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Bullets, shell shock, and trifle desserts: Free Montreal exhibit shows life in First World War

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Inside a densely-packed archive of First World War artifacts in Montreal, among the shelves of knives, razors, uniforms and artillery, there is a cookbook.

The book belonged to Clarence Booth, who lived on Peel Street. before he enlisted with the 24th Battalion Victoria Rifles in 1914. His friends called him Buster.

Two years later, he would fight in the disastrous Battle of St. Eloi. Canadian troops fought the Germans on a battlefield already riddled with craters formed by detonated mines. By the time Canadians arrived, the holes were filled with waist-deep water, which provided little cover from enduring gunfire during the two-week clash.

"Hid in shell holes," reads a passage in Booth's diary. "Got back okay. My nerves gone."

Booth survived the battle. He was later admitted to the hospital twice for shell shock — a condition doctors would later call PTSD. That diagnosis got him restationed into the kitchen, where he started keeping a log of recipes.

"He made a lot of pie," said Caitlin Bailey, executive director of The Vimy Foundation.

Booth lived through the war and died in June, 1961. The cause of his death is unknown. Much of what is known about his life is thanks to The Vimy Foundation. Next to his cookbook is his uniform, address books, and photos in his scrapbook.

For Bailey, his story is one of resilience and survival in a time fraught with horror.

The First World War was, and remains, one of humanity's bloodiest chapters. Some 8,500,000 soldiers died of wounds and disease. Families were pulled apart as young men, many of them teenagers, left home to fight.

Booth was one of them. Bailey says the foundation thinks he might have been just 16 when he enlisted. And after witnessing horrors on the battlefield, "Here's a man who's making cake," she said.

Inside the cookbook, there's a recipe for a raspberry trifle cooked with wine or sherry — chef's choice.

Elsewhere in the museum: a rollable checkers set, a saddle for equestrian travel, and metal-tongued noisemakers, which, when raised and twirled, make an upsetting clack-clack-clack sound, signalling an incoming poison gas attack.

The gas "kind of melts your lung tissues. So, you basically drowned in your lung fluid," said Bailey. "It was a horrible way to die."

A closer look at a WWI noisemaker used to signal incoming poison gas attacks. Death by poison gas was 'horrible,' according to The Vimy Foundation's Executive Director, Caitlin Bailey (Luca Caruso-Moro, CTV News)

FREE EXHIBIT

The artifacts are on display for free until Nov. 10 at The Vimy Foundation's office at 5524 St. Patrick's St., on the second floor. A small assortment of artifacts is set up in the lobby, but staff are offering free tours of their storage rooms packed with historical items and stories.

The foundation is offering the viewings ahead of Remembrance Day this Saturday. 

Its office is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday. 

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