These four Victoria Cross winners showed valour. Only one survived the war. - Macleans.ca

These four Victoria Cross winners showed valour. Only one survived the war.

The mystery of why some men rush toward machine guns, instead of away. And the story of one young soldier who survived to have an ordinary life.

by

Battle of Amiens 1918. (Chronicle/Alamy)

Four young soldiers—from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario—set off for France one hundred and more years ago to save our civilization and take a soldier’s chance. (“If we fail, the lights of freedom go out over the whole world,” Rudyard Kipling warned them.) All volunteered for duty; all ran toward—and not away from—immediate, mortal danger. One of the four returned alive. He lived to be 80 in a small river town back home.

There is a small town 20 km east of Amiens called Villers-Bretonneux that was reduced to ashes and bones and bricks during what the French call la guerre quatorze and what the British coined the Great War. Early in the fifth August of the First World War—before dawn on Aug. 8, 1918, to be precise—the 13th Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) of the Canadian Expeditionary Force attacked the German positions near sleeping Aubercourt. This date now is reckoned by historians to be the first of “Canada’s Hundred Days,” but a soldier of the time only could know and care about that if he didn’t get killed during the next 99.

This was to be open-field fighting and fleeing and following, different from the mire and madness of the trenches.

Whoever was the regimental Chaucer of the Black Watch wrote about that morning in fine, fluid penmanship:

Our assembly was very good. Not a sound broke the stillness of the night while passing through the assembly trench, which was filled with quiet, stern men, standing with bayonet fixed, awaiting the word to advance.

Promptly at 4:20 a.m., zero hour, the artillery barrage was laid down 200 yards in advance of jumping off positions . . . Unfortunately, we had about 30 casualties from our own shots . . .

Our men got away to a good start with dreadful determination, in spite of being worried by our artillery shots, but owing to the combination of ground mist and smoke shells, a dense fog was created, through which one could see only a distance of 10 yards. As a result, our tanks were of very little assistance . . .

First, HANGARD WOOD had to be cleared and here several German machine-gun nests were encountered, resulting in several of our gallant boys becoming casualties. Our men outflanked and captured the machine-guns in quick time, many cases of great daring and resource being shown.

READ MORE: Our special commemorative Remembrance Day issue

Hangard Wood, a century later, is a small, vestigial copse of trees amid the gentle grainfields, and there is a cemetery that is no larger than the ground floor of your house. Here are interred the whole or fractional remains of 161 Canadian, Australian, British and French soldiers—men who gave their substance and their tomorrows to promulgate what German General Erich Ludendorff would call “the Black Day of the German Army.” Nearly every stone here bears the date of 8th August ’18.

In the guest book that is kept behind a waterproof bronze door, recent visitors have written:

To our brave Grandfather and in memory of his brave cousin and best man, in life and death together always.

And:

Thank you for the freedom that I enjoy!

And:

Finally said hello to my great granddad.

This was the regimental report the next morning, Aug. 9, while the blood of the dead still was black and thick and the sons of Empire were being lain in hasty graves:

In the East, the sun glistened like a gigantic orange ball, glinting through the thick white mist which covered the ground. The scene was very peaceful and the men awoke feeling fit. Yesterday, a day of crowded events, was discussed, souvenirs fondly handled and exhibited, inquiries made of absent chums who perhaps were en route to Blighty; others, less fortunate.

Ten Canadian men were awarded the Victoria Cross for their work during the Battle of Amiens between the 8th and the 13th of August, 1918—a fine haul of heroism, if that is what we still want to call it, for a single campaign. Let us meet four of them.

John Bernard Croak was a soldier in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during WWI and posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross for his bravery during the first day of the Battle of Amiens, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry. (Beaton Institute)

The first is Pte. John Bernard Croak, born “Croke” in Newfoundland 25½ years before Hangard Wood. A free spirit and habitual tippler, Croak found the call to war and a stipend of $1.10 a day to be a welcome diversion from the often-deadly collieries of Cape Breton, to which his father had removed the family from the Rock when Johnny was two, and so he left Glace Bay in 1915 for the comparable hazards of a soldier’s life.

“In the event of my death,” he scrawled on his sign-up form, “I give the whole all my property and effects to my mother.”

John Croak’s military record before Hangard Wood was far from exemplary. It included repeated discipline—even being held in irons and being docked a dollar or two in pay—for possessing whiskey and even for skipping away.

“Now this Johnny Croak was a remarkable man,” an army pal named “Bubbles” Hughes was quoted as saying. “There was not a phony bone in his body. He was a roly-poly guy, feared nothing, and didn’t give a s–t for anybody. He always carried a revolver on his hip and I don’t think he would have been afraid to use it on anyone who crossed him. It was a saying in our company that if you went out on a patrol or a working party with Johnny Croak you’d come back.”

RELATED: The First World War united these Canadians by service and sacrifice

The official records speak less whimsically of Pte. Croak: Six days Field Punishment No. 2 for being in possession of whiskey. Six days Field Punishment No. 2 for resisting arrest. Twenty-one days Field Punishment No. 2 for breaking camp whilst under quarantine. Twenty-eight days Field Punishment No. 2 for drunkenness, breaking camp, and going AWOL for three days.

Field Punishment No. 2 meant being bound in fetters and handcuffs. But this is what John Bernard Croak did on Aug. 8, as noted in the London Gazette, which was the publisher of record for these sorts of things, back then:

Having become separated from his section, he encountered a machine gun nest, which he bombed and silenced, taking the gun and crew prisoners. Shortly afterwards he was severely wounded, but refused to desist.

Having rejoined his platoon, a very strong point, containing several machine guns, was encountered. Private Croak, however, seeing an opportunity, dashed forward alone and was almost immediately followed by the remainder of the platoon in a brilliant charge. He was the first to arrive at the trench line, into which he led his men, capturing three machine guns and bayonetting or capturing the entire garrison.

Jean Brillant. (Historic Collection/Alamy)

The second of our quartet is Lt. Jean Baptiste Arthur Brillant, a Québécois of generational French military pedigree, though on his enlistment papers he gave his first name as John. A telegrapher as a civilian but then an eager warrior, he claimed to have already spent 13 years as an officer in the 89th Temiscouata and Rimouski Regiment. By 1917, he was in France with the Vingt-Deuxième, complaining in letters home that, “I’ve been in the trenches for a month and a half; we can’t wait to see the Boches.” And that, “Our front is frustratingly quiet.”

A year later, the Pollyanna had matured. “We are busier and busier,” he wrote home on the first of May. “Great things are in preparation for the near future. What blood and suffering this terrible war costs. There may be a certain pleasure in the soldier’s art, capturing a long-desired objective, working out tactics, but these considerations always go hand in hand with pain and tears.”

Then, on Aug. 8 and 9, 1918, having already been awarded the Military Cross for an action in late May, Lt. Brillant displayed:

. . . most conspicuous bravery and outstanding devotion to duty when in charge of a company which he led in attack during two days with absolute fearlessness and extraordinary ability and initiative, the extent of the advance being twelve miles.

On the first day of operations shortly after the attack had begun, his company’s left flank was held up by an enemy machine gun. Lt. Brillant rushed and captured the machine-gun, personally killing two of the enemy crew. Whilst doing this, he was wounded but refused to leave his command.

READ MORE: He led Canada to victory in the Great War. Why did the troops dislike him?

Later on the same day, his company was held up by heavy machine-gun fire. He reconnoitred the ground personally, organised a party of two platoons and rushed straight for the machine-gun nest. Here 150 enemy and fifteen machine-guns were captured. Lt. Brillant personally killing five of the enemy, and being wounded a second time. He had this wound dressed immediately, and again refused to leave his company.

Subsequently this gallant officer detected a field gun firing on his men over open sights. He immediately organised and led a “rushing” party towards the gun. After progressing about 600 yards, he was again seriously wounded. In spite of this third wound, he continued to advance for some 200 yards more . . . Lt. Brillant’s wonderful example throughout the day inspired his men with an enthusiasm and dash which largely contributed towards the success of the operations.

Herman James Good VC. (Historic Collection/Alamy)

Number three is Cpl. Herman James Good of the Black Watch, a New Brunswick timber man, age 30 and already three times wounded when he joined this alacritous charge, soon to be cited for:

. . . leading when in attack his company was held up by heavy fire from three enemy machine-guns, which were seriously delaying the advance. Realising the gravity of the situation, this N.C.O. dashed forward alone, killing several of the garrison, and capturing the remainder. Later on, Corporal Good, while alone, encountered a battery of 5-inch guns, which were in action at the time. Collecting three men of his section, he charged the battery under point-blank fire and captured the entire crews of three guns.

And our fourth is Cpl. Herbert (Harry) Gardner Bedford Miner, a farmer of Oxford Township, Ont., age 27 when the big push started and acclaimed on his Victoria Cross, or VC.

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in attack, when despite severe wounds he refused to withdraw. He rushed an enemy machine-gun post single-handed, killed the entire crew and turned the gun on the enemy. Later, with two others, he attacked another enemy machine-gun post, and succeeded in putting the gun out of action. Cpl. Miner then rushed single-handed an enemy bombing post, bayoneting two of the garrison and putting the remainder to flight.

A portrait of Harry Bedford Miner. (Chatham-Kent Museum)

“Although extremely costly in terms of Canadian dead and wounded, the Battle of Amiens in early August 1918 was a complete triumph,” notes a publication entitled “Men of Valour—Canada’s Victoria Cross Winners,” using the W-word.

These four were not peach-faced teenagers, staring fate in the eyes for the first time. Of Miner and Good and Brillant and Croak—four small-town sons of Canada’s founding imperial peoples; two adjectives, a noun, and a verb—it can be said that all were experienced combatants, adept at survival, or merely they were fortune-blessed, up to 4:20 that smoky morning. All had seen their best friends shredded, slept beside the broken carcasses of men whom they had loved; caressed them until, as in the poem by Edgell Rickword,

He stank so badly, though we were great chums

I had to leave him; then rats ate his thumbs.

Then fortune flipped a coin that brilliant, awful 8th of August, and only one of the four heroes came home to Canada. The other three were slaughtered on the spot, that very day.

Which man of our medalled four survived?

“Out of impulse, out of fear, it’s all a part of the leader thinking of himself as the man who must move forward and give an overpowering example of bravery,” says Maj. Micheal Boire of the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont. “It’s done when the blood is running hot. All we expect from the leader is the whistle and the getting up and going.

“These are religious men,” Boire continues. “They grow up in religion; they grow up in hierarchy. The books that they read were about young boys doing their best, getting on with it—boys becoming men through bravery.”

“Can you train for that? Can you predict that level of courage and extraordinary bravery?” asks Meghan Fitzpatrick, a postdoctoral research fellow in war studies at RMC.

“The answer is no. It is almost impossible to predict that sort of heroism—that’s why VC winners are so rare.” (She also calls them “winners,” but what exactly did they win?)

For the past century, Fitzpatrick says, military educators and officers have tried to screen for what she calls “combat temperament and other combat characteristics,” but largely to no avail.

RELATED: What kept Canadian soldiers committed during the First World War?

“It’s pretty difficult to know how someone is going to react when bullets are flying,” she says. “During both world wars, and even today, training is fundamental to transforming civilians into what you would consider members of larger military families. It’s the connection to that family that is absolutely central. But the training can only do so much.”

“You can make a real difference between the French and the British on the Western Front,” says Maj. Boire. “The level of hatred and the burning desire of revenge is very, very near the top of the French army’s desire to take the battle to the Germans. There’s real hatred.

“The citizen soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force—of Canada, New Zealand, Australia—aren’t infected with that hatred,” Maj. Boire adds. “Generally speaking, our soldier is interested in getting the job done and getting home as quickly as possible and in one piece. When you see how many acts of bravery there were, and you look forensically at how armies behaved on the battlefield, the grand men of the imperial empire are very much taken by the pursuit of masculinity.”

“PLAY UP! PLAY UP! AND PLAY THE GAME” is the exhortation on an Australian recruiting poster in the museum in Villers-Bretonneux.

“It is easy for us in hindsight to be pretty critical and negative about this, but at the time, people believed in fighting that war to the very end,” says Fitzpatrick. “Whatever skepticism and negativity we might have now, the people back then did honestly believe that they were fighting for a much better world.”

“The ‘game,’ the ‘play,’ the ‘party,’ ” Maj. Boire exhales. “It was a way to diminish the dangers and it’s also a denial of fear so that it’s not combat in the British sense—it’s all about getting on with it.

“That word ‘party’—that irks me.”

Of our four Victoria Cross heroes, Maj. Boire notes, “They were deliberate. All of them were about getting out in the open and charging forward.

“There were many ways of going to ground. You could get lost. (Indeed, John Croak, sober or otherwise, did get lost that morning.) You could pretend to be knocked out by a shell, or fall into the enemy trench and surrender. There were many ways to avoid charging the machine gun.”

But our four men did.

But consider this: there were three recorded cases in Canada—and many more in Britain—of men who committed suicide because they were rejected for military service, denied the chance to play up, to play the game.

One was a 24-year-old Toronto man named George Baker who hanged himself in the basement of his sister’s house after failing to be accepted into the Canadian Expeditionary Force and after learning—on the same day—that his brother had been killed in France.

Another was an 18-year-old named Daniel Lane, who was found convulsing in a public park in Welland, Ont., having poisoned himself with strychnine after failing his military physical.

And another was 28-year-old Joseph Coley of Thorold, Ont., who swallowed a flask of carbolic acid because, as he wrote in a note of advance apology, the fear of being rejected by the military doctors preyed upon his mind.

No medals are awarded to those who die of shame, but the grief felt by those who loved them is no different.

RELATED: The heroic life of First World War soldier Samuel Lewis Honey

Inured by now to the terrible waiting for the death-telegram, Canadians were told to eat less, grow more, do their part.

“Mrs. Port Arthur, it’s up to you!” exhorts a newspaper headline in what now is called Thunder Bay.

“Vision your sons, mothers of Canada! They must be fed,” the headlines shout.

“Will they let famine fight against us?”

“To us who stay at home, good meals, eaten in comfort, are a commonplace,” one article says. “But to our Sons, Husbands and Fathers ‘out there’ food is the only thing that matters. The possible lack of food forever haunts them, for without food, how can they carry on? From whence shall come their bodily strength?

“Realizing these things—how dare we fail to send them the foods they so sorely need? How can we refuse to eat a little less white bread, beef and bacon so there will be enough of these non-perishable foods for them? Shall we let famine, also, fight against them? The Judgment of Mankind will write an outcast verdict upon those who do not sign and live up to the Food Service Pledge.”

In Stanley Parish, N.B.—20 unpaved, unplowed miles north of Fredericton—a 53-year-old farmer named Daniel MacMillan lived and worked alone, struggling with the recent deaths of his parents and his only brother, coping as best he could with poor harvests and dying livestock and poultry, burdened with an oppressive $39 mortgage payment that comes due every six months, abashed by his seemingly meagre and unmanly contribution to Canada’s war effort, but most of all, overwhelmed by isolation.

“I am just home from the recruiting meeting,” he writes in his meticulous diary. “Quite a large attendance of women and old men, but not very many of those who are fit to go to the front. Maj. Day talked very plainly and also very forcibly said a few things in a sort of peculiar way. He did not just say that we were cowards, but that was the inference which some of his remarks seemed to imply.”

By 1918, it has been nearly three years since, renewing his subscriptions to the Family Herald and Weekly Star of Montreal, he entered a contest that invited readers to guess “the exact date when the warring nations will sign treaties of peace” and offered as a grand prize the almost unimaginable sum of $1,000.

“I sent in my renewal today with the estimate that the treaties of peace will be signed on the fifteenth day of May 1917,” he had written on the December day in 1915 when he submitted his ballot. “I have calculated that this winter the different battle fronts will remain about where they are at the present time. Next fall the French and British lines will be on the Rhine, where they will remain during the winter of 1917. In the spring of that year another drive will break the German lines about the middle of the summer and the Allies will be marching on Berlin.”

This did not happen. Coming home one day for a nap, he dreams “that the war was over, and that the Nova Scotians had revolted, part of them joining Germany and part Britain, and it ended up by all the New England states becoming annexed to Canada. It is really within the bounds of possibility, time will tell.”

Awake, the war intrudes on his solitude and overwhelms his losses.

“I understand there is a ball this evening in honour of the boys who are going away tomorrow to take training to fight the Germans,” MacMillan writes. “The Germans have made some gains lately. It is said there is a terrible loss on both sides.

“I had a recruiting officer call on me today, wanting to know if I had any notion of going and having a crack at the Germans. I am considerably over age but he thought if I proved otherwise fit I could perhaps pass for some years younger.”

In Toronto, the very week of the Highlanders’ sudden move on Hangard Wood, a just-returned man of arms named Cludernay—“badly crippled,” according to newspaper reports—is asked to leave a Greek-owned restaurant on Yonge Street after allegedly punching a waiter in a boozy quarrel. Word soon spread that the white patriot had, conversely, been the victim of an unprovoked assault by a swarthy alien.

NEARLY $40,000 DAMAGE DONE is the next day’s headline. MOBS WRECK TEN RESTAURANTS.

“Returned soldiers, avenging an attack on a comrade, caused series of raids last night.”

TROOPS COULD NOT ACT AGAINST CIVILIANS

“Even women assisted in that,” notes the Toronto Star.

Meanwhile, baseball is carrying on, despite everything and the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League are clawing their way to the pennant behind a star slugger named Fred (“King”) Lear.

Five months earlier, Toronto’s professional hockey team—not yet named the Maple Leafs; in fact they had no formal name at all—won the Stanley Cup.

That’s right—the pennant and the Cup in the same year.

After four full years of unspeakable sacrifice—hundreds and hundreds of thousands of young men butchered in the lines while the commanders in their châteaux feasted on steak—no one could know that the next hundred days would be the abattoir’s last hundred days, until Adolf Hitler.

“Who’s for the trench—Are you, my laddie?” taunts the female British poet Jessie Pope, urging enlistees to the khaki, to the trenches, to the grave, if it comes to that.

“Who’ll follow French—

“Will you, my laddie?

“Who’s fretting to begin,

“Who’s going out to win?

“And who wants to save his skin—

“Do you, my laddie?”

Let us narrow the field down from four.

Cpl. Herbert (Harry) Gardner Bedford Miner was killed on Aug. 8, 1918—blown apart by grenades after destroying two Germans with his bayonet and putting several others “to flight,” as the official report informs us. He already had won the Croix de Guerre a year earlier, making a total of two fine decorations and the Harry Miner Branch 185 of the Royal Canadian Legion branch in Blenheim, Ont., by which, at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we may remember him.

How and when the endless war would end, Jean Baptiste Arthur Brillant never learned. Lt. Brillant bled to death on the Amiens battlefield on April 9, 1918. He was 28.

“TOMBÉ GLORIEUSEMENT SUR LE SOL DE SES AIEUX,” reads his gravestone in Villers-Brettonneux. “BON SANG NE PEUT MENTIR.”

Good blood cannot lie. Neither, one hopes, can the regimental history of the Vingt-Deuxième, which records the final words of Jean Baptiste Arthur Brillant as these:

“I am through. Take charge of the company. I won’t be here long.”

“They train you to protect yourself,” Kennedy says of his own military career, and of Johnny Croak’s. “It’s just that in his case, he went beyond that. Who can say what he was thinking? I guess he went at the German machine guns because he thought it was the right thing to do. Maybe he’d had enough of being over there.

“We didn’t really have a quarrel with the foe,” he adds softly, impugning, a little, the rote Remembrance Day sanctity of Col. John McCrae’s elegiac call to arms.

At the Glace Bay Legion, there is a hall that is walled with photographs and plaques and tributes to all the soldiers and sailors and airmen who left Cape Breton on the wings of national pride and manly fortitude, and several cherished rosters of those who never made it home.

“Why do we award medals to dead men?” Tom Kennedy is asked.

“It’s not just for the deceased person,” he replies. “It’s for his family, it’s for their memories, eh? It’s so a mother can say, ‘This was my son. He went there. He did his duty.’ ”

The branch president brings out a book of letters and photographs and clippings and testimonials to the gallantry and heroism of John Bernard Croak, VC, of Glace Bay, N.S.

Maybe you have already guessed that Croak was not the one of our four bemedalled lads who made it home alive.

Here is a benediction given by an archbishop at the ceremony in Halifax in 1920 at which the Victoria Cross was presented to the fallen hero’s mother on what this high priest called “a day of celebration; a wonderful day.”

Here is a letter from a chaplain to Croak’s family that states that “death came to him quite suddenly,” which was comforting, but not true.

Here is a newspaper clipping that limns that “Mrs. Croak, probably to whose eyes no other vision is alive now but the sight of her boy dying in France, stood the ordeal of hearing again the details of her boy’s immemorable deed and the speeches in his honour that marked her as the mother of a soldier.”

German novelist Erich Maria Remarque knew why men showed such superhuman courage in the face of horror; he, too, heard the call to sacrifice enfold him in the trenches, waiting for the attack, blanketing him with love, inspiring him to protect his brother warriors at any—yes, any—cost.

These voices, these quiet words, these footsteps in the trench behind me recall me at a bound from the terrible loneliness and fear of death by which I had been almost destroyed. They are more to me than life, these voices, they are more than motherliness and more than fear; they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere; they are the voices of my comrades.

Maybe this is what Johnny Croak felt and heard, that smoky morning in the Hangard Wood—attired, as in Wordsworth’s poem, with sudden brightness. Maybe what fuelled his action was his belief that, as Tom Kennedy says at the Legion hall, “the only way to make the killing stop was to kill the killers.”

Wounded for the second time on Aug. 8, 1918, Croak collapsed and—if the legend is true—as the curtain fell he died in oratory. “If you wish to show your gratitude,” he urged his own desperate Legions, “kneel down and pray for my soul.”

A visitor to the Glace Bay Legion asks if Tom Kennedy truly believes—as advanced in ancient times by Horace, as condemned on the Western Front by English poet Wilfred Owen—that dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland.

“Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir,” he repeats.

“We currently throw the term ‘heroism’ around without much idea of what it means,” says Meghan Fitzpatrick, the scholar of war. “But the Victoria Cross refers to a specific type of courage where service members risk their physical safety in the face of the enemy. I would also point out that many everyday acts of courage on the battlefield go unacknowledged but are no less important.”

Soldiers are not alone in their everyday courage, nor are we in our common cowardice. Both are inside us, waiting. Think of Toronto Const. Ken Lam calmly talking down the rampaging van driver on Yonge Street this past spring. (“He wants the public not to call him a hero. He’s Officer Ken Lam. He’s real. He’s got a name, he’s got a badge. He’s not a hero,” said the city’s deputy chief.) Think of 16-year-old Kyle Howard-Muthulingam diving into Lake Ontario to try to save a mother and child this past August. These acts did not occur in Hangard Wood on the Western Front.

Then consider the trained security guard at the high school in Parkland, Fla., who heard the horrible thunder from within but did not move to confront it.

“Could you have run toward those German machine guns?” Tom Kennedy is asked at the John Bernard Croak branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.

“I’d like to think so,” he answers softly. “I’d like to think that I could.”

“We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm . . . The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts.”

In Glace Bay, Tom Kennedy says that he recently coaxed one young veteran of Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan to attend a Legion function. “It was the first time in six months he left his room in his parents’ basement,” the branch president says. And Kennedy had an uncle whose nightmares of the Battle of Ortona in 1943 were so horrible and persistent that he twice was taken to be “cured” by electric shock. But the cure failed.

Knowing all this, we consider the Canadian hero who did come home.

Joyce Carmichael, age 91, lives on a quiet crescent in Bathurst, N.B. She is the daughter of the younger brother of Cpl. Herman James Good, VC, of the Black Watch, one living link in the bloodied chain of Canadian history. Her own husband fought for Canada in the Second World War, but he made it home and together they raised five children.

A photo of Herman Good about 40 years after the war, now in niece Joyce Carmichael’s album. (Joyce Carmichael)

Good was discharged from military service in 1919 and returned to New Brunswick to serve as a game warden, a husband and a dad. His medical chart, displayed in the museum of the Herman Good Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion in Bathurst, notes that he left the most tragic episode in human history—up to that time, at least—with nothing worse than a scar on his right knee.

In a nearby exhibit case is preserved the sheet music for a popular song of 1918 entitled, If I Am Not at the Roll Call, Kiss Mother Goodbye for Me. Herman Good’s mother got to kiss her son hello.

As a girl, Joyce Carmichael recalls, she was her uncle’s favourite—the only one of his numerous clan whom he allowed to touch the medal that he had relegated to an untidy drawer. “He never pushed himself anywhere,” she says. “When they invited him to do things, he backed out.”

If the war ruined Herman Good, VC, his niece says he never let it show. If the medal ennobled him, he abjured the distinction.

No living person knows what really happened on those August days in Picardy to earn tributes for some men, death for others, and both for far too many. The Good-Carmichael family once heard someone say that Herman had seen his own brother killed before his eyes; that he had to step over his brother’s body in his dash toward the German guns.

Maybe this is true. Maybe it isn’t. What is true is that Herman Good survived the Great War but that Johnny Croak and Harry Miner and Jean Brillant did not. Yet Good lost a brother, and later an infant son, and he died in 1969 a widower, keeping inside him the private pain that all of us must endure in our lives, even the public hero.

“There’s lots of people who spend their lives helping others, and they never got the Victoria Cross,” Joyce Carmichael says.

“Do you think we will ever see the end of war?” she is asked.

“I wish we didn’t have wars,” she replies. “But if somebody else starts something, the Canadians will jump in. That’s what we always do.”