Earlier this year, we asked readers to share memorabilia that has been passed down through the generations. The response uncovered unique artifacts and colourful stories.
By: Kevin Rollason
Posted: 08/2/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0
They say truth is often the first casualty of war.
Wayne Selby’s family can attest to that.
Grandfather John Falloon was shot in the chest during a First World War battle, but the bullet never pierced his heart. It was stopped by a shaving mirror and divine intervention… at least that’s how the story went initially.
"When we were growing up, our grandmother always said the bullet had pierced a Bible in his pocket and was stopped by the mirror," Selby said.
"Later, my grandfather set the record straight and said it had actually pierced a deck of cards in his pocket."
The Selby family still has the dented mirror case and a remnant of the enemy bullet.
It is 100 years since the start of the Great War. More than 620,000 Canadians fought, with more than 60,000 dying and another 170,000 wounded.
Earlier this year, we asked readers to share memorabilia that has been passed down through the generations. The response uncovered unique artifacts and colourful stories.
A recent survey illustrates the importance of keeping the memories alive. The national survey of 1,000 Canadians, conducted for family history website Ancestry.ca, found 40 per cent of Canadians didn’t know what role the country played in the Great War, while another eight per cent didn’t know Canada took part in the war.
As well, Manitobans, at 67 per cent, led the way in not knowing Canada’s role.
While Selby knows his grandfather fought at the battles of Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge, he doesn’t know where the bullet incident took place.
"I know it wasn’t the only thing that happened to him. His injuries were pretty severe, but this bullet was stopped over his heart. I know he was wounded enough that he left the front lines. It wasn’t just a little thing."
It was interesting to the family the archival photo that accompanied the Free Press article earlier this year — when the memorabilia request was made — included his grandfather holding a shovel by the trenches at Vimy Ridge.
"My grandmother would say he was lucky to be alive, but he never said anything," Selby said. "He wasn’t one to feel any great sense of fate. He was almost a taciturn fellow, but he really loved his grandchildren. And if the deck of cards and mirror hadn’t been there, there wouldn’t have been seven children and 25 great grandchildren.
"But my dad always said (my grandfather’s) favourite place was the Legion because it was the only place where people knew what he went through and they would talk."
Selby said one of the only things his grandfather opened up to say was the greatest horror wasn’t the battle.
"He was in the burial detail. He said 50,000 bodies (were) put into mass graves. And he said most died not during the battle but later from gangrene and their wounds. That was the one time he opened up."
Selby said he’s the only generation of his family in a few generations not to fight in a conflict. His great-grandfather fought at the Battle of Batoche, his grandfather was in the First World War and his dad was in the Second World War.
"It makes me feel gratitude for our peace and security here," he said.
Brian Baird’s grandfather, Gavin Gibson Baird, came back with the FE2B plane he flew during the war — at least a part of it.
Brian has a piece of the wooden propeller from the plane his grandfather flew on bombing missions.
He crashed when the plane landing in front of him accidently dropped a bomb — fortunately a dud — on the runway. His plane’s lone prop struck it, causing it to break apart on Oct. 4, 1918.
"He was 98 when he died, so I grew up knowing him as a kid," Brian said.
"He called his plane ‘Old Pip’. He would tell us stories and we’d be in awe... there were little marks on the propeller that, when we were kids, we thought were bullet holes. But probably not."
Once, his grandfather told him the engine failed during a bombing mission, and they had to land in a field at night not knowing which side they had landed on.
"They went to a town and had no idea if it was an occupied town or unoccupied. They flipped a coin and they went to a house, knocked on the door, and put their hands up. Turned out it was another English person. That’s when they knew they were OK."
Gavin was born June 20, 1892, in Toronto, and was 24 with no flying experience when he applied to join the British Flying Corps. Six months later, after he was approved, he enlisted in May 1917. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant a few months later before being shipped to England and being assigned to the Lake Down Aerodrome, where he would be taught how to fly the De Havilland DH-4 bomber.
The FE2B plane he flew later was a two-seater — an observer in front and the pilot behind.
"Joe was his observer. His real name was Percival Speakman, but they called him Joe because they didn’t want to call him Percival. I don’t know what happened to him, but he would get emotional when he spoke of him. We don’t know what happened to him."
Like many pilots trained for wartime duty, Baird left his wings behind and never flew a plane again.
"You figure the Wright brothers had started flying in 1903 and 11 years later they were in the air continuously during the war," Brian said.
"They were trained and sent up in the air very quickly. As far as I know, while he flew in a plane again, he never flew a plane again."
Neil Ross has one of the more unusual artifacts a family member brought back from the battlefield.
Along with his grandfathers’ medals, photos and discharge papers, is a bayonet used by a soldier on the German side.
"One of my grandfathers pulled (it) out of a dead Scotsman," Ross said.
"It has come down through the family and in 1975, when nobody seemed to want it, I got it."
Ross said the grandfather — George Desjarlais — likely brought it back during the Battle of the Somme where he was injured.
"He figured the enemy booby-trapped things, but he knew that while the battle was on, no one would have been able to mess with it."
Ross said while Desjarlais was recovering from his wounds in England, he also found another ‘souvenir’ to bring back.
"When he got out of the hospital, he was billeted with a man who owned a bar in London, and his daughter. He met, married and brought his war bride — the daughter — back to Canada."
Ross said his other grandfather — John Ross — was deployed to Vimy Ridge before the big push and was injured during one of the exploratory attacks before the major battle.
"He was blown up and knocked unconscious. He said when he woke up, he had a gas mask on so somebody must have slipped it on him. It was an offence punishable by firing squad to do that — you were told you are not supposed to stop on the battlefield for anything. He didn’t even know who his saviour was."
But John Ross’s souvenir of the war was a life-changing one.
"They wanted to amputate his arm, but he told them no," Ross said.
"They saved his arm, but he could never move his left hand again for the rest of his life. He couldn’t open his hand."
Ross said this grandfather married a woman whose life was also changed by the conflict — she had been engaged to another man, but he was killed in the war.
And Ross said his grandfather’s wartime experience led him to counsel his own son — Ross’s dad — not to join the army during the Second World War.
"He told him to go into the navy — he said no one should fight in the army because he had killed enough people for his country."
Bill Anderson’s grandfather came back with an explosive war souvenir — a Hotchkiss shell.
It was just one of several artifacts William Faulkner brought back after serving with the 3rd Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops. They were the troops who built, maintained and repaired the small-gauge railways that brought supplies and troops to the front lines.
"He had enlisted with the Canadian Army Medical Corps, but when he arrived in France he was immediately transferred to the Canadian Railway Troops," Anderson said.
His grandfather had immigrated to Canada from Ireland before the war; afterwards, he visited his mother in Ireland one last time.
"He had to borrow clothes so she wouldn’t see him in a Canadian uniform. His family was from south Ireland, and they weren’t part of the British Commonwealth so he changed his clothes. It was the anti-British sentiment that was still felt back then."
Anderson said the shell was stripped of explosives long ago.
"I can unscrew the top off it. There’s no charge in it and nothing in the shell itself."
Besides the shell, Faulkner also brought back a bayonet for a Ross rifle, photographs of him in France and his Class A War Service Badge denoting he had seen "service at the front" in France and Belgium.
There were many Canadians who helped the country’s war effort, even though they never picked up arms.
Korey Dyck, director of the Mennonite Heritage Centre, said Mennonites were able to be exempted from service on religious grounds, and they have in their collection cards approved during both the First and Second world wars.
One of them, for David Stoesz, dated May 13, 1918, reads "having been baptized and accepted as member of the Mennonite church… he is exempted from Military Service by Order in Council, dated August 13th 1873 exempting Mennonites from all forms of Military Service."
"One of the core beliefs for the Mennonite church is non-violence and to work for peace," Dyck said.
"If they were drafted into an army so we could kill people that would be the opposite of what we believe in."
But Dyck said just because a Mennonite didn’t serve in the army didn’t mean they didn’t help their country.
"They worked at farms, they worked in factories. They’re not cowards, and they’re not shirkers. It’s more they did their fair share and were of service to your country."
A card received by Allison Bridge’s grandmother at her Winnipeg residence on Truro Street was her only proof her husband, Alexander Bridge, was alive, but in enemy hands.
Bridge still has the small card her grandfather mailed home from a prisoner of war camp in Germany on April 4, 1915.
The card has lines of phrases a soldier can leave or stroke out to send a message, including "I am quite well," which he didn’t stroke out, and "I have been admitted into hospital," which he crossed out.
But, even though the card specifies "NOTHING is to be written on this side… if anything else is added the post card will be destroyed," Bridge added a short line stating "Dear Wife, I am a prisoner of war."
"I know it was sent from Munich, but I don’t know anything about how he was interned," Allison said.
"He ended up dying in Deer Lodge Hospital when I was young, about 1955. I know he was already married to my grandmother before he went to war, but I just remember him being at the hospital."
Margaret McMillan has the same memorabilia the vast majority of Manitobans and Canadians might still have in their possession: their relative’s war medals.
McMillan’s grandfather, Dugald, signed up to fight with the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force in Ottawa on Aug. 24, 1914. He came back with the Military Medal, given for acts of bravery, the 1914-15 Star, given for Canadians who fought between Aug. 5, 1914, and Dec. 31, 1915, the British War Medal, given to all Canadians who fought in the First World War, and the Victory Medal, given to several areas of the service including all ranks of the fighting forces, civilians under contract and those employed with military hospitals.
McMillan said it wasn’t the only war her grandfather fought in.
"He had been in the Boer War previously when he lived in Scotland," she said.
"He signed up again here — he had immigrated to Canada in 1910. It was a different time. But he came back — twice he came back."
Her grandfather later worked as a butcher at a shop on the north side of Portage Avenue at Banning Street, and then as a farmer near Dugald.
"Yes, Dugald lived in Dugald," she said laughing.
McMillan said as a gift to her father a few years ago, she had both his and his father’s medals mounted and framed. Because one of her grandfather’s medals had an inscription on the back, she had the framer cut a window in the matte so the other side can be seen.
Because her grandfather died in 1952, McMillan said: "I don’t know what my grandfather did during the war — all I know is his medals."
Mildred Wright’s father was contemptible — or at least that’s how the German kaiser saw him and others.
Wright’s father, Albert Rosenberg, fought for the British army.
Under the headline "Contemptible — But they held off Kaiser’s Army," Rosenberg was one of four former soldiers who had moved from Britain to Winnipeg in the years after the war and were profiled in the Winnipeg Tribune on the 40th anniversary of the war’s outbreak. The Old Contemptible Association in Winnipeg met monthly for decades after the war ended.
Rosenberg was born in England and served with the Duke of Cornwall light infantry. He was in France in 1914, when the British Expeditionary Forces stopped the German army from crossing France to the ports on the English Channel, after the German kaiser, Wilhelm II, reportedly called the English force’s a "contemptible little army."
Wright said a medal her father received lists the battles of Mons and Ypres that her father fought in.
"He had four brothers who all fought in the war and they all survived," she said.
"But their mother and father died during the war — the worrying got to be too much for them."
Wright said after the war, her father worked for the Vanderbilt family in New York City and met her mother, who also worked for the family. They both came to Winnipeg after the stock market crash and beginning of the Great Depression in 1929.
"He really didn’t like to talk about the war," she said.
"He told us a few stories about the shortages and having to step over bodies in the trenches. He hoped we would never go through another war.
"When World War Two came, he wanted to sign up for it, but he was too old by then."
It might not have held a soldier’s gear for years, but Robert Galston still has a First World War footlocker.
Galston said the footlocker belonged to his late wife Dawn’s dad, Peter G. Agnew, who was in flight training in eastern Canada during the war.
The footlocker, shaped like a trunk, has metal corners and fasteners and the initials P.G.A. inscribed on one side.
Galston said the footlocker was used decades after the war ended because it still contained a dress pattern from 1927, a couple of receipts dated 1937 and 1942, and an old steamship route map.
It also contained a stub for an upper berth train ticket on the Grand Trunk Railway for Toronto to Winnipeg in 1919.
"We’ve had it for a long time, and we always took it with us when we moved. We took it because of family memories," he said.
"We never even stored anything in it."
On a wall in Rick Weind’s house is what looks, at first glance, like a vintage garden implement or a tool used by miners.
In fact, it was one of the most important pieces of equipment soldiers were issued: a personal entrenching tool. It’s the type of shovel used by Canadian soldiers to dig foxholes — from the First World War through to the Korean War.
Weind said the shovel belonged to his wife’s grandmother’s second husband, William "Bill" Jones.
"When we bought our house, my father-in-law, who had worked with Bill, pulled this shovel out and said Bill had been at Vimy Ridge and this was there. That’s the only source for it."
The metal has a fading stamp embossed with the year 1915 on it.
"All we know is he (Jones) held onto it," Weind said.
"You can sure see you can use it for digging. And because it doesn’t have a long handle, I could see someone carrying it."
It may only be a piece of paper, but the one in Pauline Rowe’s possession is heavy with history.
Her father, Clayton Sands, was a signaller and at 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, he received a message sent out in Morse code by the 4th Canadian Division.
"Hostilities will cease at 11:00... troops will stand fast on the line reached at that hour which will be reported to Corps H.Q... defensive precautions will be maintained.
"There will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy."
Sands ran the message over to his superior at 10:45 a.m.
Rowe doesn’t know how her father kept the message after it was delivered; all she knows is her dad knew its importance and kept it. He later framed it where it was displayed on a wall in the family home for decades.
"It was very special to my dad," she said.
"You can just imagine. He was 20 years old and sitting there in the morning and then he gets a message the hostilities will cease. It must have been ‘wow!’ "
Other than the signal message, her dad didn’t talk about his wartime experiences, Rowe said.
"He was only a signaller for a very brief time," she said.
"He was a gunner and he was injured and got shrapnel in his knee. He was sent to England to recuperate, and when he was sent back he returned as a signaller."
Rowe said her dad’s war injury had to be treated through his life.
"The shrapnel would come up to the surface and we’d have to go to Deer Lodge and get it taken out — this happened a few times.
"But he came back — his brother didn’t."
As for the framed signal, Rowe — who worked as a secretary at a school in Pine Falls — would bring it in to show the students during Remembrance Day activities.
"It really brought the war home to them."
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