Yesterday was Remembrance Day — November 11th, the day we pause to think about all those who lost their lives in the two World Wars, and in Korea and all the conflicts that have happened since.
It’s also the day we assemble to thank the remaining veterans for their sacrifice, and shake the hand of those who are serving today.
When I was a child, we went to the cenotaph in my hometown to join the small ceremony. And when I moved abroad, I observed those 2 minutes of silence in my apartment or office.
But this year my wife and I flew to England, and took the train to Pershore, a small town in Worcestershire.
There are 41 Canadian airmen buried in the war graves section of the cemetery there, including my grandfather, Air Gunner Sergeant Alton O’Neil.
I have only two memories of my grandfather.
The first is a second-hand recollection. We were sitting at the kitchen table of my mother’s aunt — her father’s sister — on West Broadway Street in Montreal. Aunt Aileen was telling my mother childhood stories of her father, because my mother never knew him. He was killed soon after she was born.
I remember that we were eating green onions, picked fresh from their backyard garden and dipped in a little bowl of salt. And I remember the affectionate sound of Aunt Aileen’s voice when she spoke of him.
She said, “Alton couldn’t keep any secrets, because he talked in his sleep. Whenever he would come home from a date, my sister and I would wait until he fell asleep, and then we would question him about what happened. He always answered. And he was always shocked and embarrassed by how much we knew.”
My other memory is of a small box that my mother kept in the safety deposit vault at the Royal Bank. There was a medal, and a couple old photos, and a telegram printed on very thin paper which simply said, “Killed overseas.” There was no other information on where or how he died. And until four or five years ago, that’s all any of us knew.
We found out when my cousin Charles saw a news story about a small village in England that was naming some streets after fallen Canadian servicemen. He got in touch with local Royal Naval Association Secretary Trudy Burge, who keeps an excellent website dedicated to the war dead buried there. And he flew over for the service back in 2012.
Trudy and her father Ted Annis have done so much to care for the graves of these Canadian soldiers, and to ensure that their sacrifice and their lives are remembered.
Yesterday my wife and I attended a ceremony next to the Abbey, which was held especially for the local schoolchildren. They turned out in such a large group. And they read passages about the meaning of Remembrance Day, and laid wreaths to honour the fallen.
And then we drove over to the Pershore cemetery for the ceremony at the war graves. The local associations and many residents turned out, and a representative of the Canadian Forces was in attendance to place a wreath on behalf of our country.
I placed flowers on the memorial on behalf of the family, and a small arrangement of poppies on my grandfather’s grave.
I was also honoured to place poppies on the graves of several other Canadian airmen, on behalf of their families. Trudy Burge of the RNA makes sure that this is done each year, on November 11th and Christmas.
Afterwards, we had lunch at the club of the Royal Naval Association, and raised a glass with the fine men and women there. Several had served in Malta, and we heard stories about other times in our current home base. We heard stories about the Canadians who were based in Pershore from men who were just children at the time.
Later that afternoon, Trudy and her husband Andy drove us past the old airfield where my grandfather and these men had lived. And they took us to see the field where he died.
I felt a bit strange being in Pershore. Until then, seeing those old photographs of my grandfather was a bit like reading about a character in a book. It was difficult to connect a real person with an image of someone I’d never known.
But his narrative was given colour and context after standing beside that long row of graves with their stark white stones. Seeing the abandoned control tower at nearby RAF Pershore. And seeing the hillside where my grandfather and his crew crashed in their Wellington bomber after an engine failure sent them into a stall. The aircraft plummeted to the ground with such force that one of the engines was found years later, 9 feet deep in the hill.
The entire crew was killed on impact. And all 5 men were Canadian.
There’s a small memorial on that same hillside today, with a maple tree and a plaque with the names of all 5 airmen. And on the day we visited, local schoolchildren had left 5 crosses with poppies at the base of the stand.
When I see these war graves — all over Europe, and in far flung places like Burma — the first thing that strikes me is the age of these men. My grandfather was 28 years old when he died, and the soldier in the grave beside his was 18.
I stood there and thought about where I was and what I was doing when I was 28. I had recently finished university, and that was the year I went to Central America and then moved to Japan. My entire life was stretched out before me. But not theirs.
I also thought about people like my mother. All those families robbed of a future they should have had. Children like her who never knew their father. Wives whose husbands — sometimes married briefly, and in haste — went away to serve and never came back. Parents whose children’s lives were cut short, in their 20’s and 30’s, along with the future grandchildren they would never know.
Along with those men vanished so many memories. Books that would never be written. Inventions never brought into the world. Discoveries unmade. Futures lost, but willingly sacrificed.
I also think of those men from my hometown who went to Europe to fight. They told me that the war was the most incredible thing that would ever happen to them. They experienced immense trials, but also companionship, excitement, strange cities, love, danger, and a wider world.
And then they went back to those small towns and took up jobs as shopkeepers or salesmen. They had families and lived out their lives. But they did so knowing that the life they had lived in their twenties was the most vibrant, exciting, fully alive period they would ever experience, and that nothing like it would ever happen to them again.
No one else would understand what they had been through, either. And so they met each Friday at the local small town Legion, and they told the same stories again and again with the other veterans. But there are fewer of these men every year.
I wonder sometimes if our generation would be capable of their sort of courage?
It seems as though we’re so pampered today, that we live with such a sense of entitlement compared to their generation. Could I go off to fight, like the old man around the corner from the house where I grew up? He was a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain. And when he returned, he went back to his life and never talked about it. It was just something you did, because it needed to be done.
We owe it to these men to remember their sacrifice — many gave their lives, others their youth, their health, or their limbs.
But Remembrance Day is not just some rote thing that we line up to do, putting our phones away out of obligation to observe that 2 minutes of silence.
We remember because these men weren’t just numbers on a list, or just one stone among a vast field of war graves. These were people who suffered. Individuals, each with their own hopes and dreams. Their loss rippled outward to families and communities, and empty places at tables. And we honour them by keeping their memory alive.
We must also remember what they did, because the job they started is far from over. They passed the baton to us, the generation who came after. And our role is to create a world where that kind of suffering and dying is no longer necessary.
These men showed us what we could be, and what we are capable of in our finest hour.
Remembering these men as individuals brings home the enormity of their sacrifice.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.