgrims flow past as they search for the names of loved ones carved into the stone that surrounds and supports her. When he’s ready to leave her, he sees it will take a bit of roaming and dodging to find Elizabeth. She’s around the other side making animated conversation inside a knot of other blue-beret women when he locates her. He hangs back but she spots him, excuses herself and hurries over.
“Oh, George!” she calls, eyes wide, as she swims through the throngs.
He manages a tight smile and waits. “Something, isn’t it?” he says, once she’s reached him.
“They said a hundred thousand,” says Elizabeth, spinning in the sea of people, clasping her notebook to her chest. “There’s so much to write. I need to get it down while it’s fresh.”
“Follow me,” he says, and leads her away from the crowds, past a memorial to the Moroccans and down a narrow dirt path where the sounds of celebration begin to fade. Remnants of the old battle are all around them: old shell holes, smashed concrete from captured German gun emplacements, grass-covered craters large enough to fit a house into. They are silent for some time.
Finally, Elizabeth says, “After those beautiful words from King Edward and President Lebrun, I can see how the battlefield is healing. Perhaps I’ll begin with that,” and she heads toward the lush bowl of a small crater. “I can sit here in the sunshine and write while you—”
Quick as a shot, George grabs her arm and wrenches her back to the path, sending her book skidding to the ground.
“What in...?” says Elizabeth, catching her balance, glaring at him as she brushes her sleeve where he pulled her. “What do y—”
“Never!” says George, chest heaving. “Ever!” is all he can get out over his image of Laffy exploding, and it must be his panic that drives her backward a step.
“Ever what?” she says, still rubbing her wrist.
Perhaps he should have been easier with her, but there was no time. “It was one of the first announcements today,” he says, still panting. “Didn’t you hear it?”
She looks back toward the crater, and he sees it dawning on her: You mean…?”
“I mean you could go up just like that,” he says, realizing he’s trembling. “Mines,” he says. “Old shells… Just because they didn’t go off then doesn’t mean they won’t now.”
“Oh,” says Elizabeth. “I didn’t…”
“No,” says George, stooping to pick up her notebook, dusting it on his pantleg and handing it to her. “I guess you didn’t.”
His knees are wobbly, but keeps leading her farther into the quiet until they come upon a tall concrete cross of the style that mark all the Canadian cemeteries. Givenchy-en-Gohelle, says the plaque. This burial place is tiny compared to the others they’ve visited. It is partly sheltered by a small cathedral of trees, surrounded by a low stone wall and, beyond that, horse pasture on three sides. George wanders the perimeter as Elizabeth takes a seat on a bench in a patch of sun. He stops at the wall opposite her, facing outward. Near a place where two horses graze nose to nose, he spies a zig-zag of old trench snaking up the slope, its chalky edges now rounded and overgrown.
“I remember that,” he says, pointing in the direction of the horses. They stop eating and cock their ears toward him. “Had more than one detail out there.”
He contemplates the scene for a while before swinging around and lifting his gaze over Elizabeth’s head toward the pasture behind her. He can see she’s still writing, but begins anyway: “Not far from here,” he says, “back a bit more the way we came, is our tunnel. Won’t find ‘em now, but those subways were how we made it to the trenches without being spotted.”
Elizabeth lays her book aside and draws her knees up under her chin, watching.
He gestures to his right, where the monument is still visible above the tree tops. “Hill 145: That was our objective,” he says. “Drilled into every man in the Twelfth Division, every day for five months.”
Laffy in his ear: If we’re gonna die, we might as well die tryin’—right, Georgie?
“We waited all night. Quiet as the dead. Then: O-five-thirty and over the top we went,” he says, even now spurting ahead a few steps before springing a hand to his face, knocking his beret to the ground and swatting at the gore that is no longer there. As if that cap were Laffy, he whispers to it, “I had no choice but keep going.”
He waits a few breaths to collect himself, sees she’s listening and carries on:
“The 78th was one of the battalions that made up the Twelfth. It’ll all be over in a few hours, they’d told us, but they hadn’t factored in the snipers. Everything went to pieces. Four days they pinned us down. Us waiting for relief, wondering who’d be picked off next, all the time praying they weren’t mining beneath us.”
On the ground where he’s scuffing his foot, George can see again the furor and confusion of that fight, feel the soldier’s mad hope that he’ll come out of it—and the grim acceptance that he won’t. When he lifts his gaze toward Elizabeth and she’s not there, he spins, heart thundering.
There she is, just a stride or two away now, diary open in her hand. “See what I’ve written,” she says.
Looking at those craters I can’t help but wonder: How, when they blew such holes as that in the earth, did anyone ever come out of it alive? He squeezes his eyes shut and tries to level his breathing. I am beginning to realize, as we explore parts of the Ridge, how it must have taken every ounce of courage and strength…how it must have taken every ounce of courage and strength... She's not finished the thought, and neither can he.
When he tilts the book closed, she is reading headstones. “Look,” she says, running her finger along the close-set tops of a dozen or so. “These are all 78th Battalion and they all died on April 9, 1917.”
George stays quiet.
“Come see the names,” she says. When he doesn’t move, Elizabeth stops her tracery and stares. “Don’t you want to see whose names you know?”
He turns away and back toward the horses. “I know them all.”
This diary reminds him of Elizabeth’s letters; and of how they have belonged to each other since the day he showed up, motherless, in her Nova Scotia school yard. In Elizabeth he found, not pity, just kindness and a knowing that he needed a friend—even while he needed also to be hard. They were both twelve years old.
A couple of years later, family still asunder, George hopped aboard the Harvest Excursion Train bound for the wheat fields out west and didn’t even say good-bye. But in 1915, after he’d answered the greater call in Winnipeg and signed his pay over to the keeping of baby sister Annie, he took a chance. He sent Elizabeth his only photo as a fresh recruit and wrote, “From one who cannot and will not forget you.”
She wrote back. And for four terrible years, while he fought through this hell, she sent him letters. As he began to wonder if the world back there was something he might only have dreamed of, she made it possible for him to believe it was not a dream. All these years later, she still has no idea how much he has needed her.
He wants this, today, to explain him a little better; for he knows he can be unexplainable, that it is hard on the children, that they wish for a father not quite so stern—one who might put an arm around them, or show them he is proud, or that he loves them. Because he does. He does with all his heart, though he can never say.
When he feels like speaking again, he still has his back to Elizabeth. “Not far from that crossroad down there is where we went in,” he says, pointing to a place where the plain meets the first rise of the scarp. He swings around. “Over there: That was No Man’s Land, where we burst out,” and his voice goes thin. “Laffy must have stepped on something,” he says.
Elizabeth stops her wandering among the stones and turns to him.
“A few minutes after that, Harry Logan went down with a sniper shot to the leg. He told me, Keep going, Georgie. Go, go, go! And I did. Then, Louie Reddy fell in front of me and I jumped over him, thinking, I can stop here and die with him or keep going and die trying.”
He turns again to the pasture, and it might be a few minutes or a lifetime that he’s lost inside this memory before he feels Elizabeth beside him, pressing the rolled-up beret into his hand.
Her voice is soft. “I’m glad those horses are there,” she says.
But he’s coming back from a long way and has trouble comprehending.
“There’s something good about those gentle creatures grazing near our men who’ve fallen, don’t you think?”
He watches her watching the animals.
“This is how I would want to lie if I were one of your friends,” she says. “Next door to horses: strong beasts who do what they’re told when they have to, but who really want nothing more than peace and a good patch of grass.” She smiles up at him. “If it were me, I would take comfort in that.”
George clears his throat and carries on: “We knew we wouldn’t all make it home,” he says. “Four greenhorns at the Somme. We swore to watch out for each other…” And, for this next, he can’t look anywhere but down or do anything but mumble: “But I couldn’t—”
And it doesn’t matter what he says from here on, or whether he says anything at all, because Elizabeth has placed herself in front of him, eyes on his, showing she’s received every memory; that, from here on, she will keep each one safe so he doesn’t have to hold onto them by himself anymore.
“Here I still am,” he says, surprised even now.
Elizabeth eases the diary out of his hand. “I’m glad of that,” she whispers, tracing a fingertip along the side of his nose, making him realize there is a trail of tears there. “Your children are, too,” she says; and, coming from her, George can almost believe that is true.
Back at the hotel that night, the carousing has been only half-hearted, so it’s much earlier when the last of the revelers spill up the stairs and muffle themselves behind closed doors. As their final sounds gradually fall off, George watches Elizabeth from the bed. She’s wearing the soft pink nightgown she made for this trip and is working her long, honey hair into a thick braid over one shoulder. She smooths a hand over it one last time before switching off the light, lifting the covers and climbing in beside him. With a grace borne of long practice, he raises his near arm up and away so she can slide over and rest her cheek on his chest.
“Maybe now we’ll have some quiet,” she says, warm breath grazing his skin.
“Maybe,” says George, lowering his arm and drawing her snug against him. “Maybe so.”
It is midnight by the time George and Elizabeth pull the dory up at the Pomquet Island landing after nearly a month away. The light tower is sending its steady red beam far out over St. George’s Bay, and the ruby colour dances on distant waves. They unload their suitcases and leave them for the children to fetch in the morning. As they approach the house, they see that someone’s left a lamp burning on the dining room table, an extravagance of kerosene that George would never countenance. At the door to the summer kitchen, he’s ready to burst straight through and put out that lamp, but the door won’t open.
“Why would they lock the door?” says George. “What kind of burglar do they think is going to paddle half a mile to a lighthouse and half a mile back!”
“Annie and Aubrey live in town,” says Elizabeth. “It was automatic, I suppose.”
“Stupid more like it,” says George. “I could have told her she was marrying an idiot!”
“Oh, how quickly our dream evaporates and real life comes crashing back in,” says Elizabeth as George stamps around the house to the front parlour window. “Quiet,” she says. “We don’t want them to think the Huns are invading.”
“This is the only one that doesn’t stick,” he whispers as he presses carefully on the sash and works it upward. “Go wait at the kitchen. I’ll come let you in.”
He must wriggle and scrape, but after a few minutes of small struggle George lands hands-first on the oil cloth floor and brings his knees down behind him. As he comes stiffly upright, he touches something yielding: A head of thick, wiry hair like his own. He doesn’t need the moonlight to tell him this is Grace, their first; the one who showed him that he truly was done with ending lives—that he was now in the business of beginning them. One hand goes to her shoulder and, before he can stop it, the other pulls her to him.
At first she is stiff in his arms. But, then, George feels about his waist the light and tentative pressure of a returned embrace. At his chest, there is warm breath where his ribs meet just below his heart, and he hears a muffle that sounds like, “I was dreaming and thought I heard you say, Wait and I’ll come…”
From the ends of the earth I would come, he wants to say. Or die trying.
“…but I didn’t want to wait,” says Grace, into her father’s shirtfront.
George lowers his head until he can feel the tickle of her short-cropped hair against the end of his nose. He would like to tip up her face and kiss it, but if he does she will feel his tears. So, hoping the dark will hide the wet on his cheeks, he pushes his daughter from him.
“Your mother’s waiting at the kitchen,” he says to her. “You’d better go open the door.”
George Millar spoke rarely to his children of his service in the First World War; never to his grandchildren. Frankly, we had little interest. It wasn’t until long after his death, during the writing of A Watch in the Night: The story of Pomquet Island’s last lightkeeping family, that the true import of Grandpa’s military service emerged. The stamp of his soldiering days is everywhere in that book: In his aloofness from his six children, in the near-military discipline he imposed upon their life on that tiny island off the Nova Scotia coast, in his membership in the reserves, the lobster boat he named the “Vimy R”; and, on and on…
Fascinated by this enigmatic character who was my grandfather, I did some research into his military records and found myself on top of Vimy Ridge one fine morning in April, 2013. I was standing beneath the gaze of “Canada Bereft” and looking out over the Douai Plain, marvelling—not just at the majesty of the colossal monument that is Canada’s national memorial there—but at the grit and courage a 19-year-old George Millar must have called upon that snowy, sleety, chaotic April dawn 96 years earlier, when the first wave of Canadians pushed “over the top” and into battle.
Vimy Ridge has been labelled Canada’s bloodiest battle of that long, stalemated war. Nearly 3,600 men died there, mostly on the first day. There were 10,600 casualties in all. Some seventy per cent of George Millar’s battalion were reported killed, wounded or missing by the time they returned to base four days later.
As I walked the ridge up and down, viewed that massive monument and its desolate figures, these words came to me: “If you’re going to die, you might as well die trying.” It sounded like something Grandpa would say.
After I returned home, I pulled out “Ruth’s Reminisces,” a diary my grandmother had kept of a Royal Canadian Legion Pilgrimage to Vimy Ridge in 1936 for the unveiling of that monument, which soars some 90 feet skyward and memorializes the 66,000 Canadians who died in the First World War. On its base are inscribed the names of more than 11,000 who have no known graves. Using some of Grandma’s words, memories of my Grandparents, and my own newfound knowledge of the site, I wrote that story.
While the Battle of Vimy Ridge may not be well known in the US—and, while the winning of it accomplished little in the grander scheme of a stalemated war—that battle is highly symbolic to Canadians. It represented the first time that the four divisions of the 100,000-strong Canadian Corps fought together as a unit, separately from the British.
The battle itself was meant only as an opening skirmish to the much larger Battle of Arras, which was under British command. Even this battle was intended as a distraction from French preparations for a still larger and more important battle to the south at Chemin des Dames. If the French battle ended in disaster, and the end of the British fight proved ambiguous, the Canadian battle was a decisive win at a time when Allied wins were few and far between.
Back home, the Vimy victory was hailed as a key step toward nationhood for a fledgling country of fewer than eight million still emerging from the shadow of British Colonial rule. Politically, it was a boost for a national government mired in a divisive and acrimonious debate over conscription, which led to rifts between French and English Canada that persist to this day. On the battlefield, the Canadians’ performance at Vimy set them on a path to recognition as the “Shock Troops” of the Western Front, and to being allowed a completely Canadian command thereafter. To this day, April 9 is set aside in Canada as a time to mark a heroic battle, and the conflicted beginnings of nationhood.
Ruth Edgett is author of A Watch in the Night: The story of Nova Scotia’s last lightkeeping family (Nimbus, 2007). Her fiction and non-fiction appear in three other Nimbus collections, in print and on-line in Firewords, The Feminine Collective, and The Island Review. The story, “Hill 145” was first published in the 10th Anniversary edition of CONSEQUENCE Magazine as winner of the “Women Writing War” prize for fiction. Her stories are inspired by the people and places of Atlantic Canada. Born and raised on Canada’s East Coast, Ruth now lives and writes in Southern Ontario.