By Jill Northan, PRBN Staff
“The thing is, you know, I’ve thought about this lots of times. You can tell people. You can see shows about war. And you can hear other people talk about it. But you cannot put into words or pictures what you felt. You can’t tell (any)body what you felt. That’s why there’s a bond between service men.”
Harold Neumann pauses for a quiet moment in his reminiscing about his experiences in WW II. Those words probably sum up his feelings more than any thing else said.
Harold was born in Kiel, in northern Germany, in 1921. His brother, Hans and Hans’ twin sister, Greta, were born there in 1923.
Like many Germans at that time, Ewald, their father, choose to move his family to Canada. He came first in 1929 and his wife Karoline and the children followed shortly afterward.
After living in southern Alberta, the family moved again in the winter of 1930-31, this time to homestead south of Pouce Coupe.
Despite his wanting to join at the beginning of the war, Harold’s German heritage delayed his acceptance into the armed forces.
On the first occasion of his trying to enlist, he and a group of young men from Dawson Creek and Pouce Coupe applied together. The other group members were accepted. Harold was not. He tried two more times and was rejected. On June 11, 1942, after receiving a letter of conscription, he was accepted.
Harold took his basic training in Brandon, Manitoba. After he was tested, his training continued in Canada and then England and when he was sent into the fighting theatre as a replacement in the 4th Field Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery, he was a signalman.
A signalman is usually in front of the infantry coordinating targets for the artillery.
His brother, Hans, joined in Calgary at the age of 21. It was in early 1943. He joined because Harold had.
Like Harold, Hans wanted to go into the artillery but they wouldn’t take him. He was too light, weighing a mere 115 pounds in those days They put him in the service corps and told him that if he gained weight he could join the artillery.
Hans took two months basic training and then four months advanced training in Farnborough near Aldershot in southern England as a reinforcement to the Calgary Highlanders at the front lines.
While Harold saw action from Normandy right through to the end of the war, Hans fought in northern France. Both were in Germany when it surrendered.
The battle at Hochwald Forest, Germany, was imprinted into both brothers’ memories for several reasons.
Harold, who was separated from his outfit with two other signalmen, says of himself and his brother, “Without knowing it, we were lost in the same place. There were guys laying around like cord-wood. People killed on both sides.”
Interrupting his brother, Hans explains his own experience with his unit as it was, for him, the most miserable time of his enlistment.
“We got lost. We had had supper about four o’clock the day before and travelled all night. It was the officers’ fault. We ran into the American line. We were suppose to be on the left. Instead, we went to the right too far. We didn’t know where we were and the mud…” he indicates about 20 centimetres. “There was that much mud and we walked through it all night. Wet. And you kept your clothes on, too. Cold. Your uniform got dirty.”
Hans and the men he was with spent 22 days in Hochwald with persistent shelling all around them and hard-tack as their only rations.
When they finally marched out, the tops of all the trees were blown off.
And it was in the Hochwald Forest that Hans was wounded by shrapnel in both arms and his neck. He still carries pieces of it today.
It is Harold’s turn to interrupt as he remembers the mud that followed him to France.
“Our battery command post was under water. We were sloshing around in there. And then you dug a hole and went to sleep when you could and when you woke up, you were under water. It’s true! And the mud there, you wouldn’t believe it. It’s like glue.”
Hans is now able to laugh at his most frightening experience of the war.
“The time I was most scared? I was standing guard one night in the trench. And I heard something coming back. It was dark. It came right up through the trench. I looked but I couldn’t holler. I couldn’t do nothing. I was too scared. I was in a cold sweat. And then the searchlight came on. And there was a darn hare!”
Harold admits to being apprehensive at times. “On edge because someone was shooting at you but not scared. You hadn’t time to get scared. You were too busy digging holes and trying to save your life.”
A chuckle jiggles Harold’s grandfatherly tummy.
“One time, I was supposed to go on guard duty so I dug this great big slit trench and I thought, ‘That’ll be a good place to dive into just in case.’ And these other guys, they were laughing at me as I was digging. I thought, Oh, that’s all right.’ Sure enough, I was on guard and they started throwing shells at us. I dove into the slit trench right on top of these guys that were laughing at me. They were all in there!”
Referring to his position as a signalman, Harold went on. “They’d never shoot at us with rifles. They’d try and get us with shell fire. You see, once they’ve knocked communications out, they’d have it made. And that’s what they’d do. As soon as they spotted us, they’d start shelling.”
Individual memories rush from the brothers as they sit in Harold’s living-room.
Hans, “What I hated the most was when a sniper would shoot at us and I couldn’t see him. If a sniper would shoot at us and I could see him, it didn’t bother me so much.”
Harold remembers turning bully-beef (canned corn-beef) into fresh eggs by trading with the civilians that had chickens.
“We weren’t suppose to do it but every man in the battery had two eggs for breakfast. That was a big deal for us.”
The change from army food triggered a memory for Hans.
“I got hell from an officer. We took a place over. And they (the German soldiers) were just eating breakfast. And they had a jar this high full of canned pears.” He indicates a container that would have held a litre or two. “And I grabbed a hold of them and ate them. And oh, did he give me heck. The officer asked me how I knew there wasn’t poison in there. And I told him, Well, I’m still alive.'”
A nod came from Harold.
“They used to pull tricks like that. You had to be very careful all the time. Even some of the dead people, they’d booby trap. When you touched them, bang! You were gone.” He shuffles his feet. “Buildings especially. Little wires across here and there. You’d run into them and stuff like that.”
Harold remembers again.
“One place we had 28 casualties. The funny part of it was, we were calling, ‘stretcher bearer! stretcher bearer!’ and nobody came along. They were carrying out the wounded Germans and we had to wait our turn. One guy dove into a slit trench and a shell followed him in. He’s probably still there.”
Hans has fallen silent and Harold continues, remembering another incident that made him smile.
“It was at a place called Boxtel, Holland. We were all lined up. We had had a parade. Along come a couple of German airplanes. 109s. And them guys were so low, you could see them grinning. And their guns were all lined up. But they didn’t bother us. They went out in the fields and dropped their bombs and took off back to Germany. They could have wiped some of us out. We were like ducks in a pond.”
The meaning of the war comes to Harold in one incident that involved three liberated inmates of a concentration camp.
“I was on leave in Belgium one time and they’d turned some of these guys loose. About that time, I was kind of wondering what I was doing there in the first place but when I saw these skeletons, I knew what I was doing. These guys were just walking skeletons. Three of them. Just walking skeletons.”
Each brother found his own route home.
Harold brought his bride, Edith Florence Mary Neumann (nee, Spicer) of Brandon, Manitoba, to their new homestead on the Old Edmonton Highway, three miles from his parents homestead. They had been married in Birtle, Manitoba on February 14, 1946, after his discharge in January.
The couple have two children, Caroline, who now lives in Grande Prairie, and Charles who lives across the road from him.
Charles, or Charlie, and his wife, Brenda, have two sons, Tarance and Byron.
Hans remained in Europe until 1948 as part of the occupation forces and found returning a little more difficult. He refers to a song that speaks of being like a stranger in a home. He says it describes how he felt. “Out of place. Couldn’t settle.” he adds trying to explain himself.
Unlike his brother Harold, Hans never married, instead, choosing to live on the original homestead with his parents where he did some trapping, hired out on thrashing and stooking crews and then farmed for his parents. As a hobby, he did a lot of ice fishing in the winter.
Both brothers live alone now, Harold on the homestead he brought his bride to over 50 years ago and Hans on his parents’ homestead. Their parents have passed away and Harold’s Edith is in the Pouce Coupe Care Home suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Hans was hit with a slight stroke that has taken his ability to drive from him and makes walking a little adventuresome.
When asked what November 11th means to him today, Hans says, “The end of the war.”
Harold runs a finger around the yellowed Scotchtape holding a picture of Edith onto the back cover of his Army pay book. He smiles. “I packed it all over Europe. It’s the first picture I had of her.”
He pauses before he goes on. “November 11th means fellowshipping with my buddies. Actually, it’s all we’ve got left. There’s a bond between us that we don’t even know is there until we meet one another. It’s a funny thing to explain but we all went through that valley of tears or whatever you want to call it. It was a good show.”
This article is taken from the Peace River Block Daily News, Dawson Creek, with the permission of the publisher. The Daily News retains all rights relating to this material. The information in this article is intended solely for research or general interest purposes.