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Mementoes of war

Artifacts from First World War passed down through generations

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.

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GEORGE DESJARLAIS

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."

 

WILLIAM FAULKNER

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.

 

DAVID STOESZ

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."

 

ALEXANDER BRIDGE

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."

 

DUGALD MCMILLAN

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."

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