Remembrance Day

It’s Remembrance Day today. We sat together as a family and watched the CBC coverage of the ceremony at our nation’s capital, as is our tradition on this morning. I’m a total mush about the occasion. The faces of the teary-eyed old men make me cry. Most of them don’t talk about their experiences easily, if at all, but the older they get, the more easily the tears seem to come. These are men who were brought up to believe that men don’t cry, and the seeing the stripping away of a lifetime of stoicism when they stand and remember breaks my heart.

And then, of course, there’s the mother, chosen from among those who have lost a son or daughter to represent all mothers. She puts a lump in my throat every year, whoever she is, her presence all the reminder I need to think about the fact that every single soldier is someone’s child.

Whatever political good comes or doesn’t come from Canada’s presence in Afghanistan, 133 Canadians have been killed there so far, mostly by improvised explosive devices. Their loss has added a fresh poignancy to Remembrance Day services here. TV coverage shows bigger crowds at every venue. There are children in our country who once again know first-hand what it means to lose a parent serving overseas. What was beginning to seem to some to be irrelevant history is new again, and with the new relevance, the boys killed in WWI and WWII are no longer too distant to mourn for those who had started to forget. Instead, they’re reflected in the faces of today’s soldiers, and we remember.

I’ve always believed in the importance of Remembrance Day, so I like to see the crowds, see the tomb of the unknown soldier covered completely in poppies, see hours of national TV coverage devoted to the day. But the heart of the day is always in the individuals, not the crowd. Here are some of mine:

– my paternal grandfather worked as a trainer at in WWII, in a job that meant he readied too many boys to go off to be killed, and it was too much for him to bear. He died a few years later, unable to recover from what his job had meant;

– my great grand uncle served with the Australian forces in WWI. He was wounded, but went on to live decades more. As the family genealogist, I was thrilled when Australia released digital versions of WWI service files online and I was able to read where he’d been and exactly what had happened to him. These are an invaluable resource to anyone researching WWI military history. You can find them here;

– my great uncle learned to swim when his ship was torpedoed off the coast of Africa in WWII. The story goes that he came ashore wearing nothing but his boots. He had a lucky unlucky streak: he was on two torpedoed ships and got hit by a jeep during his service, but died fifty years after the war at home in Scotland;

– during my teaching practicum, I invited a holocaust survivor to speak to my grade eight class as part of our unit on The Diary of Anne Frank. His story captivated us and silenced even the biggest handful in the class from the moment he showed us his Auschwitz ID tattoo until the end of his tale. I’ll never forget hearing his experiences and seeing the distant look in his eye while he related them because he was there, seeing it all over again, as he spoke;

– my best friend’s husband currently serves in the Canadian Navy. He served in the Persian Gulf. He’s away for a few days on an exercise, but it otherwise home at the moment. Long may that continue.

Whom do you remember?


  1. Julie K
    Nov 11, 2009

    I remember my grandfather, who was just a few months too young to be sent overseas. So he signed up, but lied about his age – he made himself nine months older to be able to go.

    My great-grandfather ended up going down to the station with my grandfather’s birth certificate and had him pulled from the train because he was too young. The war ended just one month before he would have been old enough to go.

    The interesting part was finding his service record online. I almost thought it wasn’t him, because the birth date was wrong. But that just proved the family story.

    And even though they’re here and not gone, I remember my husband’s parents. They were both children in Holland during the Second World War and have some truly remarkable (and I’m sure horrifying) memories. Memories of friends and neighbours who went away and never came back. Stories of scavenging food to have enough. There were not enough clothes and shoes for my father-in-law and his twin brother, so they alternated days of going to school to get by. His older brothers had to hide in a swamp for years so they wouldn’t be taken to work in the German munitions factory. My mother-in-law’s father was a baker and in the Resistance, so he never told his family where he was going so they couldn’t tell if asked or threatened.

    It’s all these stories and so many more, from so many more people, that have me stand in my living room during the moment of silence with tears running down my cheeks.

    • Kathy
      Nov 11, 2009

      Thanks for sharing these, Julie. I can almost picture what your grandfather’s face must’ve looked like when his dad showed up to pull him off that train.

  2. A Novel Woman
    Nov 12, 2009

    The Canadian Letters and Images Project has some diary entries and letters from my great-uncle George to his mother during the first world war. He talks about what it was like in Toronto when the news was coming in, and signing up, then his tour of duty in France. Fascinating stuff.

    My uncle was in the RCAF as a navigator in WWII and we only learned after his death that he participated in 39 bombing missions. Odds were definitely against him. And my other uncle was in the army and came home with shrapnel in his leg.

    I’m with you. I watch the ceremony every year and cry silent tears for all the old soldiers and the young ones currently serving.

  3. worldwar1letters
    Nov 21, 2009

    Readers may also be interested in the writings home from the front of US Sgt. Sam Avery. Fascinating eyewitness history from the hot sands along the Rio Grande to the cold mud along the Meuse. Letters are posted on the same day they were written from the trenches 91 years ago. Long before the Greatest Generation there was the Most Gallant Generation. Come visit the blog and march along.