December 1, 1905
I can’t sleep. I am so excited. My mother gave me this journal that in English is called a “diary”. She says my life is starting again so I should write about it. I practice English every day. I will write in English. It is my new language. We are on a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean. We are leaving our home in Kiev and travelling to Canada for a new life. We are going to a place called Winnipeg. It is in the middle of Canada.
The wind now is strong. The waves are large and scary. The ship rocks like a cradle. But we will have a new life.
November 3, 1915
I can’t sleep. I don’t know what it is I feel, but it’s keeping me up. Who could sleep on such a day, anyway? As I will be entering a new life, I have decided to pick up the diary I started on-board ship when I was a young boy and start writing in it again.
I enlisted today. I became one of those “brave young lads” that the old people talk about, one of the guys that are cheered when they board the train headed east on the first steps from Canada to the European Front. Walking into the enlistment office, waiting in line in the cold morning air, talking with other chaps who were doing the same as me, I felt part of something. Part of it is I now truly feel that I am Canadian. I am no longer an ‘immigrant boy’ as I have often been called, when I went to school, and when I stand with others new to the country in work crews formed for a few weeks’ dirty work. All the other lads enlisting with me were born in Canada. I looked over their shoulders as they filled out their forms, as I was doing. Now we all are Canadian soldiers together. We are all now part of the 52nd Battalion.
When the process was over, the older man in charge stood up straight and saluted me. Then he said, “Congratulations, young man. You are now part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.” I saluted him back and snapped my heels together as I have seen others do before me. When I think of it now, that is the only time that anyone had ever congratulated me for something I had done. It felt good.
I wonder whether this will be my career, my future after the war: a soldier. It would certainly be better than the meaningless jobs I am finding now. I think that I will keep a diary of the battles I serve in, everything that happens. My children, when I marry, and when I have kids, will read it someday, and be proud of their father. I will be Dimitro the hero to them.
November 4, 1915
I can’t sleep. I know this is selfish, but I hope that when I go to the barracks, I won’t have to walk past the Ukrainian boys who are in a prison camp there because of where they were born. I don’t want to be identified with them. I don’t want to even see them, to look them in the eye, or for them to see me.. I am so glad I was born in Kiev, part of Russia, and not in those territories under the enemy Austro-Hungarian Empire. Then I would be treated like them, not a true Canadian, but an imagined potential threat in the war.
April 10, 1917
I can’t sleep. Yesterday we fought at Vimy Ridge. So many died, a dirty, bloody, ugly death in the trenches. I look around me and all I see is where my friends, my compatriots died, their blood mixed with the mud. Others are awake, but they are on sentry duty. I should have volunteered for that, as I couldn’t sleep anyway.
July 10, 1917
I can’t sleep. We were ordered today to move on to engage the enemy. I just couldn’t do it. It is not just because there is a good chance that I will die. That would bring about the end of the pain I am feeling. I just can’t continue to watch my brothers dying all around me. It is too much. I threw down my rifle and said, “no more”. I was then put in a makeshift prison where I am now.
September 12, 1917
I can’ sleep. I have been convicted of cowardice. I will have to face s firing squad in less than a month. I am 22 years old today.
October 9, 1917
I can’t sleep. The day is beginning – my last day. Soon I will be out there beside the pole in the middle of the camp. It will be like one of those passion plays the nuns used to make us watch back home in Kiev before we came to Canada. But there will be no martyr or no saint this time. No hero. Everyone around me now is asleep. At least this time is my own, my last time is mine for a moment.
Dawn is here, although it rises with more dust than sunlight in the air. No one is looking at me, except when they think that I am not looking back. Do they think they will see in my eyes what their own eyes will be facing only too soon in this dismal place? We have all looked at it too often over these last two years, especially at Vimy Ridge. We usually hear death before we see it – a metallic scream, an explosion, and then one of our boys letting out a sound no one should have to hear. Then there are the sights – blood, earth, bones, parts, and bits of everything else that was once human. I never wanted to be heard or seen that way by the men that I have shared trenches with. I guess that’s why I am going to be hearing the inevitable from a short distance and seeing nothing soon. Will I feel anything when I am shot, or will there be just death? Funny the questions you have in this situation. I wonder what they’ll say to my parents. I hope that they lie and say that I died in battle. A large part of me did.
I was led to the pole by hands that gripped my arms tightly. As an act of kindness, they had a priest walking beside me, his words more a soothing sound than anything with meaning I could hold onto and carry with me to my grave. He seemed young, unsure. And they let me write my last words. I wonder what will happen to my diary. I will hand it to the priest. I hope he keeps it. For I will otherwise disappear on paper except for the dried ink of “tried,” “convicted” and “executed” in some official record in a drawer in Ottawa. Here I can state my honest opinion. It is a strange unnatural justice that punishes a young man for a natural fear that has only increased over the last two years. I am glad I don’t have a wife and children to share the word ‘coward’ for the rest of their lives. But I am just Dimitro a man who fought in the trenches and died because of it.
My brothers-in-arms stand a little more than a few paces away from me in a line of strict military order. Form must be maintained now more than ever. They are not the men who stood beside me in battle. My comrades have been spared that at least. I am happy about that. I have chosen not to have a blindfold, so at least they will say, if they speak of me at all, that ‘he faced death eyes open.’ Let God have mercy on their souls. They can only do what they were told. I hand my diary to the priest.
Many Canadian soldiers wrote war diaries during the Great War. This is an imagined series of diary entries for one man, Dimitro Sinizki, the only soldier in the Canadian armed forces in World War I to be executed for “cowardice.” I firmly believe that he was no coward, just traumatized, a victim of the war.