Today please welcome author and journalist Scott Bury to the blog as he shares the inspiration for his latest non-fiction work, Army of Worn Soles, the true story of his father-in-law, Maurice Bury, a Canadian citizen drafted into the Soviet Red Army during WWII.
“Can you imagine what it’s like to look into a man’s eyes and have to kill him?”
What can I say? Nothing.
And all I can think was how lucky I felt to have been born in Canada a generation after the war, to have escaped even the call to go to war.
I am sitting in the kitchen of Maurice Bury, the subject of my latest book, Army of Worn Soles. My girlfriend (now wife of 33 years), Roxanne and her mother are in another room.
Maurice has told Roxanne and me stories from time to time: about eating fish-head soup because that’s all the food there was; about soldier marching until their boots wore off, and then having to wrap newspapers around their feet because the Red Army could supply no more boots to its men.
One of my favourite stories was about how, when Maurice was in the Ukrainian underground, the “boys” would sneak into the rail yards at night and switch the destination cards on the sides of the boxcars. It seems more of a prank to me than any serious military action.
“You don’t understand: the card on the side of car tells the railway men where the car is supposed to go. When we switched them, the supplies would go to the wrong place, so the fighting men would not have what they needed.”
I do not appreciate how serious that was until years later, when I read William Craig’s Enemy at the Gates, the story of Nazi Germany’s disastrous siege of Stalingrad—disastrous for both sides, and ultimately Germany’s high-water mark, its furthest reach. There’s a brief mention of how German General Paulus sent repeated urgent requests to Berlin for more ammunition, reinforcements and warm clothes as the winter set in; what arrived was a boxcar full of condoms.
I have heard snippets of Maurice’s story from Roxanne, too: that her father had been in a German POW camp and had escaped. Sitting in the kitchen, I want to know more about this and everything else Maurice did in Ukraine, Russia and Germany between 1941 and 1945. I want the whole story from beginning to end.
With the dishes cleaned and put away, I sit across the kitchen table from Maurice and ask him about fighting. As usual, though, he doesn’t start at the beginning, but with another anecdote from near the end of the war.
“We were on the train to Finland in 1944. We were nervous, because we knew the Finns were tough fighters. They beat the USSR in the Winter War in 1941, and in 1944 the Soviet Union attacked them again.”
“To gain back the land they lost in 1941, of course. The Finns came close to Leningrad, and were helping the Germans.”
This is new to me.
Maurice sits back in the kitchen chair. “They were tough fighters, the Finns. Very tough. But before our train got to the front, Finland capitulated. The war there was over, and we were sent instead to the Baltic countries: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania.”
I ask a stupid question: “What was it like?”
He’s leaning back, looking relaxed. But his eyes burn into me. “Do you know what it feels like to be ordered to kill another man? Can you imagine what it’s like to look into a man’s eyes and have to kill him?”
We’re quiet for a while. There is nothing I can say. When there’s enough moisture in my mouth to speak again, I ask “You were close enough to see the enemy’s face?”
“We had to put the bayonets on our rifles and jump into their trenches,” he answers. His hands are moving, miming the action, I guess, of affixing a bayonet to the end of a rifle.
He shrugs. “Orders. You obey the orders, or you get shot. That’s the army.”
He tells me about marching across the Baltic countries. “It was easy fighting. The Germans surrendered, retreated. Sometimes, they left behind some of their toughest fighters, the real fanatics who would never give up. They were dangerous.”
“How did you deal with them?”
“The Red Army had special shock troops with better weapons, better training. They would go ahead, surround the Germans and destroy them.”
“How did the people there feel about getting rid of the Germans in favour of the Soviets?”
He shrugs again. “What’s the different?”
That makes me think. What was the difference? Foreign soldiers in charge of your country, your town, your own home—did it matter which country they came from? And in eastern Europe in 1945, the Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Czechs and people of so many other countries traded Hitler for Stalin. The question became, which would be worse for each of them?
That conversation would became the beginning of a decades-long, intermittent research project into my father-in-law’s experience in the war. I learned some shocking things, some details that I never dreamed of before. But more importantly, I learned just how deeply culture influences your understanding of history, and how the generally accepted version of the history of the Second World War is incomplete and slanted in favour of the successful governments of the West, particularly of the US and UK.
Maurice always challenged me to question my own assumptions, and even though it made me uncomfortable at times, even though it burst some illusions about the righteousness of many people I had been taught were heroes or admirable people, the good guys.
And that’s just one reason why, ten years after his death, I still miss Maurice.
About the Author:
Scott Bury is a journalist, editor and writer living in Ottawa. His articles have been published in newspapers and magazines in Canada, the US, UK and Australia. He is also the current President of the authors’ group, BestSelling Reads.
His first published novel was The Bones of the Earth, followed a year later by the erotic comedy One Shade of Red. Other published fiction includes two related short stories, “Dark Clouds” and “What Made Me Love You?” His first published fiction, “Sam, the Strawb Part,” is a short story; all proceeds from its sales go to a charity for children with autism-spectrum disorders.
His latest book is Army of Worn Soles, the true story of his father-in-law, Maurice Bury, a Canadian citizen drafted into the Soviet Red Army just in time to face the German invasion of 1941, Operation Barbarossa.
Scott Bury was born in Winnipeg, grew up in Thunder Bay, and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Carleton University. He has two sons, two cats and a loving wife who puts up with a lot. You can read more of Scott’s writing at Written Words and Scott’s Travel Blog, and on his website, The Written Word. Follow him on Twitter @ScottTheWriter.