The Ironies of History
Hannibal, Hannibal, Hannibal. Famous and infamous. His “career” lingers on over 2200 years, a story filled with lessons, warnings and one particular contrast that leads to, and ends right here at De La Salle College “Oaklands.” Hannibal was born in Carthage, North Africa, a powerful trading city founded by the Philistines from Tyre on the Eastern Coast of the Mediterranean Sea, which was destined to become either a Roman or Carthaginian Lake as the two empires competed and grew stronger. The inevitable war for supremacy began in 218 BC. At age nine, Hannibal’s father, a noted warrior called the “Thunderer”, led him to the main altar in Carthage and had the child swear an oath to destroy Rome. The boy then went to Spain with his father, learned the military craft at an early age, subdued Spain, filled with Roman colonies, and plotted his invasion of Rome. His Roman campaign revealed his character: brilliantly cunning, treacherous, ruthless, eloquent, duplicitous, a tactical and strategic genius, daring where most would be cautious, an opportunist of the moment, a liar if a benefit was nearby, his word and his treaties useful deceptions in his great crusade to destroy Rome. Having broken his treaties, the Romans expected his attack from the South, probably from Sicily, where Carthage had colonies and bases. Ever unpredictable, always using surprise and trickery, he attacked from the North, astonishing the Romans, history, and everybody who knew any history. He pushed an army of fifty thousand African troops plus baggage wagons, food, supplies, and of course, a staple of African armies, the elephants, through the trackless alps, requiring every scrap of ingenuity and resolution to overcome dead ends, snow and ice, precipitous cliffs and inevitable falls. After finally arriving in Northern Italy, he attacked mercilessly, year after year, gaining stunning victory after stunning victory. Combining the talents of a Douglas McArthur, a George S. Patton and a Ulysses S. Grant, with Machiavellian tactics he successfully careened up and down Italy for sixteen years, living off the land, without any assistance from Carthage, succeeding by his wits - alone in a foreign unknown land. Army after Roman army, crushed by his unforeseeable brilliant schemes, pushed a terrified Rome to the brink. He forced the Romans into extreme caution – they would merely follow him but never attack, frustrating Hannibal, wearing him down over the years, but he was still there, a very dangerous foe, too dangerous to engage on the battlefield.
Then surprisingly, ironically, a young Roman soldier from a military family who’s father and uncle were killed by Hannibal in Spain, proposed a plan to the Roman senate and achieved it against heavy political opposition to invade Carthage as Hannibal did Italy. He was Scipio Amelianus, a brilliant, gifted, youthful soldier, age 24, who claimed Carthage would recall Hannibal to save the city and so it came to pass. Hannibal was indeed recalled, true to Scipio’s insight, as Scipio ravaged North Africa. So eventually after fruitless negotiations, the young Scipio at age 25, met the older warrior, about age 48, on the battlefield in the contest for final supremacy. He proved superior in every way, changing the course of Western history. Contrary to “normal” expectations, the much younger and less experienced Scipio contended, with optimism, for control in one afternoon, of the Western World and its future reaching as far ahead as the twentieth century. The Roman victory cemented our Judeo-Christian culture grown from our Greek and Roman heritage. The mighty Hannibal ran away to hide in some cellar in Palestine to an ignominious death, unknown and unlamented.
Well, dear reader, we have another surprise, and a pleasant one at that. One of our own graduates, Major Fred Tilston, achieved more lasting glory and respect in an afternoon than Hannibal in a lifetime. In a book published in 2005, author Murt Howell chronicles the lives of 81 Del grads who gave their lives, mostly in WWII in the army, navy and air force. The average age was 22. The stories are compelling – One pilot officer, Del grad Joseph Gordon, forced to bailout over Lybia, was captured and escaped from the enemy five times, and got home eventually all in one piece. Murt Howell wrote of Tilston: “Fred led a bit of a charmed life. He enlisted as a private in the Essex Scottish Troop because he was living in Windsor, Ontario at the time, and he just squeaked in under the minimum age limit. But because of his age, education and management experience, he was sent to officer school. His drill Sergeant claimed his marching was so atrocious, that is was just as well they made him an officer. After a disastrous attack in the raid on Dieppe in 1942, the Essex Scottish was decimated. Of the five hundred and eighty three officers who landed on the beach, five hundred and thirty were casualties. Only fifty one managed to return to England, and half of those were wounded, So Fred helped rebuild the regiment. During training in England prior to the D-Day invasion, he was hit in the back by a stray bullet, which went through his lung and lodged in a muscle around his heart. When he finally got to France, his Jeep was blown up by a mine near Falaise, which caused him to lose an eye. He was continually denied permission to get into action but he finally did get his chance.
“In the Hochwald Forest, Germany, he was hit twice while leading his men, first by a bullet to the side of the head, second by shrapnel in the hip, which knocked him right off his feet. He ordered everyone to keep going while he struggled to his feet and continued to push the attack. Even though wounded, he made at least six trips across open ground and under machine gun fire to visit and encourage his platoons, and deliver ammunition. He held off numerous counter attacks, finally charging a third line of trenches and gaining the objective, although by then C-Company had suffered seventy five percent casualties. The fighting was fierce and at close range, often hand to hand. There were so many grenades being tossed back and forth that one officer said that it was like a snowball fight. On his final trip across open ground, a mortar round finally put him out of action, but not before turning over command to the last remaining officer and issuing instructions for defending the position. By then he was barely conscious. If all that wasn’t enough, Fred cheated death one more time. When retrieved from the shell hole by medics, he was assumed to be dead because of his multiple wounds, mangled feet and otherwise showing no signs of life. They covered him with a blanket, awaiting burial, but luckily the Padre noticed movement. He was rushed to a field hospital and then to England for surgery. The King pinned the Victoria Cross on him three months later at Buckingham Palace. That was the one and only time Fred Tilston led men in battle.” God bless Fred Tilston for his glorious afternoon for all the “dangers dared.” Hannibal would be more than envious for he tried to grasp so much but ultimately achieved so little.
Fred who had been in pharmaceutical sales since graduating from U of T, returned to work exactly one year after his injuries as Vice President of the Sterling Drug Company in Windsor. He would later become its President and then Chairman of the Board. In 1963 he became honorary Colonel of his old regiment. The armories in Windsor are named after him, as is the Royal Canadian Legion Branch in Aurora, where Sterling Drug had moved its head office. Colonel Tilston VC died in 1992 at the age of eighty six and was laid to rest at Mount Hope among so many other Del heroes.