Each Remembrance Day, we’re reminded of the sacrifices made by hundreds of thousands of Canadians in the major conflicts in our history.
The parade of veterans is a time-honoured tradition. In Ottawa and other communities across Canada, one year’s march looks very much like the previous year’s. But over time, this distinguished group changes. Veterans of more recent conflicts join in, while the ranks of older veterans thin out.
On the 11th day of the 11th month the veterans speak to us — in classrooms, in ceremonies, in interviews. It’s an extension of the duty they assumed when they joined Canada’s Armed Forces. They fought to protect this country, and after the fight was over, every year they tell the next generation what it was like, describing the truly harrowing nature of their experiences so that we might avert war in the future.
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And it is our duty — those of us who were fortunate enough to live after the great wars of the 20th century — to listen. And learn. It would be a shame if we stopped remembering and learning the significance of those great wars just because the voices from those wars have been silenced.
The men and women of the First World War are all gone now; that war ended 101 years ago. They marched year after year for as long as they could, and they spoke to us about those things they couldn’t forget.
Over the years, Global News chronicled many of their stories.
Many signed up as teenagers, looking for adventure. Clare Laking was an 18-year-old in Ontario when he joined the army over his father’s objections.
“I said to him, ‘I’m going to enlist,” Laking recalled. His father told him if he enlisted, he would have nothing to do with his son for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, Laking went off and never heard from his dad during the war, even after he had been wounded.
But like so many, he felt the need to serve his country.
James Pitcairn grew up in B.C. and enlisted at the age of 18 in Kingston, Ont. Twenty years ago, he told Global News that he thought the war would be short-lived. “At first it was thought it would be quick and you might not get there in time,” Pitcairn said, “but it doesn’t happen that way.
“It just kept on.”
Indeed, it kept on. It was a war that introduced the world to poison gas, trench warfare and a place called no-man’s land. And yet a generation of young Canadians stepped forward, and in doing so began to shape an identity for Canada on the world at large.
In the first decades after confederation, Canada was widely viewed as a colony of Great Britain. But when Canadians banded together in the Great War and fought with skill and valour at Passchendaele, Ypres and the Somme, perceptions changed.
It is said that Canada came of age in the battle of Vimy Ridge, where more than 10,000 Canadians were killed or wounded in the assault. The war established Canada as a nation unto itself.
Perce Lemmon was a 19-year-old in the 18th Battalion at Vimy Ridge. He said one shell hit near him in a ditch, killing many soldiers around him. Lemmon lost his leg, but survived.
In an interview with The War Amps in 1987, he could hardly talk about it. “It’s still a miracle,” he said.
“How I got out, I’ll never know.”
They were indelibly marked by their experiences. Most veterans recalled first and foremost the friends they lost, those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Fred Smith attended the remembrance ceremony in Ottawa and said, “One day you have a friend, the next day you have to dispose of them.”
Dick Ellis joined the Canadian Corps of Cyclists, an important reconnaissance battalion that only existed in the First World War, when bicycles were still a useful way to scout the countryside.
The seven surviving members met for the last time in 1987, with an old bottle of champagne standing by. It was not to be opened until their number was down to two. There was something bittersweet in those reunions. They lost so many friends when they were young, and now they were losing each other.
“It’s a happy occasion to see each other,” Ellis said, “but to know that it’s the last is a bit of a heartbreak.”
Five years later, Ellis at age 96 and Billy Richardson at 98 would be the ones to pop the cork on that bottle of champagne.
The First World War was to be “the war to end all wars,” but it wasn’t. Eight decades after the war, James Pitcairn had some perspective. At age 102 he had come to the conclusion that war is not the way to settle disputes. In one of his last interviews he said, “Eventually war has got to be stopped. They’ve got to be stopped.”
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Clare Laking, who’d run off to war as a teenager, had a change of heart, too. Years later, he reconciled with his father who had opposed both the war and his son’s enlistment. Clare eventually agreed that the world should settle its differences without war.
They did their duty on the battlefield, and for decades afterward in remembrance. At age 104, William “Duke” Procter marched in Lumby, B.C.’s Remembrance Day parade and declared, “You ain’t gonna forget them, ever.”
Let’s not. And let’s hear from as many veterans of the Second World War as possible. They have something to tell us and we should listen — before their voices also fall silent.
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