A First World War soldier's story: Will Bird and the Roman Gladius

Published on July 28, 2014

It was 1918, the final year of the First World War, and the tide was turning in favour of the Allies, thanks to victory at the Battle of Amiens. At the front, in the stillness following this latest bloody clash, a Nova Scotian soldier bent to examine something protruding from the churned-up mud. As his fingers closed over it, almost 2,000 years of history suddenly came full circle.

What Will Bird of the 42nd Battalion, Black Watch of Canada, had found was a gladius, a short sword used by Roman Legionnaires from the 3rd century BC until the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD. And thanks to the abundance of clay in the soil where it had lain for so long, the sword was remarkably well preserved.

Experts who have examined the weapon believe it dates back to the time of the Gallic Wars, campaigns waged by Julius Caesar against the indigenous tribes for mastery of that part of Europe we know today as France and Belgium. These campaigns lasted from 58 BC to 50 BC and paved the way for a major expansion of the Roman Empire. At some point during one of those clashes, a Roman Legionnaire lost his sword and it remained lost until the day another warrior engaged in an equally savage war stumbled across it, centuries later.

The gladius is now part of a major exhibition mounted by the Army Museum Halifax Citadel at the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site. The exhibition, named “The Road to Vimy and Beyond,” runs from this May until November, 2018, and honours the role that Canada, especially Nova Scotia, played in the Allied victory in 1918. The exhibition is second only in size to that by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. In addition to its “Road to Vimy” presentation, the Army Museum Halifax Citadel is upgrading its Second World War displays to commemorate the 75th anniversary of that conflict.

The display case containing the Roman gladius will highlight the life of the Nova Scotian who made the historic find on the Western Front.

Will Bird was born in rural East Mapleton and grew up part of a blended family of five boys. Their widowed mother eventually moved her brood to Amherst but money was so tight that none of them completed school, something that makes Will’s later literary achievements all the more remarkable. In his early 20s, Will travelled to Alberta where he found work harvesting crops on the big Prairie farms. When the First World War began, Will’s youngest brother, Stephen, volunteered and served on the Western Front until he was killed, a year later. Learning of his brother’s death, Will enlisted and went overseas with the Canadian Expeditionary Force to see action in France and Belgium. The two years he spent in the trenches left an indelible impression on the Nova Scotian and figured prominently in his later writings.

After the war, Will returned to Amherst, married and fathered two children. He began writing as a hobby but soon discovered that he had the literary talent to make a living at it. In 1928, he began writing fulltime and sold articles to numerous national publications, including The Saturday Evening Post and the Toronto Star Weekly. Books followed, including And We Go On, A Century at Chignecto and Judgment Glen. In 1931, Maclean`s Magazine commissioned him to return to the battlefields of France to write a series of articles which became the basis for a book and lecture tour.

Will Bird wrote for 40 years and won numerous national awards. Some of his most poignant work followed the death of his only son, Stephen Stanley Bird, who held the rank of captain and was killed in the Second World War while serving with the North Nova Scotia Highlanders.

Will Bird died on January 28, 1984, but his story lives on, as visitors to “The Road to Vimy and Beyond,” are discovering.