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Remembrance Challenge - Remembrance is a Living Thing


Cover photo: my mother's family in 1945, after the early death of my grandfather, Thomas James Reid, veteran of World War I


My maternal grandfather served in the First World War. A mining engineer, he enlisted in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Forces in 1915, at the age of 28, and served as a sapper in the north of France. By the time he was discharged in 1918, he had been wounded by shrapnel, subjected to gas attacks, and developed tachycardia.

At the end of the war he returned home, married my grandmother, and they set about having and raising a family.

When Canada entered the Second World War, my uncle, the only son in the family of four, lied about his age and entered the Royal Canadian Air Force. While in training he proposed to his village sweetheart and was eager to marry before being sent overseas. My grandparents dissuaded him from doing so, pointing out, quite rightly, that if he did not survive he would leave behind him not only a widow but very likely a child. I cannot imagine the toll it took upon them to broach the subject of possible death in action with their only son, and to frame it, not in the context of what they, his parents, would suffer, but in terms of the responsibilities he would be assuming, as both an enlisted man and a husband and father.

My uncle survived, his parents were spared the pain of losing him, but my grandfather did not live to see his son return. At the age of 57 he suffered a massive heart attack and died. His life was shortened by his service in the first war, his health seriously damaged by the shelling and the gas attacks.

Remembrance Day was, for us, a day of profound importance and grief shared with all those who had suffered, whether they were surviving veterans or families and loved ones of those who served and died. My grandfather, who died long before any of his grandchildren were born, was a presence to us by grace of being absent, talked about with love and regret by my grandmother, my mother, and my aunts and uncle. His early death was caused by that war; his memory became indissociable from it. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that in my family we were taught remembrance. Remembrance Day was, and still is, deeply personal for me. It is heightened and augmented because it is shared with so many others who have their own histories, memories, and losses.

I have lived in France for over thirty years. Remembrance of the wars and of those who fought, those who suffered, those who left or were deported, never to return, lives on. The city I live in was occupied by the Germans in the Second World War. There were atrocities exacted on the civilian population, there were mass arrests and deportation to both concentration camps and forced labour camps. In addition to the official monuments there are many memorials affixed to the walls of buildings, testimonials to the horrors enacted at those places, and the names of those who suffered them. At various times of the year, fresh flowers are placed against those plaques, a visible sign of remembrance.

Remembrance is a living thing, as war memorials, museums, preserved battle grounds and sites of atrocities demonstrate. Visiting any of them has been difficult, but two in particular marked me quite profoundly.

One is the Canadian war memorial at Vimy Ridge, in northern France. We were taken to see it on a bleak, damp, grey January day. At the approach to Vimy is a sign stating that you are about to enter Canadian territory. Vimy Ridge was taken by Canadian troops from the Germans during the First World War, after a battle that lasted four days, with more than 10,000 wounded and dead. The site was acknowledged by the French government in 1922 as Canadian territory in gratitude for the sacrifice of the Canadian people. The monument honours the more than 11,000 Canadians who died in the war for whom there is no known burial site. The spirit of my grandfather, who returned from that war, was very much with me on that visit to Vimy Ridge.

The second place is a memorial from the Second World War, that of the martyred village of Oradour-sur-Glane. On the 10th of June, 1944, the Germans closed access to and from the village and proceeded to massacre all 642 men, women and children. A few unintended survivors lived to bear witness to what was done to them. The German troops destroyed the entire village, the ruins of which have been left as a reminder of the atrocity. Vestiges of the life that once existed there remain: a sewing machine seen through the ruined frame of a window, or the burnt out carcass of the car of the village doctor. At the entrance to the Memorial Centre, there is a sign in both French and English, and here I will close, as no more need be said:


Souviens-Toi - Remember




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