It’s not particularly attractive, nor is it the kind of thing that you’d want to have in your pocket even though it’s called a “pocket” knife.
It is rather large and heavy, with a black outer coating that always seem to have a slightly musty tobacco smell. Probably because my grandfather stored in his drawer along with his pipe tobacco.
It was the only thing that he had left from his First World War infantry days and, a few years before he died, he gave it to me.
Over the years, I have lost and found this knife over a dozen times but, every time I find it after losing it, a number of things told to me by my grandfather drift through my mind. Oddly enough, very few of these thoughts are about the war but rather about another killer, even more deadly, that stalked the world just as the First World War was coming to a close.
I remember asking my grandfather about his role in the Great War. Upon finding out that he only had to go to training camp in London, Ont., and then was excused due to “farm leave,” I commented upon the fact he was lucky he did not have to face death in Europe.
He nodded his head slowly, a grim look came upon his face and his normally pleasant face turned ashen as he looked me and said, “Well I may not have been at Vimy Ridge but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t look death in the face on more than one occasion.”
It was then that for the first time in my young life that I heard about the virus that has been described as “the worst infectious pandemic in history.” It was called the Spanish flu or sometimes “The Purple Death” because of the colour of the victims as their oxygen was slowly cut off.
In 2020, this has a new and more meaningful impact upon me than when I heard my grandfather tell his story for the first time.
It is believed this deadly virus was a unique mutation that evolved in American pigs and was spread around the world by U.S. troops mobilized for the First World War. The disease spread quickly and without stop due to the fact that it was a “new” disease, meaning it had not been seen in the 70 to 80 years preceding the outbreak and, as a result, there was little protective natural immunity.
My grandfather, living in the Windsor/Essex area as a teen, first came into contact with the killer on Oct. 12, 1918, when the Border Cities Star announced the city had its first death. It was a 19-year-old store clerk by the name of Irene Graham who had moved to Windsor from neighbouring Sandwich two days before.
By the time Nov. 11 arrived, our area was celebrating not only the end of the war but the fact that “The Purple Death” was slowly abating. It was during this horrible month that my grandfather recounted to me that he would do his own farm chores and then move on to other farms in the neighbourhood. He was there to do the chores for families who had their daughters and sons suffering with the flu or had lost loved ones in the war that was supposed “to end all wars.” Some families had experienced the loss of a loved one to the deadly virus that primarily stalked only the young – people in their teenage years to their early 30s.
Living in that time, within one’s own home and neighbourhood, must have been as frightening as being on the front lines in any foreign faraway land during heavy shelling.
By Nov. 23, a total of 126 people had died in six weeks in the Windsor area. Other areas in Canada did much worse. Out of every 100,000 people, 326 died in London and 327 died in Toronto, while the rate was 489 in Montreal, 644 in Kingston, and 744 in Winnipeg. In Philadelphia alone, more than 12,000 people died.
In Chatham-Kent, it was estimated that around 75 people died from the virus.
Overall, some 50,000 Canadians died in the winter of 1918-19 and a full one-third of the world’s population had been infected and 20-million to 40-million people died. That’s more than the First World War (9.2-million soldiers killed), Second World War (15.9 -million soldier killed), bubonic plague (20 to 25 million) or AIDS (12 million).
The swine flu of 1918-19 killed more people than any other disease, war or famine in history. We will have to wait and see what the total losses will be from the current COVID-19 outbreak throughout the world.
A devastating war with the loss of loved ones thousands of miles away was just drawing to a close and then, just when you think the worst is over, to have a silent killer stalk you in your very home must have been the ultimate in horror.
It is also the reason why whenever I look at my grandfather’s old black pocket knife, as I try and do each year as Nov. 11 draws near (and as I will once again on Wednesday), I reflect upon the horrors my grandfather must have experienced living through the First World War and those that he personally faced in the deadly winter of 1918-19 on the home front.
I also take a few quiet moments to silently thank God that I have never had to experience such pain, suffering and fear in my own life.
We should all be so lucky to have such reminders that put life into a clear perspective for us once in awhile. It tends to make one’s everyday problems, trials and tribulations seem so absolutely trivial. I also think that, to a certain extent, our battle with COVID-19 is having the same impact.
The Gilberts are award-winning historians with a passion for telling the stories of C-K’s fascinating past.