This is a timely post. I don’t usually like to write based on calendar events, but if writing about Remembrance Day at the beginning of November makes my post more likely to be read, then I’m all for it.
I have a special interest in war commemoration. A few years ago I began a project to research and document the soldiers of the First World War connected to my hometown in the Windermere Valley. The region was settled relatively recently, so while the museum has plenty of information on veterans of the Second World War, it was sparse on the Great War. I had little idea just how sparse until I got started.
Armed with a list of names from the local war memorial and a 1930’s photo of men gathered in front of the local Legion, I got to work. It was a challenging task. I wanted to make my research accessible and relevant to the general public, so the usual name and regimental number wasn’t going to be enough. My goal was to try and bring these people alive as much as I could by sharing where they were born, where they lived, what they did for a living, and (if possible), include a photo. In other words, I was looking for as much a story of their lives as I could get.
At each step I encountered problems. For example the names on the cenotaph consisted of a first initial and a last name, and tracking down who that person was with only that information was a challenge. There are a couple that I never was able to find. N Brown and K Matthews, after all, give very little to go on, especially when not all of the names on this plaque are guaranteed to be given names. On another memorial plaque in the area I was given the name T Cay, and digging in archival records I found a C.B. Cay. Yes, turns out it was the same person. For some reason though I still wasn’t able to tie this man to a military record, until I discovered that the man’s given name was actually Albert Jaffray.
As I said, it was a challenge.
Meanwhile, my list of a couple dozen names quickly expanded to well over one hundred, including soldiers who had been in the area before the war and veterans who moved there afterwards and became part of the community. It was a research project that expanded to a scale I never imagined, especially given the (I thought) sparsely populated area I was working with. But after spending endless months learning about the participants, I found that they had all somehow become “my boys”. I had an interest in each and every one of them.
In the process, the landscape of the area where I grew up changed for me. I had attended Remembrance Day ceremonies for years, but the impact of the First World War hadn’t sunk in on a local level. Now everywhere I go I am reminded of stories. There’s the boy who lied about his age to enlist. His family tell about how none of his siblings got chocolate in those years – it was all sent to their brother, who was fighting for their country. Or there’s the Captain whose right side was permanently paralyzed from an injury during the war. He enjoyed riding horses, and stubbornly learned to ride again despite his injury.
Then there are those who didn’t make it, and, as I was quick to learn, not all are listed on the local war memorial. These are men whose lives in the area were fleeting at best: a couple of hopeful years starting a new life in a new country before being called back to fight, never to return. One career army man and his wife were only in the valley for a couple of years before he was called back to England to fight. He didn’t survive, and his wife never returned, but she remembered their time in Canada as the happiest in her life. For another family currently in England, the fact that two brothers on their family tree were in Canada at all was a recent revelation; family knowledge that had been forgotten. Neither brother made it through the war, but their names are inscribed on the plaque of our small town memorial. The family was touched when I sent them the photo. We remember them too.
There are times when I wish there was a way for people to see the world the way a historian does. To see the stories and the connections around them. Remembrance Day is one of those times. As we gather together to remember the sacrifices and suffering that war brings, I wish I could share what I see when I read those names inscribed on the plaque. I remember them, I remember the dead who aren’t recorded, and I remember the men who lived and quietly carried their wounds for the rest of their lives. Their stories are embedded in the fabric of the communities; so deeply that they are often overlooked.
But I remember them.