Will Knifton v the Kaiser (Round 3)

My Grandfather Will, as we have already seen, spent approximately two years four months in a Canadian Army at war. At the end of the conflict, an officer stood at the front of the men on parade, and made a speech about what would happen when they all returned home. With his optimistic words, delivered no doubt in all sincerity by this upper class young man, Will became one of an unknown but enormous number of soldiers who, in 1919, were promised “a home fit for heroes”. Politicians were quick to jump on the bandwagon, of course:

In actual fact, before his return, Will was already very cynical about whether he would receive his just rewards for fighting in the war. Indeed, after just a short time back home in England, he became certain that he was destined never to be given what was due to him. These were the days, of course, when injured ex-soldiers would beg in the streets, unable to find employment. It affected both the victors and the vanquished:

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Overall, Will had very little time for high ranking officers. He did not like the way that they refused to visit the front line with its ever present smell of rotting corpses, but preferred instead to stay in the palatial comfort of country houses miles behind the fighting troops:

As a boy, I remember him telling me never ever to buy a poppy for the Haig Fund because he hated Earl Haig so much. He thought that Haig had no regard whatsoever for the casualties among his men, and that he did not care a jot about their eventual, and dismal, fate. Thank God that Will had no access to the Internet and never found out that Haig was Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, KT, GCB, OM, GCVO, KCIE. Will did not realise either that Haig’s wife, Maud, was a maid of honour to Queen Alexandra, wife of King George V, and that that, supposedly, was how he got his job, in charge of the armies of the British Empire. Years before, in 1905, Haig had put his hat in the ring for a plum job at the War Office but his efforts had all been in vain because he was accused of “too blatantly relying on royal influence”.  (Groot). Here are Queen Alexandra and her daughters at “Maud’s wedding”:

For Will and a very large number of his fellow soldiers, the establishment of Haig’s post-war charity was merely a means for a guilty butcher to salve his blood soaked conscience:

Instead, Will urged me to give any money I had to the Salvation Army, who had always been on hand, ready and willing to help the ordinary soldier.

One final tale. In later years, Will told me how, in the Great War, Gurkhas were sent out at night, to make their way over to the German trenches and to kill as many of the enemy as possible. The Gurkhas were paid one shilling for every German’s right ear that they brought back, threading them carefully onto a piece of wire carried on the front of their chest. The problem was, however, that the Gurkhas were extremely efficient and brought back so many ears that the whole process became a very expensive one, so expensive, in actual fact, that it was discontinued. Fierce little chaps. Every time they get their kukris out they must draw blood, even if it is their own:

The senior officers also seem to have considered it vaguely disquieting to kill the enemy in this very direct, but rather brutal, or even unsporting, way.


Filed under Canada, France, History, Personal, Politics

21 responses to “Will Knifton v the Kaiser (Round 3)

    • Indeed. It was also a good thing for me that I was able to talk directly to somebody who was actually there. In schools, they are always recommending “primary sources” and Will was certainly one of those!

  1. Peter Harwood

    I always enjoy your articles John, the stuff that they don’t tell you in the history books. Thanks.

    • Thank you very much. I still feel quite humble that the feelings and opinions of my Grandfather, born nearly 130 years ago, should be read by people today, and in so many places around the world.

  2. Great story, John. My Dad would have agreed to give money to the Salvation Army. He said everyone raved about the Red Cross, but he couldn’t see it. I can understand Will not liking officers staying back in the safe reserve area!!

    • I get the impression that at three o’clock on a freezing night, it was always the Salvation Army who were there to help. Our Church of England padres were famous for the way they blotted their copybook before big attacks with sentiments such as “Good luck, lads, I’ll see you when you get back”.
      I’ve just been reading a book about the Schweinfurt raid where Curtis LeMay went with the bombers and shared all of the considerable risks that they took. That’s the attitude for a commander to have.

      • Gen. LeMay was often a controversial figure for his ideas and methods, but he succeeded – and only a fool argues with success, IMO. (I know his commanding from the CBI Theater and I agree, one of the best!)

    • Thank you. My Grandad certainly saw a lot of dramatic things in his lifetime. I wish I had had the sense to ask him about more of them, and in greater depth. Hopefully, one day I may have the chance!

  3. Whenever the generals and senior ranks of the army in the First World War are talked about I think about ‘Black Adder’. To the soldier in the street (or Trench) , it probably wasn’t far off truthful!

    • I think you are right there! The war was so badly conducted on so may occasions that the upper classes began to lose their aura as far as ordinary men were concerned. They began to see them for what they were. That is the reason that Western Europe took a wild lurch to the left politically with red flags flying over British town halls, troops refusing to fight the Bolsheviks after WW1 finished and huge Communist parties in France and Germany. Our aristocrats were very lucky to survive and of course, most of the ones in Europe didn’t. This took me twenty seconds to find on google. It’s quite interesting.

      • That’s incredible. I knew things were bad and that the ‘higher ups’ were held with little regard, but I didn’t realise just how far it all went. No wonder it was all covered up, the number of protests and shootings were incredible, and the treatment of soldiers just appalling! Thanks for the link, it’s a real eye opener!

  4. Usafe1975

    Interesting story

  5. Chris Waller

    I can well understand your grandfather’s cynicism. My own grandfather, after the war, lived in a two-up-two-down terraced house with my grandmother and their three sons, his sister-in-law and her daughter and my grandmother’s parents. In 1926 when he went on strike in support of the miners he was called a communist, fifth columnist and traitor. The gratitude for the sacrifices of that generation did not last long.

    • It certainly did not, and I hope, probably vainly, that when the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day comes along, we are not told that all these sacrifices were made for the sake of “democracy”. As far as I can see, in 1914, 40% of males could not vote and 100% of women could not vote either. And nobody under 21 could vote, of course. I often wonder what WW1 was fought for. It always seems a gigantic con trick to me and my only idea is that they were fighting for the status quo, the British Empire as No 1.

  6. Chris Waller

    How was it that your grandfather was fighting in the Canadian Army?

    • He and his brother, John, emigrated to Canada sometime around 1905 and lived in Toronto. My Grandad joined the Canadian Army in 1916 and then expected to go back to Canada with his new wife in 1919. He planned to live in Muskoka Falls. She wouldn’t leave her family in Woodville though, so he never returned to Canada.
      I wrote about this time in a blog called “Off to the Great War (Part One)” which has a link to the prequel in it. Part Two is at

  7. Chris Waller

    That’s very interesting. The effects of war continue to reverberate like echoes far beyond the more obvious events. People’s lives are disrupted in unforeseeable ways. My paternal grandfather’s younger brother Arthur emigrated to Canada around 1911 at the age of 16 hoping to farm. In 1917 he was conscripted into the Canadian army to fight on the Western Front. My grandfather’s elder brother William joined the Royal Marines in 1906 as a cadet. William was wounded in the Mesopotamia campaign and invalided out in 1919. By 1921 Arthur was driving streetcars in Toronto so his dream of farming the Canadian prairies had obviously come to nought.

  8. I have read about the Gurkhas. And it is so tragic to see soldiers begging. And I have also read about soldiers finding it very difficult to adjust to life after the wars. So many innocent people.

  9. In England, there was a recent row about the fact that Gurkhas were spending their whole lives fighting for England but then when they were old, they weren’t allowed to live here. Thankfully, the law was changed to let them come to England. I’m very sad to hear of ex-soldiers begging but not surprised. Once they have finished risking their lives for their fellow citizens, they are often very much neglected.

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