On Remembrance Day, amid all the photos posted on social media of grandfathers who fought in the wars, I would like to honour my grandfather, the deserter. He held some sort of minor rank in the Russian army that allowed him to see early that the Czar was sending troops out horribly under-equipped for war. He sent his men home and fled the country with a price on his head.
Remember that scene in Dr. Zhivago? It’s just drama, of course, but somewhere in there is a story like my grandfather’s.
Twice now I have seen a TV show about ancestry with interviews of famous people who were ashamed to find out their forefathers chose not to join “the Patriots” who won the violent conflict that established the direction their nation took. Instead their great great great grandpappies (or their surviving families) also fled to Canada. The famous peoples’ reactions upon discovering this news puzzled me. In Canada their forefathers’ choices are not a source of shame. They are called United Empire Loyalists. In Canada they are heroes, ancestors who are honoured, not sources of embarrassment.
That’s the way it is with war. Often you can’t tell heroes from villains, loyalists from rebels, patriots from deserters, until the history books are written, and even then it depends on who writes them.
Grandfather’s son grew up to fight in WWII in the Netherlands. Uncle was overwhelmed by their genuine expressions of gratitude when he visited Europe 40 years later. He knew he had done the right thing.
Sometimes courage is fighting for the King or for the President, and sometimes courage is laying down your arms in the midst of a stupid, pointless conflict and dismissing your men, even if it means risking standing in front of a firing squad yourself. The man in the photo spent the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, but he also knew he had done the right thing.
Thank you, Grandfather.