Over the past couple of months our family lost both my Mom (she was 94) and my Uncle Dick (92). They had been my closest surviving connections to the World War II era, and their passing has left not only an emotional hole, but has also marked the end of an era for our family. My Uncle went to war as an 18 year old and ended up flying a Lancaster bomber in the Pacific Theatre. He, like my Dad (infantry) and my two other uncles - George (Army Corps of Engineers) and Nicky (a Spitfire pilot who was shot down over the Mediterranean and captured) were central figures in my childhood. But, although I will always think of my Dad and my Uncles who served in World War II, and of the military friends I made during my time posted with the Canadian Forces in West Germany in the 1970s and 80s, my thoughts this year go to my Grandfather who was a veteran of the First World War. His name was James Walter Sharpe.
Just over 100 years ago, on August 5, 1914 my Grandpa Sharpe, received a telegram. He was in Burk's Falls, Ontario visiting his Uncle James, who was his and my namesake. The telegram was short and to the point. I have it in a small frame at home, and it reads like this:
St. Catharines, Ont. AUG. 5/14
Mr. J.W. Sharpe
19th ordered to mobilize at 12 o'clock today. Hurry back.
R.N. Adie, Lieut.
The next day he hopped on the train, made his way home, and reported for duty. He was a corporal and eventually a sergeant in the 19th battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and after being formally mustered with the rest of the army at the Exhibition Grounds in Toronto, and trained in High Park, he left on May 12, 1915 to set sail for England. (That's him standing in the middle of the picture on his troop ship heading to war.) By September of that same year the 19th had been deployed in Boulogne in France to begin over four years service on the European continent. My grandfather only spoke sparingly to us about his wartime experiences, but places like Passchendaele and Ypres (or "Wipers" as he called it) became part of the family vocabulary. A century ago this month, he was injured in battle and eventually was sent home with shrapnel imbedded in his back that he would carry around for the rest of his life. He married, had children, had many wonderful years with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and finally died at the age of 96. Our family, unlike so many others, was one of the lucky ones.
But when I think back about the wise and wonderful man that I knew growing up, I try to imagine what it must have been like for him to get that telegram over a century ago. He was 25 years old, the same age as some of the young teachers and tutors in our school. Just a kid, heading off to one of the most brutal conflicts in history. He was a man of the 19th century and here in the 21st, I don’t know what he was thinking on that day, or how he felt during his years in the trenches, because in the 35 years that I knew him as a child and a young adult, he would never talk about it. It was just part of him.
We have been discussing, as a school community, both how to best honour the traditions of Remembrance Day and to keep it relevant and meaningful for our students. That balancing act will see us recognize and thank those who went before us to sacrifice their youth and, for many, their lives so that their families and descendants could live in peace. We will also celebrate and honour those members of our current society who continue to reach out to serve and support people in Canada and around the world who are in danger or great need. For the majority of our students, and even teachers and parents, Remembrance Day has become a little abstract, and is more about history, than personal stories. So I welcome the efforts by our staff to keep the importance of the day fresh and relevant.
As for me, I have lots to remember and a deep personal and family connection to a war that ended 99 years ago this Saturday. Appropriately, this week I ventured into one of our classrooms during a rainy lunch hour and the students were watching “The Book of Life”. The basic message of the film is that as long as we remember someone, they will live forever. So, for me on this Remembrance Day, I will remember my Grandfather and I will make it my job to remind my children and grandchildren about his story so that they will remember him too. It is the least that I can do, because anyone as brave and selfless as he was, deserves to live forever in all of our hearts.