War, in Peace

War, in Peace

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

War, in Peace

One of the most valuable things we can do to heal another is to listen to other’s stories.

Rebecca Falls

I first met Percy Hopkins of Calgary in April 1977, as he was getting off an Air Canada jet in Paris’s Orly Airport. He was tired, as were the other twenty-four Canadian veterans of the Battle of Vimy Ridge who were setting foot, once more, on French soil. This return visit to France was a federal government–sponsored pilgrimage to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of that famous World War I engagement.

I felt lucky to be chosen by the Department of Veterans Affairs to accompany this group of “reluctant heroes,” since they did indeed require assistance throughout this visit. Their average age was eighty-two.

Once safely aboard a hired tour bus, Percy Hopkins and I shared the front seat. Our group of bemedaled Canadians was transported north from Paris to our hotel in the town of Arras, some ten to twelve kilometres from the site of the famous Canadian battle at Vimy Ridge.

Percy Hopkins was using crutches. He had only one leg.

It didn’t take too long before curiosity got the best of me and I asked him if this was the result of “his” war. It was.

Percy insisted I call him Hoppy, the nickname all his friends used; the name he had worn ever since his wartime service.

It wasn’t long before Hoppy told me the whole story about the day in which he gave so much and lost so much. He vividly described how the infantry tactic employed by the British Army using three waves of attack was taught to the Canadians. This included his unit—the Tenth Battalion of the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade.

“Which wave were you assigned to Hoppy?” I asked.

“The first,” he replied.

As he continued his recollections, I felt I was becoming privy to a part of his life that even his own family was not aware of.

“One of the nurses in the field hospital where I was treated,” he said, “told me I lost my leg in a battle that took place in a valley outside a village which she called, of all things, ‘Peace.’”

Hoppy asked me if I knew where this village was, but I didn’t. He really wanted to go back there. He thought his final pilgrimage to France would be complete if, one more time, he could see the spot where he had lost his leg and his war had ended.

As he talked, Hoppy recalled the sleepless night before the engagement, the early issue of the rum tot and the last-minute instructions from platoon corporals and company sergeants.

He recalled how when the whistles blew at 5:05 A.M., he went “over the top” with his Lee Enfield rifle, firing in the general direction of the enemy. He told me he was crying, laughing, praying and firing his gun all at the same time. The world was exploding around him, and heavy artillery barrages took out many of his friends. Machine gun bullets whistled past close to his ears. Hoppy continued running forward, closer and closer to the centre of a narrow valley where there was no cover and in which he and his comrades were exposed to a horrendous bombardment from an unseen enemy. This was the first wave.

Then it happened. He was hit.

Momentum caused him to fall forward, face down in the weeds and mud. He tried to get up and continue. But he couldn’t.

He soon realized his leg had been blown off between the knee and the hip. As he slowly drifted into merciful unconsciousness, Hoppy Hopkins’s last vision was that of an odd-shaped steeple of a village church just over the top of the sloping hill in front of him.

The sounds of war, the flashes of artillery fire and the pungent smell of cordite all disappeared from the senses of young Hoppy Hopkins.

Some long hours later, he awoke in a field hospital, tended by a surgeon and a nurse. It was then that the nurse told him she thought the location of the battle was just outside the French village of Peace.

Three days after our long chat, the entire Canadian delegation breakfasted together. While preparing to board the bus for a scheduled visit to Beaumont Hamel, the memorial to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Hoppy felt a bit under the weather. After examining him, our doctor suggested he remain behind and not participate in the scheduled events for that day. As a conducting officer, I was detailed to stay with Hoppy in case he needed help— or, if he later felt better, to drive him to rejoin the tour.

Within a couple of hours, Hoppy felt better—and guilty about missing the day’s events. At his insistence, we climbed into our rented car, and with a Michelin map of Northern France set off like a pair of Canadian tourists in an attempt to catch up to the rest of the group.

No sooner had we agreed upon the best route to the memorial at Beaumont Hamel than we arrived at a construction detour in the highway. Not knowing which alternate route our tour bus had taken earlier, we made our choice and headed east. The numbers of sheep, cows and livestock we encountered along the way attested to the fact that this was definitely not a major highway.

As we travelled through the picturesque countryside of France, we were silent as we enjoyed the sights. Besides, driving this twisting, winding highway was taking all of my attention.

As we topped a small hill, Hoppy yelled, “Stop! This is it!”

“This is what?” I asked, as I pulled over and stopped.

“This is where I lost my leg,” said Hoppy. Taking his crutches from the back seat, he exited the car, crossed the ditch and ducked under a snake fence surrounding an overgrown hay field. When I caught up to him, we proceeded to a point some 100 metres from the road, down a hill and into a small valley.

Then he stopped.

“This is it,” he said. “This is the spot where I caught it.”

There was nothing else he needed to say. He became silent.

I felt like an intruder in this private pilgrimage to a hallowed spot, so I retreated the short distance to the car. Before too very long, his solitary vigil completed, Hoppy returned, and still in silence, we both took our last look over this small, tranquil valley with so much history.

It was then that Hoppy gasped, “Look! Look up there on the horizon, just over that hill!”

Sure enough, there was the odd-shaped steeple of the village church, the last visual memory of Hoppy Hopkins before he lost consciousness that day, some sixty years ago—the very steeple he had described to me on the day of his arrival in France.

Back in the car, we proceeded down the hill, across the valley and up the rise leading into the village. As we reached the top of the hill opposite us, Hoppy and I both gasped at once. There on the side of the road was a sign announcing our entry into the village of “PYS.”

The nurse in the field hospital had indeed been correct. And Hoppy’s years had not betrayed him. His aging memory had served him well.

Call it coincidence, or call it fate. It had taken sixty years, but Hoppy Hopkins had finally completed his pilgrimage and returned to his village called Peace.

Vern Murphy
Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

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