"An entire city standing shocked on the street with open newspapers..."
Manuscript notes: Chapter written 9/25/97, Kansas City, MO. Margin notes include, "Morning."
The front page of the Ottawa Citizen was crowded with reports of the battle, the names and addresses of the Ottawa casualties listed down the right hand side, including Ollie Paynter, Fred Sparks, Fred Thomas, Billy Waller, and Alexander Fraser. A rumor had emerged in Ottawa that the well-known former hockey star Frank McGee had also been killed. A heart-breaking article quoted D'Arcy McGee as saying, "As far as we know, Frank is alive and well." He mentions Frank's letter received on the 5th of September. One can only imagine the pain and suffering the McGee family endured those few days, awaiting word. In researching this book, I found that eighty years later the family still did not really know what had happened. But in my investigation in the Ottawa Archives as well as during my trip to France, I arrived at a compelling, albeit circumstantial determination of what had occurred.
It was surprising that none of the contemporary family members knew what had become of Frank McGee. None knew how he was killed, or where he was buried. There are reasons for this. He died a bachelor, leaving no family. He was also killed in the war, and I found that families of Great War casualties tended not to discuss what had happened. This seemed particularly true of the McGee family. I contacted several nieces and nephews of the Ottawa star, including ninety-year-old T. D'Arcy McGee in British Columbia, the son of Frank's brother D'Arcy. I felt that since his father was the oldest brother as well as a lawyer, he might be in possession of the medals that would have been awarded to his younger brother. But he did not have them, nor knew where they might be. He could offer me virtually no information on Frank, and when asked, told me his father had seldom mentioned him.
A niece, Joan Campbell of Montreal, could add little. The most informed nephew was the son of Walter McGee, a man named for his slain uncles, the Honorable Frank Charles McGee of Toronto. A retired federal judge, McGee was an eloquent, gregarious man with a taste for whiskey. When I visited him in his Spadina Road apartment in Toronto, he eyed his wife as she excused herself to go to bed and then, when she had left the room, jumped up and said, "Good, now we can drink." Pulling a bottle of Chivas Regal from the cupboard, we talked long about his famous uncle.
Two-eyed Frank, as I fondly referred to him, also knew nothing of what had happened to his name-sake. But he was intensely interested, and showed me his fathers momentos of the war, as well as the scrapbook of his military unit. And he told me something important for any researcher. I had his father's military record, which stated that he had been shot through the right shoulder at the battle of the Somme. Frank told me, however, that he knew for certain that his father had been shot through his left shoulder. "I remember the scar clearly." So even official records can be suspect... I left Frank McGee promising to find what I could of his famous uncle's demise.
NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND
Anatomy of a "call":
"'My poem where's my poem!' I yelled at McGee..."
Manuscript notes: This chapter written on Super Bowl Sunday, 1/24/97, in Long Prairie, MN. Margin notes include, "Super Bowl Day - New England 21, Green Bay 35", and "End Act One."
...and I found what happened to Frank McGee. From my article Killing Frank McGee:
"...I walked the Courcelette battlefield in August, 1996. Standing at the Courcelette British Cemetery, resting at what was approximately the Canadian jumping-off trenches, the most striking feature of the long, rolling landscape is the complete openness of the area. Attacking entrenched machine gun positions from here was nothing short of suicidal, yet the Canadians did so...I try to imagine what occurred here, my research uncovering accounts such as this from survivor Thomas Trembley, "if hell is as bad as what I have seen at Courcelette, I would not wish my worst enemy to go there." An Englishman related, "we went up to relieve the Canadians. We'd never seen anything like it. Going up through this area it was just as if an earthquake had been there. It was all mud and I was frightened to death. Signboard in the rubble, 'Pozieres,' that's all there was to tell us where we were." Another Austrian youngster, destined to be wounded on the Somme in October, would later describe his impression of the battlefield in his book Mein Kampf, "...a whirlwind of drumfire that lasted for weeks...it was more like hell than war." A soldier of the 17th Bavarian Regiment wrote, "We are now fighting on the Somme with the English. You can no longer call it war. It is mere murder. All my previous experiences in this war, the slaughter at Ypres and the battle in the gravel-pit at Hulluch, are the purest child's play compared with this massacre, and that is much too mild a description...we are in a very bad way."
"I am disappointed to find that Frank McGee is not among the register of names of those interred at the Corcelette British Cemetery, though 1,177 of the more than 2000 graves contain unknown soldiers. I learn that fallen officers of this battle were removed and interred at the Bapaume Post Military Cemetery outside of Albert, but find he does not lie there, either. I search the registers of other cemeteries in the area...all to no avail. I return from France unable to say exactly how or where Frank McGee fell.
"Once home, however, there is a break. The 'War Diaries' are the written day-to-day accounts for each Division. In the 21st's diary, located in the Ottawa Archives, the course of the battle is recorded, how tanks were used for the first time, how the boys 'jumped the bags' and engaged in a horrific hand-to-hand struggle in attaining their objectives and then repulsing wave after wave of German counterattacks before enduring he worst of all Great War experiences, intense shelling. Also found in the diary is a specific mention of Frank McGee on the day he died.
"On the 16th the diary states, "At 11:00 a.m. Lieut. McGee reported to Battalion H.Q. with 50 O.R. who had been engaged on various other duties and proceeded from there to Sugar Factory line." This is an amazing discovery, considering we are searching for the fate of one of eleven million souls lost in that war. To have him mentioned in dispatches on the day he died is nothing short of miraculous. It locates him at the Sugar Factory about noontime, and suggests other details of his last hours. Almost certainly he did not participate in the assault on the previous day, his knee discouraging that. Once the 21st had lost most of its officers in the advance, however, bad knee or not he was needed up front. That he "reported to Battalion H.Q. with 50 O.R." confirms he was behind the attacking lines. But as exciting and important as this discovery is, it merely locates him at this time of death, it does not explain it. It would take one last trip to Ottawa to determine that.
"In October I returned to Ottawa, staying at McGee's Inn...at the Archives I receive the three fighting McGee's military records, and return to Sandy Hill to study them. Appropriately enough, I stroll two blocks from McGee's to an Irish tavern, and, sitting at the bar with a Guinness in front of me, I open Frank McGee's file and immediately see the words that end my quest: "Body unrecovered for burial."
"After the Great War ended, it took years to locate and bury the dead on the Somme battlefield. Over seven hundred bodies were discovered in 1935 alone. On memorials in France are listed over 220,000 men with no known grave; in the cemeteries are buried only 110,000 unknown soldiers. Considering the pains to which officers were located and removed from the field of battle while those serving under them were left, it becomes apparent that Frank McGee has died in the most feared manner possible to a Great War participant - he has died by shellfire. Not only has he died by shellfire, he has simply disappeared, suggesting, in a final, brutal analysis, that Frank McGee was disintegrated. Probably the best insight into his last moments on earth can be gained from this Frenchman's description of shellfire: "when one heard the whistle in the distance, ones whole body contracted to resist the vibrations of explosion, even the most solid nerves cannot resist for long, the moment arrives when blood mounts to the head and where nerves, exhausted, become incapable of reacting. Finally one gives in to it, has no longer strength to even cover oneself and scarcely strength to pray to God - to be killed by bullet is nothing, to be dismembered, torn to pieces, reduced to pulp is fear flesh cannot support - it is the greatest possible suffering."
Eighty years later, sitting with Walter McGee's son in is Spadina Road apartment in Toronto, I ask what his father told him of the war. Frank McGee's nephew and namesake shrugs and says, "He would never talk of the war."
Months later, I sent Frank McGee a copy of the manuscript. I waited a few days, and then gave him a call to see what he thought. "I have terminal cancer, I'll be gone within a month," the man said to me. "God bless you, it's a wonderful piece of writing...(incoherent)...Sandy Hill...my father would never bullshit you...that war part..." And he hung up.
Frank called me back the next morning. "I just wanted to tell you it was the drugs talking last night. They've got me on morphine. That's it." And he hung up.
NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND
Don, the printer has given me a printing date for your book of 30 April 2001. Can you advise how many books you would like shipped to you?