Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Today is a day of remembrance. I consider myself fortunate in the fact that I grew up surrounded not only by veterans, but also people who experienced the war in different way. People who could, and did, share their experiences, and not only helped shape my love of history, but made it real... more than just something in the pages of a book.

The closest link I have is my great-grandfather served on the HMCS Magnificent
HMCS Magnificent - "The Maggie"
and the HMCS Bonaventure
HMCS Bonaventure - "The Bonnie"
... and while he rarely spoke of the war, through him, we knew these two beautiful ships as great ladies -  the Maggie and the Bonnie. We also heard stories of the Navy ensuring their sailors were well-supplied with cigarettes (If I remember correctly, Players was the brand of choice.) something that seems so odd today.
My mother has a small vase which was hammered out from an expended artillery shell from one of the ships - a small trinket that carries so much history. I have my great grandmother's double strand of pearls...
Great grandmothers pearls
 ...which my great-grandfather brought back from England for her, as well as a cameo necklace and bracelet set in silver.. treasured pieces that have so much more meaning because of their provenance.

His daughter, my grandmother, has recounted her story of the Bedford Magazine explosion in Nova Scotia
She was only four years old at the time, but vividly recalls how the ground shook, and how all the children were led out to an open field and covered with blankets. She told the story, of a neighbour, who, thinking the explosions were over, went inside to make everyone tea. While inside, another one hit, shattering the glass doors of her cupboards and leaving her partially blind. And how another relative's house was shaken so hard, it cracked in half.

My favourite was the story of flour sack dresses
Flour sack prints
With money tight and everything rationed, flour companies started bagging their flour in fabric that could be re-used to make clothing. Imagine choosing your flour based on the prettiest print! (seriously, I love this idea and wish they'd bring it back)

My grandfather, several years older (though not old enough to enlist), tells stories of running to the beaches after a shipwreck to see what kind of cargo would wash up. Oranges were a favourite treasure, and the whole town would come out to scavange on low tide.

My own father is a bit of a history buff, so I was brought up on war movies and documentaries. From a young age, I could whistle (badly) the tune from the Bridge of the River Kwai, and hum the tune from The Great Escape. There's a  family "legend" of how my father never got to see all of Tora! Tora! Tora! because my Mom went labour every time it came on TV (it was really only twice...and my brother eventually bought him his own copy on VHS when we were older). My favourite movies were always the war-time capers (Kelly's Heroes for the win!)

He also shared a story he was told by one of his older hunting buddies ... a tale of living in Germany and having nothing to eat but the "roof-rabbits" they could catch (aka... cats!)

Dad was notorious for doodling tanks and artillery on the corner of his crossword puzzles, and as I got older an learned more, we'd talk about battle tactics, and the politics behind the conflicts. Among my friends, I'm one of the few that knows Franz Ferdinand is not just a band.

I have an ex-boyfriend who's grandfather was a German para-trooper. His grandfather was more than happy to tell me the story of how he was captured on his first mission, and ended up in a Canada in a POW camp where he learned to cook. When the war was over, he stayed in Canada, and made his living as a restaurateur. His story was not without sadness though... just before he was captured, his friend was killed by a sniper right in front of him.

Dave, raised mostly by his grandparents, was even more fortunate. His grandfather also served in the Royal Canadian Navy, and his grandmother, a Scot, was an auxiliary nurse. She grew up on the Clyde and her father, in addition to serving himself (he served on the HMS Hood, but well before it was sunk), worked in the shipyards. They met while he was stationed in Scotland, fell in love.. and the rest is history...
A sketch I did of their wedding photo

Dave's grandparents were more open with their stories, and as a result, Dave can recite battles, ships and generals by the hour. Through him, and the stories his grandfather shared, I've learned more in the 13 years we've been together thank I did in the 22 before we'd met. And not just stories about the war, but stories with more than one perspective.

I've had long conversations with his grandmother about her experiences. About the fear of bombing, and all the children that were sent far from their families to the country, from the larger cities. About the activities in the shipyards and the Clyde. About the dances and the revels that were held as a distraction from the horrors of war.

There's a plan for Dave and I to head to Ottawa and see if we can dig up his grandfather's service record.

I'm also fortunate in the fact that I was able to work as a community journalist for several years, always covering the Remembrance Day ceremonies. The year I worked in Port Colborne, it poured rain. While the town had put up tents for most of the spectators and dignitaries, it was my job to photograph it all... there was no staying under a tent for me and I was soak through and cold by the end of it.  Afterwards, when we were all at the legion, a local veteran brought me a cup of hot chocolate, and thanked me for "braving the rain". My response, without a second thought was: "Without your bravery, there wouldn't be a ceremony to cover, so it's you who should be thanked." We ended up talking for more than an hour that day.

Today, just before 11 am... there was a familiar rumble in the sky, and Dave and I both ran to the window to press our nose against it.
VRA, the Lancaster from the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum
flies over St. Catharines, ON 2015
Photo Credit:Scott Rosts - Niagara This Week

What seemed like almost touching distance, there was "Vera" the last remaining flying Lancaster bomber in Canada, followed closely by a Mitchell B-25. It didn't take long for them to pass out of sight, but we could hear them for a while after. We live just over 20km from the Warplane Heritage Museum, and Vera flies over almost every weekend if the weather is good. (A flight in Vera is on my bucket list.. I just need to scrape together several thousand dollars).

And while, as a child we were made to memorize In Flanders Fields, drew pictures of poppies, and were marched to the cenotaph for the Remembrance Day service (thank you to the legion ladies who always prepared a hot lunch for us chilly kids immediately following)....
Children gathered for Remembrance Day Ceremonies in St. Catherines, ON 2015
Photo Credit:Scott Rosts - Niagara This Week
I don't feel the school system taught much about the war (either the first of the second). We learned about pioneers and natives, even medieval history (which for most Canadians is only relevant through our immigrant ancestors), we went to Dundurn Castle and Whitehern, but I don't remember ever actually learning about either war. What I learned came from family and friends, and knowledge I sought on my own. Their stories, great and small, good and bad, funny and sad have shaped my understanding of the wars and the world around me.

It's up to us to ensure these stories are passed on.. to keep them human, to keep them real. So future generations can understand the true foe - the true cost of war.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


Araignee said...

Brilliant post! I was completely fascinated. You and Dave both have a family you can be proud of!

RobinH said...

Are you familiar with Eric Bogle's song "No Man's Land"? I can't think of the poem In Flanders Fields without the song coming to mind.