We arrived in the late afternoon. Shadows from an encircling grove of trees cast eerie slivers of light and dark across the manicured cemetery grounds – the grass cropped short, the flowers freshly tended. I watched one of my fellow travellers, Valerie Flanagan, move from one line of tombstones to the next. Our walk through La Chaudiere Military Cemetery just below the famous Vimy Ridge, a few days ago, was the culmination of a long journey for her. Then, she saw it – her grandfather’s grave.
“I’m so glad I made it here,” she said. “I didn’t know how I’d feel.”
They all looked sharp in their specially tailored commemorative jackets. They responded to the atmosphere of being away from home on a field trip with not unexpected exuberance; they looked pretty pumped. But when several of them spoke publicly the other night in Ypres, Belgium, I could tell these teenagers had changed even in the few days we’ve been away.
One of them, Sam Futhy, a Grade 10 student from Uxbridge Secondary School, noted a visit to one of the Great War cemeteries.
“When I saw the number of grave stones,” he said. “I don’t know. It just hit me.”
Their faces suddenly lit up. One of the cameras in the arena caught them cheering and dancing all in a row. And there they were jumping up and down in unison to the sound of a Spice Girls pop tune. They were thrilled to be up on the jumbo screen at the Air Canada Centre. But most of all they loved showing off their team jerseys, the North Durham Blades hockey team. And the camera cut to a makeshift placard another young female hockey player was holding.
The man sat at the back of the audience area through most of my presentation. I spoke, as I usually do in those situations, walking among those in the audience, in this case 30 people seated at about eight tables. My topic was the Battle at Vimy Ridge coming up to the 100th anniversary next year. And I was speaking at a small Ontario fair last weekend. I could see the man was reacting to what I had to say. He frowned a lot and when I’d finished he put up his hand.
“Is it true that all the French-Canadian troops threw their rifles overboard on the way over to France?” he asked.
I paused a second, wondering where he was going with the question. I didn’t want to think there was prejudice involved. “No. I don’t think that’s true, since one of the key regiments at Vimy was the Royal 22nd from Quebec.”
We sat down on a couple of plain chairs at a wooden table. We both splayed reference papers and notes across the table in front of us. The setting could easily have been his or my summer kitchen. Then, after some casual conversation, he hit the start button on a pocket-sized audio recorder in the middle of the table.
“It’s a warm sunny day,” he started. “I’m seated in a reading room in Port Perry Library overlooking Lake Scugog…”
I couldn’t resist. “… And under normal circumstances, we should be down at the lake enjoying the water,” I interrupted.
“But we’re not,” he continued. “This is the inaugural podcast of ‘Durham Past and Present.’”
Most of the time, Larry D. Mann was a comedian. In the 1950s, when I met him, Larry would warm up audiences for my father’s television show, The Barris Beat, on CBC. He also appeared in comic sketches on the show. His perfect delivery of punch lines, his deadpan facial expressions and his huge guffaws broke up every audience he ever met. Once, however, Larry Mann made me cry. He described a day in the spring of 1945.
“We weren’t prepared for what we saw when we arrived at the concentration camp,” he said. “We couldn’t get in the front gate because there were bodies, hundreds of bodies, piled up like cordwood. We hadn’t seen the pits yet…”
Early in the celebration of Bill Cole’s life, last Sunday afternoon at Wooden Sticks, his son Rob talked about the periodic disconnect that had existed between himself and his late father. Rob said he thought it was much the same as the disconnect between Bill and his father, First World War veteran Thomas Clark Cole. But Rob admitted a reality that many sons and daughters do.
“I was astonished,” Rob Cole said. “The older I got, the wiser Dad seemed to become.”
It was a time when every man wore a hat, or as one historian described it, “silk toppers for the privileged, cloth caps for working men and straw boaters for the younger rakes.” It didn’t matter which one Canadians were wearing, 100 years ago this week, since most of them were airborne during the first week of August. Hats were in the air in celebration because Canadians had heard the news from Europe. Here’s the way the Toronto Telegram described it:
“A booming roar … rose and fell in the narrow canyon of streets,” the newspaper reported in August 1914. “It was the voice of Toronto carried away with patriotic enthusiasm. Britain had determined to give the bully of Europe a trouncing.”
In short, it was exactly a century ago that Canadians learned their nation of eight million citizens would follow Mother England into a war to end all wars against Germany. In fact, when I did some research for this column on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, I learned a great deal. I discovered, for example, that instead of reporting events surrounding the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, the archduke and duchess of Austria-Hungary on June 28, 1914, Canadian newspapers quite unabashedly fomented public opinion in support the war.
Not only that, but the papers quite literally beat the drum of war in Canadian city streets. Pierre Berton noted in his book “Marching as to War” that in Hamilton, the Spectator newspaper projected slides on the exterior walls of its downtown building pointing out the good English King and the villainous German Kaiser. In Winnipeg, demonstrations resulted and they led young men to the local military barracks to enlist. And in Quebec, where I thought nobody wanted to fight in a war to defend the King of England, La Patrie, a Montreal newspaper, editorialized this way:
“There are no longer French Canadians and English Canadians. Only one race now exists, united by the closest bonds in a common cause.”
Strange too, since it had only been 15 years since 6,000 Canadians had served with distinction (four won the Victoria Cross) in the South African War. And by 1914, statistics showed that Canada’s regular army had shrunk to only 3,000 men. Still, in 1913, a full year before the assassinations in Sarajevo, Sam Hughes, the minister of militia, had invited Canadians to bolster the country’s militia. No fewer than 60,000 men showed up at training centres across the country to become so-called “weekend soldiers,” reservists preparing for what seemed an inevitable European war. Clearly the Canadian male population was either bored or eager for a fight.
Just look at this community as proof. As I discovered when I researched my book about the First World War battle at Vimy Ridge, (thanks to files at the Uxbridge Historical Centre) local lawyer and MP Samuel Sharpe had no trouble getting Parliament to give its blessing for the formation of the 116th (Ontario County) Battalion in 1916.
And when Col. Sharpe took his message of serving King and Empire in the Great War to towns and villages across what is now Durham Region, he couldn’t keep up with the flood of enlistment. Typical was teenager Lyman Nicholls. In 1914 he’d responded to a couple of recruiting sergeants from the Mississauga Horse to become a boy soldier playing trumpet in the regimental band. But the next spring, in June 1915 while in class at Uxbridge Secondary School, he really got the bug.
“We were having a French lesson,” Nicholls said. “Our teacher went out of the classroom for a few minutes and I stood up and started for the window. I said, ‘This is our chance, fellows,’ and climbed out the window. Seven others followed me.”
At the Uxbridge post office they took medical exams, signed enlistment papers to join Col. Sharpe’s 116th and went to the quartermaster’s office to pick up boots and uniforms. And even though his parents withdrew him that night because he was underage, Nicholls joined legitimately that summer when he graduated from high school. Later that year, when Sharpe’s volunteers conducted target practice with Ross rifles on a shooting range (along what is now the Brookdale Road) and were photographed in Elgin Park during a drill demonstration, they were 1,100 strong.
As part of their formal send-off, Uxbridge residents erected arches and banners over the downtown streets with religious and patriotic slogans, including: “God bless our splendid men” and “Send them safe home again.” Except that the recruiting of young men, tossing of hats and shouting of slogans did NOT keep them safe. Of the 1,100 members of Col. Sharpe’s 116th Battalion only 160 returned alive. Sharpe himself committed suicide, it’s said, unable to face the families of his county.
The death of a generation began 100 years ago this week.
When my veteran friend Stephen Bell came home from war in 1945, he only weighed 97 pounds (when he enlisted in 1940 he’d weighed 180). In ’45, military doctors conducted a short debriefing. They didn’t ask him about his eardrums, broken during the battle at Dieppe where he was captured in August 1942. He still had shrapnel in his back and because the Nazis had shackled him while he was a POW, his wrists were arthritic.
“I was eventually placed on 100 per cent pension,” Bell told me back in the 1990s.
Stephen Bell, who died at age 85 in 2009, didn’t have much good to say about his military experience. On Aug. 19, 1942, he’d been part of the disastrous raid on Dieppe, France, where more than 3,500 Canadians became casualties. After his capture there he spent the rest of the war in POW camps in sub-human conditions.
“If it weren’t for my arthritis I would be in great shape,” Bell told me 20 years ago. He added, however, that he had “a lot to be thankful for.”
Today, he and many of his Second World War comrades would be appalled by what’s gone from bad to worse in the public service of Canadian vets. Next Monday, an Opposition motion in the House of Commons will attempt to block a money-saving measure by the federal government to close Veterans Affairs Canada offices in eight Canadian communities. The Conservative majority will defeat the motion.
Ironically, had Stephen Bell sought assistance today in his native Saskatchewan, where the Harper Conservatives plan to close the Saskatoon office, he would have had to travel nearly twice the distance from his home to seek VAC attention.
Last month, when a group of contemporary veterans arranged a meeting with Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, he arrived late, got into a shouting match and walked away from the vets who were attempting to dissuade the government from closing VAC offices in Sydney, N.S., Thunder Bay, Windsor, Corner Brook, N.L., Charlottetown, Kelowna, B.C., Brandon, Man., and Saskatoon. Fantino symbolically abandoned those he’s supposed to be serving.
During the Great War, Grace MacPherson had a confrontation with the man she was serving. A Vancouver volunteer in the Red Cross, she wanted to drive ambulances behind the front lines at the Western Front where the Canadian Expeditionary Force prepared to take Vimy Ridge in 1917. To make her case MacPherson secured an interview with the Minister of Militia at the Savoy Hotel in London, England.
“I’ve come from Canada to drive an ambulance,” she announced to Sir Sam Hughes in the meeting.
“I’ll stop any woman from going to France,” he said. “And I’ll stop you too.”
Grace MacPherson accepted his judgment and went back to work in the Red Cross office dispensing pay chits to Canadians on leave in London. But she never gave up hope to serve closer to the action. Coincidentally, conditions in France superseded Sam Hughes’ resistance to MacPherson’s idea. The war office decided that men in the ambulance corps could better serve the war effort closer to the front, so the driving jobs were re-assigned to women volunteers. Grace served a year and a half loading wounded into her ambulance, driving them to aid stations, while maintaining the ambulance’s engine and repairing its flats… all for a paltry 14 shillings a week.
“Didn’t matter,” MacPherson wrote in diary. “I was most proud of the Canadian patch I wore on my shoulder.”
Veterans are like that, I’ve discovered. They recognize the realities of their service. Even if they don’t agree with decision-making, they live up to their responsibilities. They have a high regard for punctuality. And above all they never let down their peers in the service of Canada. It’s the credo by which they live and die. Apparently, such qualities are tougher to find among those administering Veterans Affairs Canada.
By the way, a few weeks after my Dieppe vet friend Stephen Bell left the Toronto office that had discharged him with a clean bill of health in 1945, he collapsed on Bay Street. X-rays revealed that he had both pneumonia and pleurisy. He spent the next 17 months in and out of the Christie Street Veterans Hospital.
“After six months, I was called (to a Toronto army office) for a review of my health. I told them I felt fine most of the time, so my pension was reduced to 10 per cent. … It didn’t bother me that my pension was cut off. I could make it on my own.”
Most veterans – then or now – would exhibit the same kind of fortitude. They can and do suck it up. If they have to they can make it on their own. But like Stephen Bell then, veterans now need the help they’re entitled to – close by, uninterrupted, unchallenged by politicians or bureaucrats, unsullied by fiscal conservatism and its shortsighted view of Canadian values.
Part way through B.J. Byers’ concert last Saturday night in Uxbridge, the young pianist finished one of his toughest pieces – an etude by Chopin. He wiped the perspiration from his face with a towel, smiled broadly – as if he had just conquered Everest – and acknowledged the packed house at Trinity United Church.
“There was once a time, I wouldn’t have been able to face this,” Byers said. “I would have just turned and run away.”