I was battling rush-hour traffic. Ironically, I was listening to a Toronto radio station’s traffic reporter tell me I was in gridlock. Then, my cell phone rang. I read the call identification. It was one of my teaching colleagues at Centennial College. And he was excited.
“She’s here!” he said, with more energy in his voice than usual.
“Who’s here?” I asked.
“Sentimental Journey. She’s going to be in Hamilton all this week,” he continued.
It was Malcolm Kelly on the phone. He’s the co-ordinator of Centennial’s sports journalism program. And second only to his love of sports is Malcolm’s love of airplanes.
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.
In many more ways than one, Juno is always close by. Fred Barnard’s been counting down the days, reminding his daughter, Donna, that the anniversary is coming up. At 93, he’s not as agile as the day he first became acquainted with Juno Beach. That day – June 6, 1944 – he waded ashore in Normandy as part of the greatest amphibious landing in military history. He helped the liberation of Europe gain a toehold in France as part of the D-Day landings.
“He remembers it all,” she said. “Whenever it’s close to the anniversary, it’s always on his mind.”
Well, D-Day is almost as often on my mind as it is on Fred’s, but especially with the 70th anniversary tomorrow. Some of you may remember how Fred Barnard and I came to know each other. Eleven years ago, I was standing in line at the CIBC in town waiting to pay my credit card bill. Ahead of me were an older man and, at the head of the line, a friend of mine. My friend asked what I was doing these days.
“Writing a book about Canadians on D-Day,” I said.
“Big anniversary next year,” my friend said.
“Yes. The 60th.”
Then it was my friend’s turn for service at the teller’s wicket. That left only the older fellow and me. As we moved up the queue, he turned to me.
“I was there,” he said quietly.
“A veteran, are you?”
“I was there,” he repeated and then continued, “on D-Day.”
What followed was an exchange of phone numbers, an invitation to visit and an interview that changed me, and it changed the book I was writing. Fred Barnard related to me his D-Day experience of coming ashore in Normandy that June day in 1944 with his younger brother Donald in the same landing craft.
But Fred’s younger brother never made it off the beach; a single bullet through the chest felled Donald before he reached dry land. Until that day in 2003, Fred Barnard rarely if ever talked about it. I felt honoured to hear the Barnard brothers’ story.
Fred and I have carried on a friendly acquaintance ever since. Phone calls, visits to the house and the occasional chance meeting downtown have allowed me to learn more about my coincidental friend. As often as we’ve chatted, however, Fred remains a quiet and modest man. His Second World War service in France after D-Day proved to be equally remarkable. His Queen’s Own unit continued to spearhead the liberation of France and Fred was wounded by shrapnel in mid-August 1944.
All of that might seem just another veteran’s tale from a war so long ago, fading and nearly forgotten. However, several years ago, back in 2007, I accompanied Fred Barnard to a ceremony at the Moss Park Armoury in Toronto. At that event he received the French Legion of Honour.
“I was no patriot or hero,” Fred told me back in 2003. “I was just doing my job as a volunteer soldier.”
For the record, the Legion of Honour was created by French general Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. It was and still is the highest award given by the French Republic for outstanding service to France, regardless of social status or nationality. It is the French equivalent of the British Victoria Cross and George Cross combined. Critics of Napoleon’s award once suggested that such “baubles on men’s chests were mere children’s toys.”
Baubles or not, I for one have the greatest respect for what young volunteers Fred and Donald Barnard accomplished that precarious June morning 70 years ago. In simple terms, were it not for them, I wouldn’t have the freedom to write these words today.
Fred remains a modest veteran. His daughter Donna allowed that Fred doesn’t get out much. The frailties of age and diminished hearing, particularly in larger gatherings, such as he used to attend at the Legion and veterans’ events, make meeting people awkward for him. Nevertheless, the victory of landing Canadian troops on Juno Beach 70 years ago tomorrow is very much on his mind. Even more so these days, his daughter said. Fred has been looking forward to seeing the way the TV stations commemorate the anniversary – he’s been watching documentaries and will watch D-Day coverage on Friday.
But D-Day will be close by in another way this year. Donna and Fred just recently got a golden retriever puppy (five months old) to be a companion to their older golden, Chloe.
“Of course, you know what we named the new puppy, don’t you?” Donna said. “Juno.”
While memories of the loss of his brother Donald Barnard on D-Day always come back to him this time of year, now Fred has something more pleasant to think of each June 6 – the new life in his life. Something worth remembering everyday, as we do a veteran’s service to his brother, his regiment and his country.
About 25 years ago, I travelled to the town of Windsor, in the Annapolis Valley region of Nova Scotia. I’d read about a local personality, a 19th century judge and member of the provincial legislature, Thomas Chandler Haliburton. Among other things, I’d learned that Haliburton had studied and grown up there, written local history and published under the nom de plume “Sam Slick.” But Haliburton had also kept a factual diary, which around 1803 had solved the great Canadian riddle: Where was the game of hockey first played in Canada?
“And boys let out racin’, yelpin’ hollerin’ and whoopin’ like mad with pleasure (on) the playground,” Haliburton had written as a student at King’s College, Windsor, “and (played) the game of hurley … on the ice.”