Armistice Day, 11 November

In many countries,  the eleventh of November is remembered as Veterans’ Day, the day honoring military veterans of all conflicts. However, many hold it as a day of remembrance and not a public holiday.  A century ago, this was the day the Allies and Germany signed the armistice ending World War I.  The Armistice went into effect during the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.  The Treaty of Versailles signed in 1919 formally ended hostilities.  

What do you hold as the most valuable “thing” in your life?  More to the point, what is worth risking the exchange of your life or health:  Ideas?  Reputation?  Property?  Human rights and dignity?  The lives of your loved ones?   Man has been fighting and dying for millennia over territory, religion, and to fight for, or to prevent someone else’s desire for power and conquest. In the last century, the world went to war to prevent genocide, to oppose totalitarian rule, and to secure ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ – ideals enshrined in America.   When a continent is plunged into war as Europe was, in 1914, by the war machine of the Kaiser,  or in 1939, when Hitler’s Germany annexed its neighbors and started to systematically enslave and exterminate people,  alliances called up armies.   For the last eighteen years, the premeditated attack upon civilians against the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the fear generated by using commercial aircraft and hostage passengers as weapons motivated several nations to rise against them.  Sadly, military men and women, ours and the nationals being trained still bleed and die in ‘suicide bombings’ by agents secreted among them in Afghanistan and elsewhere.  For a century and more, the attack upon civilians, whether the sinking of passenger liners by Germany in the First War, or civilian and military targets at Pearl Harbor in 1941 or on 9/11 propelled our nation to defend our citizens and the right to freely travel and trade abroad.

On Veterans’ Day, we remember those who sacrificed their future for ours.   Many of those who recognize and remember loved ones particularly on this day have stories to tell.   And as far as I have learned about my forebears, in almost every generation I have so far traced,  a young man – or in the last half-century, woman relative – has served as a soldier, sailor, or marine.  A hundred and some years ago,  the War to End all Wars,  World War I, was raging in Europe.  And one of my distant relatives,  a young man in his late teens, gave his life in a bloody battlefield in Belgium.

Edwin Blow Kertland,  was the nephew of his namesake, one of the Blow family in what is now Northern Ireland. The Blow family whom I trace one branch of my maternal ancestry, for nearly three hundred years had been merchants and businessmen.  In Britain, for hundreds of years, the gentry passed property down from eldest son to eldest son. The younger sons were apprenticed to learn a trade and make their fortunes, some went into ministry, and others into the army or went to sea as crewmen on merchant ships.

Edwin Kertland went into military school and earned a commission in the second decade of the Twentieth Century.  An assassination and political alliances plunged the world into war the resulting scale of carnage – in toll of lives – still sets a painful bar.  Nearly seventeen million people,  ten million military and seven million civilians died, and another twenty million were gravely injured as a result of the conflict.  The war pitted men serving the Kaiser and their allies against other Europeans, the British Empire and Americans. Poison gas, mechanized artillery (tanks), aerial bombardment (aircraft), trench warfare, and other weapons technology changed the efficacy with which men can harm each other.  Along with millions of youthful Britons, Frenchmen.  Americans, Russians, Germans and their allies, the horror of war killed him.  He was nineteen.

To the cynic there is no solution to the periodic hatreds that flare between people, and prudently,  they prepare, train, and arm themselves to protect home and homeland.  And there will be those who are willing to put on the uniform of their nation to defend against tyranny, or more personally, to defend their comrades fighting alongside them in the trenches.

Scoundrels, Sailors, and even a spy

Only in America would circumstances bring a first generation Polish-American Jew and a Scot-Irish Protestant together, fall in love and marry.   My parents met in New York City; I was born in San Jose, California. What little I knew of my father’s family, particularly my grandfather’s story,  began with his fondness for fisherman style caps, and a Russian phrase I later learned was a soldier’s response to orders given.   Only from clues from my aunt and searching the internet, was I able to tie a few of them together.

Since my Polish grandfather and his betrothed came to the United States through Canada in the early 1920s,  I can only imagine he learned the Russian if conscripted by the Bolshevik Army after the Revolution. They occupied part of Poland in those days.  He obviously escaped and made it to New York City becoming a U.S. citizen and finding work as a shipfitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.    I am particularly grateful, as I might have been Italian-American and an Army veteran, as my mother was previously very smitten with an Italian-American soldier,  given several pages of photographs and a few old letters I found after her death.   Then how would I have ever obtained the wife I have and become a retired crusty Senior Chief?   Like my eldest son today,  I am not great at marching nor am I particularly suited to running miles in combat boots.

My mother’s ancestors in Northern Ireland were mainly merchants and businessmen in the flax or finished linen industry.  In Scotland, some were town leaders (burgesses), maintained order, were metal workers, or were in the ministry.  However, in almost every generation going back to the early Sixteenth Century an ancestor served in the military, was involved in combat or insurrection, or had some colorful story that was almost lost to history.  One fought the British Army in a late-Eighteenth Century uprising in Ireland.   Some forebears served in the British Army,  some died in Colonial America, and some went to Australia.   While the British Empire exiled folks there centuries ago, it probably was due to military service or to seek one’s fortune.  And some others went to sea.  There is a story of  James Blaw,  a ship’s surgeon,  who was shipwrecked in the South Pacific and subsequently rescued, whom I identified from accounts digitized and made available online.

While my mother’s family line spent three hundred years in Ireland, they came from  Culross and Dunfermline, Scotland.    It was only due to the second son emigrating to Ulster in the 1600s  (and changing the spelling of his surname)  since it was his elder brother who inherited property.    But James Blow, as Scottish printer’s apprentice and then in Belfast, partner, who was to make the greater mark in family history.   It was his firm that printed one of the very first English Bibles in Ireland.

But our family is not without its scoundrels – or spies.  While descendents of the Ulster Blow  family pursued careers in the military, or life at sea, or emigrated to other lands of the British Empire,  a Scottish curmudgeon,  the printer’s elder brother,  John Blaw, was a courier and spy for Bonnie Prince Charlie, who at that time was exiled in France.

After that attempt to mount a return of the Jacobites failed, it seems Blaw, who never was the businessman his brother was, ended his days as a mean drunk.  After a bar fight -he was in his sixties at the time – he was imprisoned and tried for murder of another pub patron.   He apparently was also a horrible provider for his family.   After his conviction and execution,  his widow sold much of the family possessions.   And his granddaughter and her husband – a descendent of the trial prosecutor – sold the family estate.

Another ancestor of my mother,  sent out to live with a relative, settled in the early Nineteenth Century South, eventually founding banks and railroads.  Even after the Civil War and ReConstruction,  he died a millionaire.   However, his Scotch-Irish relations from Ulster swooped in and “appropriated” investments.  News clippings detailed scandal, the deceased’s questionable marriage, and a missing will.  In hindsight some of my forebears were indeed scoundrels.   But others served honorably. There is one commemorated on a wall in the Belfast City Hall,  to those who died in combat.  Flanders, Belgium during World War I.

Other family branches came to America.  Two from different families served with distinction during the Second World War.  One’s service was shrouded in secrecy- probably in Army Intelligence – he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  Another relation, serving in the Merchant Marine, was awarded for gallantry during a fierce battle of Malta.   I never met him in person, but he wrote me a recommendation to attend the U.S. Naval Academy.  He is commemorated at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York.

My father was never in uniform, but he was a defense contract engineer on integral projects for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Department of Defense.  He helped design the C-5A Galaxy aircraft in the 1960s and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.   I may have found it easier to enter the Navy field that subsequently has given me a lifelong career due to a long family history of service.