You could have put a potato peeler in his hand for the duration of the war, but you could never have convinced him to pick up a gun.
While not as well-known as Desmond Doss, the American medic whose heroic efforts were memorialized in the movie, Hacksaw Ridge, Laurence Morton, too, was a conscientious objector who served in the Great War.
“There’s no glory in war,” he would tell me during the many visits I shared with him, sitting in his window sill in the nursing home where he lived, listening to his stories. “The medals are worth nothing. The war was worth nothing.”
This particular conversation took place during the planning stages of a pilgrimage back to the place where it all began-Vimy Ridge.
Morty (as his friends referred to him) had been invited by Veterans Affairs Canada, to return to France to observe the eightieth anniversary of the Armistice, where he would also receive the Legion of Honour Award, France’s highest decoration for his contribution in the Great War.
While he was excited at the prospect of seeing France during a time of peace, there were some obvious concerns, too, both physical as well as emotional.
“I’m too old to travel,” he argued.
“That’s kind of an eligibility requirement for this trip, Morty. You have to be old.”
He gave me “the look” that said I was pushing my luck with this centenarian. I gnawed on my bottom lip to keep from laughing. I knew he would go and he knew he would as well; it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Without prying too much, I asked how he would feel about visiting his brother’s grave. While Laurence had been vocal in his refusal to take another man’s life, his brother Louis, ironically, had been a sniper. He had been killed by the enemy three weeks prior to the signing of the Armistice Agreement.
Nodding, he whispered, “I need to see him one last time. Yes, it’s the right thing to do.”
Laurence Morton had been born in 1896 in Rat Portage, in northern Ontario. When war broke out, he said he “prayed with heart and hand” that he could serve his country. In 1917 he headed for France.
“We thought it would be the time of our lives,” he had told me wistfully many times.
Unlike Doss, it didn’t appear that Morty took too much flack for being a conscientious objector. In fact, he was revered among his comrades.
“I remember one night in the bunk house,” he recounted. “I was just kneeling beside my bed, praying the way I always did. It got real quiet all of a sudden. I looked up from my bunk, and I saw all these fellas just staring at me.”
While definitely different than his fellow soldiers, his integrity and compassion appeared to make him stand a head taller than the rest. They knew that he was the one to come to for support, advice, and just about anything, when in need. Apparently this included cash, when their army pay was denied. This would happen when the soldiers would go into a brothel for a night’s entertainment and leave with a case of syphilis.
“I always got my money back. I was good at keeping things quiet and I didn’t judge them boys.”
Refusing to fire a gun did not preclude Morty from hauling its ammunition for the 16th Canadian Infantry Battalion.
Referring to gun cotton, he laughed, “I hauled that blooming stuff all over the country. We never thought of it exploding. If it ever blew up, they wouldn’t have had to dig a grave for me!”
So, that particular Remembrance Day, I played hooky from work. Determined to catch a glimpse of my friend, I set up on my sofa, tissues in hand, to watch the event coverage from France. I was not disappointed. The camera scanned the veterans, and, as if just for me alone, the camera zoomed right in on Morty, looking older than his 101 years, if that were even possible. He suddenly appeared fragile, something I had rarely seen in this man.
I learned later that Morty had become somewhat of a celebrity in this, his second trip to France. Being relentlessly sought out by reporters to tell his story, he learned to dodge probing questions and to answer the mundane ones with his quick wit.
When asked by Sunday Star reporter, Laura Bobak, what his secret to long life was, he responded, “I like to breathe, as it satisfies the necessity for living.”
Morty satisfied the necessity for living for another three years after returning home from France, but he just wasn’t the same. Wounds believed to be long-healed had resurfaced with his visit to Louis’ grave. I couldn’t begin to surmise what thoughts were going through his mind in his last years, but I’m sure there is no glory in war was one of them.