On Remembrance day, we join the large turnout of witnesses to our ceremonies at the Cenotaph in Centennial Park on our island. It is always a moving ceremony-often in miserable driving rain. The parade includes veterans, legion members, the police force, fire department, search and rescue, cadets and Brownies all marching in step. There are bagpipes that always bring tears and of course the Last Post.
The prayer. The singing. We all sing God Save the King for the first time. Over the years my wife and I have stood with our sons who are now 15 and 17. When they were very young solemnly holding their hands, my face would stream with tears thinking of the sacrifice of young men and women in previous generations, certain in the conviction that our boys would not know war. Now, I am not so sure they won’t be called fourth to make the ultimate sacrifice, and I think that they are also not so certain.
I think of my grandfather Harold “Deke”Alexander Dunlop, who like other teenagers in Kingston, Ontario and across our country, stepped up to fight in Europe at the start of the first world war. There is a profound contrast between the photo of a boy taken the day he shipped out, and one of the man who returned after recovering from wounds well after the war ended (see the photo below).
When I was a young boy my grandfather would engage me with the pigeon French he had learned in the theatre of war. Grandpa would sing some of the ribald versions of songs like ‘Hinky Dinky Parlez-vous’, clandestinely smoking a cigarette behind the swinging door out of sight of my grandmother Francis. By some accounts, Deke was “a rip” who enjoyed his refreshments and his nickname the ‘deacon’ was imbued with not so subtle irony.
I remember my grandfather showing me the so-called war box (see photo below) that he kept under his bed. We would spread the contents out and he would share it with me. Subsequent boyhood visits would have me asking to see it again. In later years, the box passed to my mother’s second husband John, and upon John’s death, to me. I have shared it with my boys.
As an adult the contents resonated in a profound way. Letters home to his mother, cheerfully described how they had the enemy on the run and he appreciated the socks and biscuits. My mother had shared that grandpa was at Ypres in Belgium, and in my early 40s, I made a personal pilgrimage to the town.
The Second Battle of Ypres was Canada’s first major battle set in Flanders in the Ypres Salient – a section of the front line surrounding the town. From April 22 to 25, 1915, the 1st Canadian Division fought with great determination against overwhelming odds, including the first lethal chlorine gas attack of the war, and paid a massive cost with approximately 6,000 casualties, many of whom are buried nearby. I spend hours in the salient museum which a few decades later at the 100th anniversary of the war, was refurbished and renamed the “In Flanders Fields Museum.”
I attended the daily playing of the Last Post. At 8 o’clock, the police halt the traffic passing under the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing to allow the buglers to play their moving tribute. In my half-sized travel journal, I ruminated on the pure misery soldiers on both sides endured. I thought of the boy-manchild, my grandfather, as I looked at the dioramas reconstructing the trenches to help we the living, understand in a small way.