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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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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.

GAVIN GIBSON BAIRD

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."

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