As soldiers were being shot all around and many were frozen with fear, one of the men — a bagpiper — hopped onto the front line.
The First World War Canadian soldier walked back and forth in front of the German troops, not with a rifle in his hand, but with his bagpipe to his lips, playing a loud tune, cutting through the noise of the battlefield, as German’s took shots at him.
It was enough to stir the troops into action and earn the soldier a Victory Cross, posthumously. The soldier survived his walk, but later disappeared on the battlefield.
Red Deer history buff Ron Sotnikow shared this and many other stories with École Lacombe Junior High School students recently. He showed them a rubbing he had made from the gravestone of the heroic bagpiper, as well as famous poet John McCrae, who wrote In Flanders Fields, and a 14-year-old killed as a soldier in battle
The students listened as he told about troops peeing into their handkerchiefs to cut through the mustard gas thrown at them and the conditions in the trenches, with men sinking to their waists or further in the mud and horses becoming so badly stuck that they had to be shot to put them out of their misery.
Sotnikow passed around shrapnel, old shells and a fuse he found while visiting the battlefield at Adanac Cemetery in Courcelette in France, with his wife. He also had a First World War helmet that would have been worn by Canadian troops and another that was reminiscent of Darth Vader’s helmet that was worn by Germans.
“I hope they take a lot deeper appreciation of veterans and on Remembrance Day they do remember something,” Sotnikow said. “They are here in a free country because of the suffering and everything the men went through.”
Sotnikow has always been interested in military history, but his interest was piqued around a decade ago after reading a book on the First World War. Since then, he has read many more books on the battles and the soldiers who fought them and even visited some of the sites in Europe.
Betty MacKenzie, one of the social studies teachers at the school, said Sotnikow spoke with such passion and authority that he drew the students into his talk.
“They were spellbound. The only time there was a ripple in the class is when they were passing the helmet around to try it on,” MacKenzie said. “He didn’t sugar-coat the stories either. He told it as it was in some gory detail and they found it fascinating.”