Some Reflections on the War
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 9 Oct 1924, p. 249-262
O'Ryan, Major-General John F., Speaker
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Item Type
Personal reminiscences and anecdotes of the war. Lessons of war. Friendly rivalries between allied armies in the war. The Canadians and Americans, credited with livening up the war. The spirit of humor injected into situation that would otherwise be worse than they really were, characteristic of the Canadians and the Americans. Souvenir-gathering during the war. The relationships between Canada and the United States. The issue of non-participation of the United States in the League of Nations; why Canada should understand this. Preparing the world to be organized for peace. Asking Canadians to bear with the United States. The speaker's belief that the United States will join the League of Nations in the future.
Date of Original
9 Oct 1924
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SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE WAR AN ADDRESS BY MAJOR-GENERAL JOHN F. O'RYAN, K.C.M.G., C.V.O. Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto, Thursday, October 9, 1924.

MR. JOHN 0'CONNOR, Vice-President, introduced the speaker.

Major-General O'Ryan was received by the audience standing and cheering.


Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen,--I am a great believer in the English-speaking people. (Hear, hear) I like England, and I like the English language. I say that advisedly, because I have studied it. I began my study of the English language when America went into the war. (Laughter) You see, most of us in the States, in the Army at least, were acquainted with but two languages when the war began for us. These two languages were American and profane. (Laughter) Knowing that we were to operate in France, and being at the time on the Mexican border, we began to apply ourselves, very naturally and logically, to an investigation and some study of the French language. I know that our men with a reasonable degree of industry applied


Major-General O'Ryan is a graduate of the University of New York, with the degrees of LL.B., and LL.D., and a graduate of the U.S. Army War College. He was commander of the 27th Division, American Expeditionary Force, which fought as part of the Fourth British Army in Flanders and on the Somme. He has been honoured with many decorations by the British, French, Belgian, Italian, and American authorities.


themselves, and soon we heard such phrases as Choi sang and 0 lazum.

Thus armed with a fair knowledge of the American language and profane, with a smattering of French, we landed in France; and much to our surprise, instead of being assigned to our own American army or sent for service with the French, our entire 27th Division was assigned to the 2nd British Army, and we remained with them until the Armistice, so our entire service, with something over 9,000 casualties in our Division, was with the British.

Of course when we got that assignment we had a rather certain belief that it had its advantages. We thought that in the matter of having what we believed to be a common language there would be great advantage to us, but we soon found that we were somewhat unduly confident in our ability to speak that language understandingly, and on the other hand to understand it when spoken to us. (Laughter) For instance, one of our first difficulties had to do with the getting of trucks for the O.R.Q., as they call them in the British army. These officers of the British army were perfectly splendid in their attitude and in their desire to help. They said, in effect, that we could have anything we wanted. Well, we had considerable baggage that was out in the weather, and so my Quartermaster called up the O.R.Q. and said he wanted 27 trucks by 3 o'clock that afternoon at a little place called Bienbeau. Of course he spoke the American language, thinking that those Englishmen could understand it; whereupon the O.R.Q. said that the thing was impossible, that they could not get trucks to Bienbeau, and it finally developed that in the English language trucks are not trucks, they are lorries; (laughter) and trucks, with the English, are railway carriages. (Laughter) That, of course, was only the beginning, but after six months of service with the British army we not only acquired a reasonable degree of familiarity with that language but really we rather prided ourselves in our ability at the present time to speak it. (Laughter) That is what I mean when I say we know the English language and we like it, and we like the British people.

I would like to give you a little proof that will support the claim I have made concerning my knowledge of the English language. I had the rather remarkable experience, on one occasion during the war, of acting as an interpreter between an Englishman, a Major, and an American soldier. (Laughter) I do not know whether you people live so far away from the Mason and Dixon Line that you are entirely unfamiliar with the southern dialect, but I am going to chance it with you, because I think, from the number of Canadians I see around New York, most of you are as familiar with the southern dialect as perhaps I am. This is not a story, but an actual occurrence which happened up near Ypres.

My Division was in the line, and next to it was the other American Division, the 30th, that served throughout with the British, and the personnel of that Division was almost exclusively from the mountains of Tennessee and the Carolinas. We were walking along the road through Popering, and it was a road inside the German observation point of the balloons, but they would not annoy people walking on that road if not more than one or two were in sight at the time; so I went along with my A.D.C. following me, about 200 yards, I ahead of him, and I saw ahead of me a British officer, and ahead of him evidently an American, from his walk and his get-up. I saw the British officer overtake the American, and some conversation followed, and I seemed to be getting a little too close for comfort under the unwritten rules of the game, so I stepped behind a tree and watched them. I called out to my aid that there seemed to be some kind of convention going on ahead, and we had better push on. I noticed that the British officer seemed impatient. He took a map out and held it in front of the soldier's face, and shook it in his face, then looked around disconsolately and shrugged his shoulders. Finally he saw me approaching. I noticed that this officer -was what they call in the British army, a "brass 'at"--he came from very, very far in the rear somewhere in the army-and he did not seem to know the danger he was in. That thought was framed a moment later, when, having looked me over, and having seen by the two stars and epaulette that I was some kind of a general, he cracked out one of those British salutes--you will all remember them and said, " Good-awfternoon, sir," and I said, "Good afternoon." He said, "I beg your pawdon, sir, but as a matter of fact I am lost, do you see." (Laughter) All this time the soldier--a big, tall, lanky fellow from the mountains of Tennessee, which were written all over him from his feet up to his tin hat--stood there at attention--about six and a half feet up. (Laughter) I said, "Maybe I can tell you." The Major replied, "Oh, thanks very much; as a matter of fact, sir, it is a most amazing thing; I have been asking this man here where I am, and all that; does he speak English, sir?" (Laughter) So I looked at this man and said, "Where do you belong to?" He replied, "The 30th Division, suh." "What regiment?" "119th Infantry, suh." While I was talking to the soldier the English Major looked at me and watched my lips; then he looked at the soldier's lips, looked back at me, and finally turned to me dumbfounded and said, "I beg your pawdon, sir, but is he speaking English?" Well, if you must have my answer as literally given to him it was 'Hell, no, he's speaking American. (Laughter) The Major brightened up then, and said, "Oh, that's it?" Then he suddenly stopped and smiled out of the corner of his eyes and said, "Oh, but I beg your pawdon, sir, you are not spoofing me, are you?" (Great laughter)

I think an outstanding lesson of the war, so far as the English-speaking people are concerned, is the manner in which they pulled together for the accomplishment of their common purposes. (Hear, hear, and applause) It really was inspiring, and to me in a sense it has been more inspiring since that time than it seemed during the war, when we were so occupied and so intense in our activities and endeavours that time was inadequate for the proper reflection and appreciation of what it was that we were doing and how we were co-ordinaing our efforts. But I have been very much impressed with what is possible of accomplishment in this world, since the war, and since we have had time to permit our thoughts to dwell upon the way in which we worked together during the war.

Of course we had our rivalries. The British army--very properly so--was full of that splendid sportsmanship that is called out in competition, and it manifests itself in many ways, as we know. We entered into the spirit of the thing. Of course we found that sometimes the rivalries got a little out of hand, and seemed to disconcert some of the British generals. I recall that there seemed to be a great deal of rivalry between the Australians and New Zealanders as to who could raise the greatest disturbance back of the line when they came out of the line. From all I heard about them in the war they seemed to be very keen competitors in that amusing field of activity--although not always amusing for the inhabitants.

It is said that on one occasion Sir Douglas Haig was in the little town of Vhlanerding, on the Somme, and alighted from his horse to make some small purchases in one of the little shops, and he passed a group of tall Australians leaning against the corner of the building. Being "Anzies"--free and independent souls--of course none of them came to attention; none of them saluted; the cigarettes remained in their mouths. Sir Douglas Haig passed them, and was about to enter the shop when he said to himself, "This won't do; I have chided too many of my own officers about neglect of disciplining these Australians; I will discipline them myself." Then he said, "Well, perhaps they didn't see me; I will walk by them again." So he did, and with the same result; whereupon he turned around and addressed the group somewhat as follows: "I don't know whether you men know it or not, but I happen to be Sir Douglas Haig, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Forces. I have been a soldier all my life, and I have seen the armies in every part of the world. I just want you men to know that in that long experience I have never met or seen such an ill-mannered, undisciplined, disorganized mob as you Australians; that's all." He turned on his heel, and was walking away, when the tallest of the group, with his coat unbuttoned, took the cigarette out of his mouth and called after him and said, "Hey, General, wait a minute; you want to tell that to the New Zealanders; they'll be as sore as hell!" (Laughter)

Of course war is a dreadful experience; it is a calamity, but nevertheless I think that the Canadians and Americans--whether untrue or not--were credited with having livened up the war a little. Wherever they went, people's faces brightened. There seemed to be a little greater confidence among the inhabitants; not only so, but there seemed to be a little more joy in the hearts of people. Perhaps it was because the soldiers represented a new people in a sense a new country, with greater optimism, that had newer ways, that came from the great open spaces, and all that sort of thing. Whatever may have been the cause, it always seemed to me that the Frenchman carried on his part in the war with great solemnity, and it seemed to my eyes that the same comment could justly be made in relation to the British that I saw. Of course they had every reason to carry that dreadful burden of sacrifice without very much gladsomeness in their hearts.

Of course the Canadians were called upon to make much greater sacrifice than we were. You got in without any delay, which we cannot say was the case with us. However, in spite of the sacrifices, Canadians seemed to have carried that spirit as did the Americans-that spirit of humor which they injected now and then into situations that would otherwise be worse than they really were. I think this attitude to which I refer as being rather characteristic of the Canadian and the American, is exemplified by the keenness which marked the zeal of our soldiers in relation to acquiring souvenirs. (Laughter) No matter how dreadful the particular battle-situation might be, the Canadian and the American soldier was always alert to acquire a real souvenir.

I had confirmation of that on one occasion when I was east of Amiens. I wanted to get some prisoners for personal interrogation, so the first two or three that we captured were rushed down to my post of command. There they were. They looked as though they had been hung in asbestos wraps and dangled around in the bottom of Inferno. They were scratched up, they were exhausted, their eyes bulged out of their heads. One, especially, had no tin hat. He looked more like a retired college professor than a soldier. (Laughter) There he stood, trembling all over, without a button on his clothes. He was holding his coat in one hand and his breeches in the other. He had been through this attack, and each line that he passed on coming to the rear frisked him-(laughter)-to use the police department nomenclature-taking everything he had, and when he got back to the military police they took the buttons and the shoulder straps. There he was. He looked very pitiful. I was looking around for some one of my men who could speak German, and an Irishman came up and said, "Hello Fritz," The prisoner came to attention and said he was German; and the Irishman asked him, "Sprachen se American?" The German replied that he could not speak English only a little, and the Irishman went on and asked, "Now can you tell me what everyone is fighting for. What are the English fighting for? What are the French fighting for? What do you think we are fighting for? What do you think you are fighting for?" Fritz replied, "Well, I tell you. We Germans are fighting for the Fatherland. The English, well, he must be fighting for his king. The Frenchman, too, he fights for La Belle France; but the Canadians the Australians and the Americans, mine Gott, they must be fighting for souvenirs. (Great laughter)

Our service with the British army was so pleasant and so harmonious that I recall only one occasion when there was even an intimation that any complaint existed from the British sources regarding my Division. On the occasion to which I refer I was going down the road on the afternoon of the first day of a battle, and I was overtaken by a British officer who belonged to a corps to which I was attached, and he was a Scotchman. We know Scotchmen.--You Canadians, and some Americans--and we know they have a sense of humor (laughter), but they blanket it with a face that does not always indicate the extent of their appreciation. (Laughter) I never knew whether this Scotchman was trying to pull my leg or whether he was serious, but he came along and asked me how things were going. I said they seemed to be going all right, and I asked him how he found them. He said, "They're goin' verra guid, but I hear complaint about your men." Well I was a little bit disturbed, but I asked, "What is the complaint?" He replied, "Well, I heard it on the road back apiece." He went on to explain that there were a number of prisoners taken by the 27th Division, and they were turned over to the British corps whose officer was in charge of prisoners; and it seemed that the complaint emanated from the Scotch sergeant who made the actual count of the prisoners, in making the report to his corps officer. I asked, "What was the complaint? What did he say?" The Scotchman replied, "Weel, all I heard him say was this--"Aw've been all over these prisoners; there is a great number of them taken by these Americans, but Aw'll say, sir, they're verra poor pickin'!" (Great laughter) From what we have sometimes heard about one of the Scotch characteristics you can see how hard hit that sergeant was. (Laughter)

Of course I am not going to make a serious plea in a gathering of this kind for peace and amity and understanding between the United States and Canada. That would be ridiculous. I prefer to convey to you in a more subtle way my own sentiments, through the medium of some of these little incidents. When people can afford to rag each other and josh each other about their distinctive characteristics you need never have any fear about their relations. (Hear, hear, and applause)

But, of course, when the average man gets up to make a talk about the relations between Canada and the United States, and how pleasant they are, how they should be preserved, there always comes a time--the thrilling period that everyone knows is coming--when he talks about that long boundary line--(laughter)--without a Krupp gun on it or anything else offensive or defensive--I don't know about offensive, because we have those guards on our side of the river, though they don't hurt you people any--(laughter)they only annoy us. (Laughter)

However, that navy we have on the lake, or that you have, or that both of us have-I have not heard anything about it lately--when I heard about that navy that we jointly maintained there it reminded me of the Irish navy that I heard about. I don't know whether this story came up here or not.

You remember that long period after the war broke out--it must have seemed very long to all the other English-speaking people--that preceded our entry into the war. We had little wars down in New York during that period from 1914 to 1917; and those wars had to do with bill-boards that announced the war's events of the day. Great crowds would gather outside very frequently, and would often come to blows, one group being Anti-British, and the other Pro-British, or Anti-German and ProGerman, and so on. Well, it seems that in one of the saloons bordering on such a street where such a crowd was gathered an Irishman was sitting at a table enjoying a drink--that could be done in those days in New York. After he had swallowed a couple of whiskies he noticed two mechanics, one German, the other English, apparently old friends, standing at the bar and drinking ale and beer, and having a very fierce argument about the merits of the war. Several times they almost came to blows, and the Irishman leaned forward with expectation in his eyes, but nothing happened. Finally the argument got on the subject of the relative merits of the British navy and the German navy, and the Englishman asked, "Well, why don't they come out? They are just like a rat in the trap there; they don't dare to come out, that's why." German Fritz said, "Why, that's strategy; that's over the Englishman's head (laughter); but when we do come out, mine Gott, there won't be any English navy!" (Laughter) Well, the men almost came to blows after that, and finally the Irishman, who had taken five or six drinks, not being able to stand the strain any longer, came up from his table and approached these two, and putting his hand on the Englishman's shoulder said, "Leave this Dutchman to me." Looking at the German he said, "Strategy? Well, when your ships come out and wipe the English navy off the map--I'll admit that will happen--then what?" The German replied, "Well, then what? Well, then the war is won, isn't it?" The Irishman replied, "Ah, it's only beginning for you, for then you'll have to lick the Irish navy!" (Laughter) Of course by that time Pat was pretty well stewed, and his Gaelic imagination had conjured up this wonderful Irish navy, but the German almost triumphantly shrieked at him, "The Irish navy? The Irish navy? Mine Gott, where is it?" Well, that was quite a sockdolager for Pat, but Pat was was a very resourceful Gael, and he looked at this fellow very suspiciously, and he says, "You ask me where it is? You ask me? You don't think I would tell you, you damned German spy!" (Great laughter)

It must seem a very extraordinary thing to you people to find in the world today this really great organization slowly but surely developing its power for the maintenance of peace in the world, and to find that we are no part of it-I mean our United States-except unofficially. But perhaps there are no people in the world more capable of understanding the condition which confronts us in our country in relation to that subject and its importance than Canadians, because you have so intimate a relation with us, and so accurate a knowledge of our politics and our interests. You also have, of course, what the average European has not-because it applies to your own country here-the extent to which people who live west of the Alleghenny Mountains believe themselves to be free and independent of the rest of the world and its problems. But I am one of those optimists who believe the time is not far off when in some way or other the United States will--tardily it may be, but nevertheless I hope effectively--take its place with the other civilized people in membership in that League of Nations. (Hear, hear, and applause)

Of course there are some people who believe in the principle of the League of Nations, but who are not enthusiastic about its ultimate accomplishment, because they have in mind certain fundamental traits of human nature, and they have doubts about the possibility of circumventing the activities of those human emotions. They urge that man is, by instinct, by heredity, a fighting animal; that we live in a world where the real survivor of the fittest must prevail; that we have always had war, therefore wars we shall always have. Of course I think those statements have their effect only upon tired minds, or people with superficial knowledge of psychology, of political economy and of heredity; because the fact is that because we have always had war it is not logical to hold that therefore we shall always have it, any more than that as we always had slavery until recently therefore slavery would always exist, and because man had never flown, therefore he never would fly. The same remark would apply to duelling.

I think it is an outstanding fact in history that peoples and governments from the earliest times have always prepared for and have been organized for war, and very largely they have gotten what they were organized for; but now for the first time in the history of the world, the world is really organized for peace. (Hear, hear, and applause) Heretofore I do think the advocates of peace from generation to generation back, universally, have exhausted themselves and expanded themselves in the cause of peace with prayers for the co-operation of heaven-well enough in themselves, but ineffective because of the existence in the heart and breast of man of those emotions that we have heard of. There must be control, there must be organization, and that is what we are getting in the world now for the first time; and there must be back of that organization at least the threat of force, of compulsion, and it must apply to the United States just the same as it applies to the individual in the United States who is a law-abiding citizen. (Applause) All that principle asks is that whether it be an individual or a nation, that it comply with the law. Failure to comply with the law brings the penalty that is agreed upon. That proposition is so fair that when it is understood by the people in the United States, when they get around to it, they will meet it. They will meet it in the same way as they have met obligation in the World War-tardily, perhaps, but certainly with zeal and with loyalty. That is my conviction. (Hear, hear, and applause)

Therefore, I would leave with you, in closing, this thought-that you good people up here in Canada bear with us; apply that Christian spirit of forbearance when you think of our tardiness in relation to our world obligations. It is so easy to be a Christian and render lip-service only; it is so mightily hard to be a Christian and live up to that fundamental rule of Christianity that we must forbear with our neighbour. That is the thought I would leave with you, and in leaving it I will close with a little incident that happened down in that part of New York where I come from, in Westchester County. Two natives were discussing the war and its effect upon Christianity, and the failure of Christianity to prevent such an agony. One man was decrying Christianity to this farmer who was sitting on a cracker-box whittling a stick. He really denounced Christianity; it was a fake; it never stopped war. He talked along, and old Silas kept whittling the stick. After a while the speaker said, "Well, what do you think of it? Don't you think it's a failure?" Old Silas replied, "No, I don't think it's a failure." The other asekd, "Why not?" Old Silas replied, "Well, it hain't never bin tried yit!" (Laughter and applause)

MR. JUSTICE RIDDELL voiced the thanks of the Club in an eloquent plea for forbearance with the United States, whose people would undoubtedly do their full duty in regard to the League of Nations, as they had done in the war. With great effect he quoted from a poem by PhillipsWooley, a British Columbian poet who recently died. It was easy for us Canadians, he remarked, with all our British traditions, to cry:

Hear, Oh mother of Nations, In your battle of Right and Wrong, The voice of your youngest nation, Chanting her battle-song. Blood of your best you gave us, Gave us that we might live; Blood of our best we offer, Best of our youth we give. 'Tis the price of a nation's manhood We offer to pay the debt; Did you think, Oh Mother of Nations, That Canada could forget? And when by the side of Justice Victory will take its stand, And when pallid Peace is brooding Over our troubled land. We will think the cost but little, Glad of the chance to pay, For the bond of a stronger Empire, For the dawn of a better day. Go forth, Oh Mother of Nations, To your battle of Right and Wrong, The voice of your youngest nation, Chanting her battle-song.

(Loud applause)

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Some Reflections on the War

Personal reminiscences and anecdotes of the war. Lessons of war. Friendly rivalries between allied armies in the war. The Canadians and Americans, credited with livening up the war. The spirit of humor injected into situation that would otherwise be worse than they really were, characteristic of the Canadians and the Americans. Souvenir-gathering during the war. The relationships between Canada and the United States. The issue of non-participation of the United States in the League of Nations; why Canada should understand this. Preparing the world to be organized for peace. Asking Canadians to bear with the United States. The speaker's belief that the United States will join the League of Nations in the future.