By Wes Cross
Fred Fisher was a long way from home. It was April 22, 1915, and the 19-year-old lance corporal lay alone in the blasted masonry and mud in the Ypres Salient. His 60-man unit had been sent to plug a gap in the defensive line created when the first gas attack was unleashed on the Western Front in Belgium. Soon Fisher was the only one left, wrestling with a balky Colt machine gun that normally required a four-person team to operate. Somehow he held off successive German attacks, buying valuable time for troops immediately behind his position. During a brief respite in the private hell that was his corner of the battlefield, he was able to make his way back to safety. The next day, in similar circumstances, Fisher was killed defending another portion of the line. The McGill engineering student was posthumously awarded Canada’s first Great War Victoria Cross for valour.
Just a few hundred metres away, McGill surgeon Frank Scrimger worked from a rear medical station tending to wounds and the effects of gas on a steady stream of Canadian, French and Algerian soldiers. When the situation became untenable due to the intensified fighting in the area of the ominously named Shelltrap Farm, the station had to be withdrawn further to the rear. Scrimger, however, chose to move to a more forward medical station to better provide care. Over the next three days, he saved a number of lives, directing casualty parties and providing medical assistance in the midst of the frontline carnage. For his devotion to the wounded, he received Canada’s second Great War Victoria Cross. Scrimger survived the war and went on to become head of surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
These two stories, once familiar to all in the McGill community, now seem as stark new reporting to most. How is it that the names, stories and lessons of conflict as massive as the Great War have come to lapse into the distant shadows of memory?
McGill made tremendous contributions in the effort to end the Great War both in terms of active duty and research. By the end of hostilities, more than 3,000 McGill men and women had enlisted, 791 medals and citations had been awarded, and 363 had lost their lives. The commitment was complete – the Faculty of Agriculture, in existence for only seven years at the outset of war, reported that 183 students and 76 staff members had enlisted. The Faculty of Medicine was accorded special recognition for their contribution: the No. 3 General Hospital (McGill) tended to more than 100,000 patients in Europe over four years.
During the postwar periods after the Great War and the World War that followed 20 years later, memorials were built and names were recorded on both McGill campuses with the hope that memories would be perpetuated. Some elements of present day McGill reflect this effort. The Sports Centre Gymnasium and Memorial Pool, and commemorative plaques in other buildings, are still evident, even though their genesis may be a mystery to most. The McGill University Archives has steadfastly maintained an array of records and artifacts through the years. Most telling, however, is the anonymity and condition of Memorial Hall on Pine Avenue. Funded by a grateful McGill community and once the centre of McGill Remembrance activities, it now lies unused and unknown. The annual Memorial Address which once featured prominent speakers such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Louis St. Laurent is no more.
In the wake of the massive casualties sustained, the people who came of age during the Great War were known as “the Lost Generation.” McGill was to lose a further 298 lives in World War II (including Scrimger’s only son).
Since then, McGill has continued to contribute its finest individuals to help resolve conflicts in Kosovo, Eritrea, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The historical controversies and arguments of war are best left to the historians and philosophers. The stories of individual sacrifice and contribution deserve to be preserved, so they can outlast the uncertainty of collective memory.
As a community, McGill should never forget them. We must take the time to recognize the sacrifice of McGill’s own Lost Generation and the contributions of those who followed so that McGill will always remember.
Wes Cross is an administrator in Student Services and along with Professor Christopher Milligan of the Faculty of Education, is a co-founder of the McGill Remembers Project: www.mcgillremembers.mcgill.ca/