The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a defining moment for Canada. (Library and Archives Canada)

Remembrance Day nuggets

In the last 100 days of the First World War no fewer than 30 soldiers earned the Victoria Cross

By T.W. Paterson

In the last 100 days of the First World War no fewer than 30 soldiers earned the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry for British and Commonwealth forces.

In the course of compiling material for each new Remembrance Day edition of the Cowichan Valley Citizen I read voraciously through the year: newspapers (new and old), books and magazine articles — anything and everything that comes my way.

Dozens of great story leads turn up but not all can be developed in depth. Or, they’re worthy of greater effort on my part but, for various reasons such as time and editorial space, must be passed over or postponed.

So, for today, these nuggets…

In August, The Canadian Press reported a ceremony in Halifax to mark Canada’s Hundred Days, the final, Canadian-led push through Belgium and France that forced the Germans to surrender in November 1918. “Canadian victories at Amiens, the Drocourt-Queant Line, Canal du Nord and the pursuit to Mons were among the most difficult and costly battles of the war,” said Ken Hymes, curator at the Halifax Citadel.

During those 100 days no fewer than 30 soldiers earned the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry for British and Commonwealth forces. Of the 100,000 men who participated in this last great campaign in the last days of the Great War, 45,000 were killed or wounded.

The August ceremony in Halifax marked the unveiling of a commemorative panel on Pier 2 to complete what has been named the “Portals of Remembrance”. The creation of Nova Scotia artist Nancy Keating, the Halifax arch memorializes the embarkation point of 350,000 Canadian soldiers between 1914-18. Dark prints for soldiers’ boots on a wooden gangway point to the harbour and the distant European battlegrounds beyond.

The Canada Gate, the second Portal, has been erected at Passchendaele, site of one of the most infamous of World War One battles. It has the same boot prints on a row of duckboards (the wooden “sidewalks” used in the muddy trenches).

Also doing its part to honour our military history, the Canadian Mint has released a special toonie commemorating the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Three thousand five hundred and ninety-eight soldiers were killed (including Cowichan’s L/Cpl. Hamish Maitland-Dougall, mentioned elsewhere in these pages) and almost twice as many wounded. This was the first time that Canadian troops fought under totally Canadian command and is considered to be the hallmark in Canada’s coming of age as a nation.

How ironic that Canada’s role at Vimy Ridge in one of the most tragic and worst wars in history has been declared the beginning of our war of independence from British rule. As explained by Tim Cook, an historian of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, the iconic Vimy Ridge Memorial is “one of those enduring symbols that continue to matter to Canadians. It may not count as ‘the birth of the nation,’ but it was certainly a crucial event in our history.”

In May, in Victoria, the CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum opened a special exhibit honouring Cmdr. Ted Simmons, RCN, DSC, DSO. Sadly, the exhibit, entitled Hero Warship HMCS Beacon Hill and Her Daring Commander, was missing a key component: Simmons’s seven Second World War medals. Put up for sale as a result of a family dispute, they’d been sold at auction in England after a failed attempt to raise money to repatriate them.

Two months later, the Times-Colonist reported that the Canadian War Museum had acquired the medals from the private collector who bought them at auction and was allowing them to be displayed on loan at Esquimalt. Simmons, who died in 1988, aged 76, was the most decorated member of the Royal Canadian Volunteer Reserve, the so-called ‘Wavy Navy’. He was the model for the movie Corvette K-225, starring Randolph Scott.

A reverse scenario involved a 1917 letter from a soldier in a military hospital in England to a woman in Manitoba to tell her how her deceased brother saved his life at Vimy Ridge. Bought in a box of old letters for a dollar in a Manitoba antique store, the purchaser, cafe owner Amanda Kehler, set out to return the letter to the soldier’s family. As she explained, “Obviously, it’s such a huge part of our Canadian history I just knew it was something really special that I needed to get back in the hands of — hopefully — a family member.”

Research by Stephen Davies, project director of the Canadian Letters and Images Project, indicates that Gordon Rochford of Selkirk, Man., was likely the brother killed at Vimy Ridge as it’s his sister whose name is on the envelope. He was 22 when he was killed in action, April 9, 1917. At last report Mrs. Kehler was continuing to seek Rochfort family members; failing that, she was going to donate it to a war museum.

Only last week, The Canadian Press reported that a fallen Second World War soldier’s medals had turned up in a Calgary Goodwill store. Sgt. R.W. Finch, who was killed in action on April 13, 1945 (just three weeks before V-E Day), is buried in the Groesbeek Canadian Cemetery in the Netherlands. The medals and some old family photos in a cedar chest were found in a donation pile. Store manager Lorna Schnepf said it’s store policy not to sell items of obvious great sentimental value and went online in a search of family members. Failing that, the medals will go to a war museum or veterans’ organization.

Much closer to home, in March 2017, Duncan Free Press reporter Peter W. Rusland told the story of how wartime medal collector Dave Thomson of St. George, Ont., had acquired two memorial crosses and some newspaper clippings linked to Pte. Eric Ormond Smythe who was killed in Holland in 1944 and whose name is on the Duncan Cenotaph.

Because of the local provenance, I’m endeavouring to follow up on this story. Readers, please stay tuned…

Something I’ve noticed in recent years is the steadily growing crowd, ranging from the very young to the very elderly, at the Remembrance Day ceremonies in Duncan. I attributed some of this increasing attendance to Canada’s peacekeeping operations which are so much more current than the world wars or Korean war.

According to The Canadian Press, a resurgence of interest in remembrance ceremonies by millennials has been confirmed by a poll conducted on behalf of Historica Canada. Nevertheless, it’s pretty dismal: only 29 per cent of those polled expressed an intention of attending, three per cent more than in a previous survey. So much for Lest We Forget.

Shameful when compared to the efforts of Queen Margaret’s School — many of whom are from other countries — who won the Memory Project’s Grant McRae Commemorative Contest’s junior category two years ago. Students from across Canada created visual art, letters, videos and even a sonnet to thank veterans for their service in Canada’s defence. The Memory Project involves veterans (now in their 90s) and active service personnel share their military experiences in classrooms and with community groups across Canada.

As Anthony Wilson-Smith, president and CEO of Historica Canada, explained, participating students “will carry the stories and the thoughts of our Memory Project speakers into the future. The bond that develops when our speakers visit schools and meet with students is wonderful to see — and the best guarantee that their efforts won’t be forgotten.”

This is remembrance at its best.

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