Ralph Wild remembers a lot of things.
He remembers the Nazis taking Czechoslovakia and Austria in 1938, marching across the European continent only 20 years after what was thought to be the war to end all wars had ended with the signing of the Armistice. He remembers the feeling of impending danger, that another battle was around the corner, that peace was anything but certain. He remembers being conscripted into the British armed services that year.
At 101 years old, Wild remembers more than most can ever hope to know. He was born at the tail end of the First World War, coming of age in time to serve in the Second World War. At the city-wide Remembrance Day ceremony Monday morning, the white-mustached, blue-eyed Air Force veteran stood and saluted as thousands around him paid their respects to those who gave their time, effort and lives to fight.
"At that stage, we were only doing our jobs," said Wild in a delicate Yorkshire accent. "But then you realize that in essence you were fighting for your country; and we won, and I feel very proud that I was a part of that."
Many people at the ceremony, held at the RBC Convention Centre, had also been touched by war. There were veterans from all parts of the military, those on active duty, and hundreds of community members driven to spend their mornings, like Ralph Wild, remembering.
Sadly, there have been many wars, and many victims to remember. The very Reverend Paul N. Johnson, addressing the audience, read that over 66,500 Canadians died in the First World War, nearly 45,000 in the Second, over 500 in Korea, and 158 in Afghanistan, in addition to 130 Canadian peacekeepers killed in operations around the world.
"Oh yes, we will remember them," he said.
As the ceremony rolled on, representatives from all levels of the Canadian government, as well as veterans from numerous wars and representing different communities, laid down wreaths at the foot of a cross, a few feet away from a Canadian flag.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, and Saint Boniface-Saint Vital Member of Parliament Dan Vandal each placed a wreath, with the politicians sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the front row.
A few steps to the left, a massive blanket of crocheted and knitted poppies draped over a table, with onlookers stopping by to admire it. Over 8,000 poppies made up the 26-metre-long blanket, a project spearheaded by Winnipeg’s Sheilah Lee Restall as a way to honour the military. Over 2,000 ribbons adorned the blanket, many bearing the names of Manitoban soldiers killed during the First World War.
"I’m trying to find my great-great-uncle," said one man, who looked to be in his seventies.
Throughout the ceremony, the Royal Canadian Air Force Band played.
The mood was sombre, but many of the attendees were proud when given an opportunity to reflect on what Remembrance Day meant to them.
"As immigrants here in Canada, we take pride in doing this every year," said Second Lieutenant Narize Beloro of the Royal Canadian Air Force, who attended the ceremony with her husband, Cpl. Andrew Beloro, and their two children, Iaine and Eli. "Giving back something that Canada has provided for us, it makes us proud to serve."
For Bill Neil, the former chairman of the Joint Veterans Association, and at 98, one of the oldest surviving veterans of the Second World War, Remembrance Day is about unity.
"Canada does not mean a bunch of soldiers," said Neil, a former Sergeant Major who lost his left arm on June 6, 1944, D-Day. "It means everybody. It means you and me, every person in this whole room. We are all Canada, and that is why we’re here."
"I would never miss this," he said of the ceremony.
Though Wild is proud to have served, he says the lessons his father, a proud pacifist, taught him have stuck with him for his entire life.
"He asked, ‘Isn’t it more logical to sit across a table and talk? You give a bit, I give a bit, you eventually shake hands and walk away. It costs the country nothing,’" Wild recalled. "You haven’t lost life."
"Wars have been going on for centuries, and as things stand, wars will continue on," he added. "Arguments never get anybody anywhere," he added.
Wild was born in September 1918, on the eve of the Armistice, and served during the Battle of Britain, so his view of history is long and informed by experience. He said that the costs of war are enormous. It can destroy cities and towns, end the lives of men, women and children, and change people forever, forcing the world to pick up the pieces and rebuild.
"[Ceremonies on Remembrance Day] should be carried on," he said. "If it disappears into the background, it’s forgotten. The sacrifice should be recognized and preserved for posterity."
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
Updated on Monday, November 11, 2019 at 4:35 PM CST: Adds photo