Dedicated to Ron Roe and the Hall of Valour that is no more.
A few days ago I wrote a blog about my Grandfather and his friend Bernie who fought in WW1 with the British Army. It was a story that was repeated during my teens, and as I look at Bernie’s picture today there will never come a day where I will forget him.
Veteran’s Day, or Remembrance Day as we call it in Canada, was always a day of marching in a parade with the Girl Guides and watching my Grandfather and Father walking ahead of us proudly with their medals pinned on their overcoats. It was also a day of having cold feet and hands as we stood on the frozen ground in front of the cenotaph during the ceremony.
The eerie sound of the bugle playing ‘The Last Post’ would echo through the air at 11am while everyone respected the two minutes of silence. After the service I would run to my Grandparents house for lunch and would get comfortable as I knew one of my Grandfather’s War stories would accompany lunch.
I had heard most of them and they always ended with his proudest achievement; starting branch number 99 of the Royal Canadian Legion in Cowansville, Quebec. Most stories were interesting and easy to listen to until the one Remembrance Day I will never forget.
My Grandfather was not pleased with me that particular day, as he had seen me giggling with my friends at the cenotaph and he felt I was not showing the respect that was needed. After a shaking of his finger he told me to listen carefully to what soldiers had to endure during the war as freedom is never free. Thus began the tale I only heard once in my lifetime about life in the trenches.
Grampy told me that he could smell the air full of death most days and that it was hell on earth living weeks in mud and hoping that the guy next to you didn’t get a bullet in his head. He had stood beside dying men and had wet feet and head lice for months. Grampy hated the rats that were everywhere, as they seemed to know when there was an upcoming onslaught of gunfire and they would scurry off and hide minutes before the shells started firing.
If you got sick there was no where to go but lie in your own filth and hope to God you would not become part of a pile of bodies that were forming down at the end of the trench ready for a burial. Over 200,000 men lost their lives in those trenches in WW1 and others never made it – like Bernie who died beside him from Trench Fever.
Grampy told me he and Bernie barely got any sleep and had to test their weapons while the sun rose as some raids were carried out at dawn. They never knew what they were going to face and sometimes the noise of constant shells going off created extreme shell-shock, forcing some off the front lines. He knew I was claustrophobic and explained to me the size of space they lived in and how they had to repair sand bags and fences in the dark of night.
Then came the day he figured they were gassed as no one really knew what it was. There were over 188,000 British gas casualties but they did not take into account the number of men who survived like my Grandfather. He along with others suffered for years with headaches and respiratory problems. He was the lucky one he said; Bernie tried to keep up but ended up dying beside him. My Grandfather said Bernie asked him frequently,
“Fred, who is going to remember us?”
So who is going to remember all these valiant soldiers who fought for our freedom? There are the Legions and the War Memorials but is there anywhere that provides memorabilia that honour former Veterans who gave their lives in defense of their Country? On Edmund Street in the small town of Carleton Place, Ontario there is such a place called the Canada Veterans Hall of Valour. Carleton Place was chosen specifically because it had a great record of involvement in both of the major wars of the past century.
This summer when I visited the Hall of Valour I was surprised to see an old friend named Ron Roe as the curator. I had initially come to do research on local town heroe Roy Brown who shot down the Red Baron Manfred Richthofen. But, in a short matter of time Ron had me quickly immersed in the history of the Hall of Valour.
The concept of the Hall of Valour was “framed” by the Hon. Judge Matheson, of Kingston – the same man who created the design concept of Canada’s current flag. Mr. Bob Campbell, was the Chairman of the Board, and Commander Jacques Levesque became the Vice-Chairman.
The Hall of Valour creates and maintains a record of all those who served in Canada’s Armed Forces. The books of Honour contain mini-biographies of those who won medals of valour in combat. In addition, those who earned the Victoria Cross are recognized by having plaques with their citations in both English and French, created and displayed in view on the walls of the Hall.
Few people are aware that Alexander Dunn, the first Canadian to earn a Victoria Cross did so during the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean war. He was among the first group of 60 soldiers ever to receive the Victoria Cross. At the end of the first year the Museum started a database of mini-biographies of the Veterans, and realized they had some 3,000 in hand. The number has grown over the years and they now have over 7,500 individual biographies.
In addition, they have a library of books written by both published and self-published authors. There is also a library of both Videos and DVDs produced by the War Amputees in their “Never Again” series in both languages and available for loan.
This might be a lot to digest for some of today’s youth who have no idea what it is to lose their rights. But someday one of them might have a question and the Hall of Valour will be able to provide them with the answers they want to know.
As Plato once said “Only the dead have seen the war” and hopefully today’s generations that have never experienced freedom taken away from them will realize war is not the answer.
My personal dream is a world where no war exists because as my Grandfathers friend Bernie used to say to him while they fought in the trenches:
“If we don’t end this war Fred, war will end us.”
Lest we forget- 11-11-13.
If you find yourself in Eastern Ontario this summer please drop in and visit The Canada Veterans Hall of Valour. It is located at 267 Edmund Street in Carleton Place, Ontario. Admission to the Hall of Valour is free, but they will gratefully accept donations.
If you see Ron, tell him I said hello. He and his staff will tell you many a tale of war heroes you never heard about in history books. Those would be the silent heroes that fought for our freedom. The ones we need to remember.