In typical fashion, I’m late to the event. An entire day in this case. But the sentiment remains the same. This November 11th, 2017, I did as I usually do each Remembrance/Veteran’s Day and pored through the many photos I have collected over the years, the newspaper clippings I have dug up, the copies of records I have secured from the local museum, and read through page after page online, adding to the slowly growing collection of data and photos I have been adding to with each passing year in regards to my own family’s military history.
The photos I have included are just some of my favourites – a few of them being featured more than once – and while my collection is far from complete (many family members I have yet to account for!) I am proud to call each of these handsome men and woman aunt, uncle or grandfather. Each of them have passed on by now, and with the exception of the three that served in the ‘Great War’ (WWI), I had the good fortune to know, to be brought up with/by, and to have in my life my own personal heroes until I was about 30 years, each of them not just surviving the war, but living full rich lives well into their eighties.
Our history is not so far removed from us as our current generation/s may fully be able to understand or appreciate.
Amongst those pictured above that I had the good fortune of knowing were my maternal and paternal grandfathers, and my great aunt and uncle (pictured side by side, and whose 60th wedding anniversary I had the honour of being present for when I was already 27 years of age). They were all larger than life individuals, very well liked and famous about town for their personalities, sharp wit, and in my great uncle’s case (also pictured centre), especially for his size and strength – he easily dwarfed nearly every man in any space, and his feats of strength were talked about and regarded all over town as something rivaling legendary – though to me he was just a gentle giant, and very much holds a place in my heart as one of my favourite people.
None talked much about what they encountered during the war during my lifetime – and we never pressed for anything more than what was proffered – my paternal grandfather being the most guarded of all (pictured top centre). I suspect his WWII experiences were perhaps of a more devastating nature than the others. It wasn’t until his passing not so many years ago, as we were having to sort his possessions, that we discovered he had been a medaled soldier, coming across them in a box in a closet. Amongst other things we found were enemy paraphernalia – whether they came to him through mere collection or through personal kills, I do not know and hope to never know. He may have been a war hero, but to me he was my papa – the man I used to pedal my bike across the street to visit with, alongside his old dog Toby – on the farm, and would spend entire summers out at his cabin along with my family. He took much joy in laughing at our childish exploits, helped to teach us to fish, and the closest I ever saw him come to violence was when we would climb onboard the ‘tube’, with him at the boat controls, and he would do his damndest (at our insistence) to try to knock us off that thing. My parents would frequently lecture him over his recklessness with their offspring. We just sat back and giggled away, begging him to take us out again.
My maternal grandfather spoke the most freely and easily about his experiences, and had many humorous tales of wartime exploits from his time overseas. He was the only one enlisted with the RCAF and had signed up underage. He was a pretty boy (pictured bottom centre) and a bit of a ladies man – I suspect (if we’re grading on a scale) he endured the least hardship of all of my deployed family. Throughout my lifetime, he was the embodiment of the word ‘gentleman’, and though the word is almost a relic of days gone by now, random strangers in town that knew him still use that word to describe him. So it was all the much more delightful and amusing that in the course of our chats and visits during his last hospital stay, that he for the first time regaled me with stories of things such as hula dancing competitions while out drinking with the other officers, and when I asked who won, he looked at me in shock and feigned anger, asking me, “Who do you think?”, and then proceeding to demonstrate some of his award winning moves.
My great uncle (if you’ve ever watched a Canadian television war special on November 11th, you may very well have seen him at some point) would laugh regularly about the time he and his two brothers (my paternal grandfather and their other brother, whom I never knew and know little about) unexpectedly came across each other in France through what could only be described as sheer happenstance, and all three were then reported back to their respective units as being MIA; some much needed catching up was in order, and the one had discovered an abandoned and fully stocked vineyard. The three holed themselves up for a matter of days and had drank themselves silly before remembering they had a war to get back to, and the probability of an incorrect dispatch of a devastating nature being sent back home to their parents and sister in Canada.
It is only in the past few days that I discovered that my great aunt had been involved in the (WWII) war effort. She never once spoke of it with me, and I was surprised to find her photograph in dress uniform. Perhaps she was a nurse. She was so well liked and so well known to this day strangers I encounter upon discovering my last name immediately ask if I am any relation or whether I knew of her.
It is with sadness that I will never get to know those that fought in the first – the ‘Great War’. Much of my knowledge of the three I have pictured here comes from ‘The Canadian Great War Project’ online, and the local museum. The father and son pictured together are respectively my great-great grandfather and my great-great uncle. Grandfather enlisted with his son, and had to lie about his age as he was one year too old to be accepted. When this was found out, he was stationed in England to keep him away from the worst of the war. His son was very well liked and regarded for his size and strength also, going on to obtain the rank of Sergeant. Tragically, on October 26, 1917, he was KIA at Passchendaele, and is my family’s only documented war casualty.
My paternal great grandfather passed away just 9 years before my birth, and I would have loved to have been able to know and sit down for a conversation with him. He is the rather cheeky looking one in the two bottom right photos, having obtained the lofty title of Company Sergeant Major. In the photos you can see him resting against a chair, cigarette boldly in hand, and in the group, you will find him seated front and centre while the King of Belgium takes a place to his side. I have a picture of him in my head as being the type of great grandpa who would have been firm in manner, but would have taken pleasure in laughing over the children’s misdemeanours with great grandma in the privacy of their bedchamber during the evenings. I hope I am never corrected.
To say I am proud of my family is an understatement. I may no longer honour them by attending ceremonies with few veterans and many cadets and scouts in attendance, though I do by remembering them each and every day. I honour them by adding regularly to and sharing my collection of research and history of them and their heroics. I honour them with the poppies I keep displayed proudly year round in my office. I honour them by visiting their gravesites and their effects displayed proudly at our local museum on any given day, and not just this one. I honour them each Remembrance Day by trying to remember who they were, by trying to picture what their lives and experiences must have been like, and trying to imagine how it must have been for them, being very much my juniors, going into battle not knowing if they had a future to come home to, or if they would make it back at all. I fear I fail woefully at this.
I fail, in that I will never fully understand. I will never fully be able to empathize. I will never know the sheer horror and loss they knew. I will never know the responsibility and burdens they carried at so young an age. And it is my privilege to get to fail at such. That is what they fought for.
They weren’t just my personal heroes, they were heroes. In every sense.
Lest we forget.