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.”
It was that time of the night. The host had told plenty of jokes. The volunteers had completed most of the preparations. The event was unfolding the way most had hoped. Even the chair of the fundraising committee had a smile on her face. It was time for the pitch. So, out came the president of the charity that was the beneficiary of the evening to speak.
“Time to dig deep folks,” he said. “It’s why we’re here, right? To make some money.”
Sometimes, achievement comes in very small packages. And sometimes it arrives when you least expect it. In this case, a friend of mine, a teacher who’s been working diligently to pull together a major event this weekend, was in the middle of something else. Suddenly, one of her students interrupted to show her his latest piece of work.
“He was completely covered in sawdust,” my teacher friend Tish MacDonald said, “and he showed me this wooden silhouette he’d been working on. It was incredible.”
The silhouette is the outline of a soldier, a First World War Canadian soldier, whose figure will join the décor and displays that, in a few days, will transform the local high school in Uxbridge, Ont., into the site of “The Samuel S. Sharpe Gala” fundraiser.
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.
It had rained all day. The sun had tried to poke some light through the low-lying clouds and mist of the ridge. But the strong westerly wind – that seemed to cut right through you – quickly erased every attempt. It was not a day to be outside. And yet, people came by the thousand. In particular, the young Canadians – about 5,000 high school students – paraded with banners, cheers and a resolve that was characteristic of their forefathers. One of their teachers summed up the scene.
“They’re wet and chilled to the bone,” she said. “But they realize it’s not right to complain. They’ll get through it.”
It’s not often a person walks in the footsteps of an ancestor. Nor are there many opportunities to sense the sights, sounds and smells that someone who lived nearly a century ago experienced.
Recently, I read about such an experience when I was asked to endorse an application by a member of our community for the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize. As part of her application, Rebecca MacDonald, 17, wrote about her great-grandfather, Walter James MacDonald, an engineer in the 13th Canadian Mounted Police who served at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
“Standing in the trenches and the fields of Vimy Ridge, I could feel his spirit,” she wrote.
It was probably the final phone call she made last Sunday night. I’m sure that she had been dealing with a myriad of errands. I imagine that she’d probably checked her to-do list a hundred times. I know for a fact that she had responded to a long list of messages from fellow teachers, her principal and concerned parents. After all, she was about to lead more than 60 students from Uxbridge Secondary School on a 10-day-long trip into history. Nevertheless, U.S.S. instructor Tish MacDonald phoned me.
“Just wanted to say thanks,” she said on the phone. “We’re down to the last few hours before we take off for Holland. Everybody’s all fired up.”