Last summer, Radiohead‘s Harry Patch (In Memory Of)—listen to it on Apple Music or Spotify—got me thinking about my great uncle Percival Archie Corry, who was killed in Belgium in December 1915 fighting in the First World War. I remember him every November 11, but there is something about this track that evokes the time: I think the instrumentation, composition, and arrangement are something that my grandmother Kathleen, Perce’s brother, would recognize and appreciate.
About ten years ago, I put together a genealogy of my grandmother’s family. She had eight siblings, and the long-term impact of war was made clear: the others had descendants, marriages, jobs, and stories. Perce’s page in the book was a dead end. Here are a couple of pictures of him, one on the family farm outside of Victoria, clearing land for the B.C. Electric power line; the other obviously in preparation for the trip to Europe, from which he never returned.
The genealogy included the following text by Jean Rathgaber, daughter of Perce’s brother Art.
When the news was announced that Canada had entered into the war, Kath [my grandmother] and Babe were outside discussing it. They heard a whooping and a hollering, and Perce, on horseback, came dashing toward them as fast as he could gallop, shouting and waving his arms. He swerved at the last minute, just missing them, and yelled, “Hooray! War!” He and his brothers thought the war would be a great adventure; all three enlisted and were sent overseas. … The great adventure did not turn out as they had expected. George returned from the war with a steel plate in his head which caused him head pains all his life. Art returned with stomach ulcers caused from being gassed. For the rest of his life, he could tolerate only bland foods like milk, puddings and porridge made with milk. He never complained about this diet and lived on it for 40 years. And sadly, Perce never returned at all.
It’s tempting to think Perce’s romanticization of war is of another era, but I suspect that’s not completely the case.
I am going to work on updating the history for a reunion this summer, and one of the things I have found is Percival Corry’s attestation papers, online at Library and Archives Canada.
It’s striking to see these papers, signed by an eighteen-year-old destined to die in the Great War almost a century ago. It’s possible to order copies of a soldier’s service files, which aren’t posted online, and I plan to do that to see what other information is available on Percival Corry.
I am the only one that got through
The others died where ever they fell
It was an ambush
They came up from all sides
Give your leaders each a gun and then let them fight it out themselves
I’ve seen devils coming up from the ground
I’ve seen hell upon this earth
The next will be chemical but they will never learn
—Radiohead, adapted from a BBC interview with Harry Patch, one of the last surviving veterans of the First World War