I was a young boy when the Second World War ended. However, I remember the event vividly, and easily recall the celebratory bonfires that lit the sky on VE Day, when the war ended in Europe. In November of 1945, the school I attended commemorated the lives of those who paid the supreme sacrifice.
In the novel “Arse Over Teakettle,” a story of a family struggling to cope during the war years in Toronto, I employed memories of my first Remembrance Day to write the section that tells about the fictional character, Tom Hudson.” In the story, he experienced the event at D. B. Hood School in York Township, in the days before the district was amalgamated with the city of Toronto.
In the classroom, preparations commenced for the Remembrance Day service. Miss Simpson read to us the poem “In Flanders Field” by John McCrae, born in Guelph, Ontario. We recited the words in unison. In art class, we cut paper poppies from red construction paper, gluing small black dots in the centres and assembling them by employing the tasty mint-flavoured glue. Miss Simpson displayed the pictures that we painted during art classes on a large bulletin board, the top of which she draped with a ribbon of black crepe paper.
In music, we learned the song “O Valiant Hearts.” I noticed that the teacher’s voice choked with emotion as she read aloud the words of the sacred song. I was confused. I understood the depth of her feelings, and yet knew that I did not truly understand. My parents had not served in the war, so I had been insulated from the suffering that others families had endured. The rationing and food shortages had not affected me, as my mom had shouldered the responsibility of providing the food that appeared on our table.
However, the Remembrance Day service of 1945 was to become a major step in my journey along the road to comprehending the terrible consequences of war. There was no auditorium or gymnasium in D. B Hood School, so we had no physical education program or a proper place to gather for an assembly. The only large space available was the basement, where they placed many long rows of wooden benches to accommodate the classes.
On the 10th of November at 10:30 in the morning, we marched quietly, class by class, and sat, row by row, for the Remembrance Day service. Our teachers warned, “Remain quiet and respectful. No talking whatsoever.” We knew that the rule would be quietly but firmly enforced.
The service was to be a new experience for me. I knew about the thousands of deaths and the horrors of battle, as I had heard the details on the radio and viewed war films at the Grant Theatre. I had often listened as my dad read aloud newspaper articles about the conflict. However, these did not prepare me for the depth of emotion that I was to experience on this day.
The service commenced with a brief introduction by Mr. Macdonald, who reminded us again that no talking was allowed and that we were expected us to “sit tall” on the benches. We stood and sang the hymn “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past,” the words written in 1719 by Isaac Watts. My grandmother often hummed this sacred song, and I had heard it sung at services at our church. My thoughts were interrupted when the minister from St. Simeon’s Anglican Church stood to pray and read from the Bible. Next, Mr. Stivers, the vice-principal, read John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields.”
I had previously recited the poem in the classroom, but now it seemed to possess new meaning. The impact of the line “Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow” struck my young heart. The words were fully within my realm of understanding. In early morn, from beneath the window blind in my bedroom, I had felt the warmth of the sun as it edged upward in a summer sky. I had seen the glow of sunset as the ball of fire fell behind the houses across the road from our house. I had felt its warmth caress my face. What would it be like to lose it? Was this similar to the way kids felt when they lost their dads in battle?
Mr. Stivers interrupted my thoughts when he commenced quoting the words of Lawrence Binyon.
They shall not grow 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 shall remember them.
The words “At the going down of the sun” struck me. Again, there was a reference to the loss of light. I was certain this was a part of death. I thought of my uncle Will and remembered the “going down” of the casket lid, the light forever shut from his face. Understanding that had been previously denied me was now slowly dawning. Binyon’s words were true! My Uncle Will would never grow old, as in my mind he would always appear as the smiling man at the bottom of the stairs on Christmas Eve.
Next, Mr. Scott, a grade seven teacher, stepped to the podium. He was tall, well over six feet, with the broad shoulders of a football player. Though prematurely bald, his face was young. In a voice husky with emotion, he read the Honour Roll, containing the names of those who had “paid the supreme sacrifice.”
Nothing in my life had prepared me for the reactions that I now witnessed. Tears ran down Mr. Scott’s cheeks, and I heard muffled sobs among several of the teachers. I had never before seen teachers cry. When Mr. Scott read the final name, he paused and gazed at us. “Several teachers from our school went overseas,” he paused again the added, “and never returned. Some of my boyhood friends were killed, and one teacher at our school lost a brother.” I felt the depth of his sorrow as he spoke.
“Former students, only teenagers when they enlisted in the armed forces, answered the call and were shipped overseas. Some never returned. The streets of our neighbourhood will never again hear them call out to friends. Their young voices will never join in a hymn in a church, cheer at a ballpark, or laugh at Abbott and Costello in a movie theatre. They are gone forever.
“However, in reality, they are not gone. On an occasion such as this, we remember that they were once a part of our lives. Their blood is our blood. They will be forever mourned in our hearts. We will never forget them. Resurrection morn is not restricted to heavenly realms. It is here—today. The fallen have been reborn in our memories.”
There was complete silence as he sat down. I didn’t fully understand his final words, but I sensed their importance.
In the row ahead of me, twin sisters cried quietly. Their dad had been a caretaker at the school, and their two older brothers had attended D .B. Hood. They had all enlisted in the navy. I had heard their names when Mr. Scott read the list of those who had perished. Their names were no longer simply names. I could picture their faces. They were real people. Once, they had walked the streets of my neighbourhood.
At 11:00 a.m., we solemnly stood for the “The Last Post,” followed by two minutes silence. Some teachers cried quietly, their sobbing barely audible, despite the quietness of the moment. Then, they played “Reveille.” I saw Miss Simpson’s frail body shake with grief. I felt her pain and wondered whom she had lost. Observing the people around me, I began to understand that war was not as they portrayed it in the movies, where it was a gloriously exciting adventure. Soldiers died. Families were torn apart by war. I thought about my uncle Will and how my grandmother had suffered. The teachers and pupils around me were experiencing the same emotions.
The minister delivered a short sermon. I only remember a few of his words. He began by quoting a verse that I recognized from Sunday services, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Then, he continued in a solemn voice, “When you are in the schoolyard or playing on the streets in your neighbourhood, sometimes a bully threatens one of your friends.” I thought about the bully, Kramer. “If this happens,” he said, “you will likely defend your pal. This is the right thing to do. Defending a friend is an important part of friendship. However, would you risk harm to protect a stranger? This is a more difficult course of action, as you are not fighting to protect a friend, but simply because it is the correct path to follow.
“Think of the soldiers who died in the war. They gave their lives not only for their friends and families, but for everyone in Canada. They paid the sacrifice for us all, even though they did not know us. This was indeed a noble sacrifice and is the reason that we gather here today. Could you give up your life for a stranger?” At this point in the sermon, my mind wandered. He spoke for about five or six minutes more, but I do not recall his other words. I thought about his idea of sacrificing for friends. Could a man really give up his life, just because it was the right thing to do?
While sitting on the bench in the service, I recalled a discussion that had occurred a week earlier in the kitchen of my home. My uncle Jimmy, my dad’s older brother, had visited and remained for supper. After the meal, the adults sat around the table and talked as they sipped their tea. My brother had departed from the table, but I remained, listening to the conversation. They mentioned the hardships of the war years, and my Uncle Jimmy told my parents that he was grateful that he had been too old to serve in the second war, as the first war had been so terrible. He told them a story about one of his experiences.
“The memories of serving overseas in the First World War haunt me today. In the trenches, I saw friends blown to pieces, their limbs flying through the air. The filthy water surrounding me was red with blood. When the shelling ceased, I sat in the freezing mud, which was alive with rats. If I remained motionless too long, the creatures assumed I was dead and began gnawing on my fingers or any exposed flesh. The cold penetrated my bones, and by the time daylight arrived, I almost wished a bullet would end my miseries.
“One incident, I shall never forget. On Christmas Eve of the second year of the war, both armies ceased firing to observe a temporary truce. I was assigned to a small detachment of men who were to crawl out from the trenches to retrieve our dead from ‘no-man’s-land’—the space between the enemy lines. I became separated from the group. Suddenly, I encountered a young German soldier who was performing the same task as I was. I gazed into his boyish face, straight into his eyes. Imagine a hated Hun and a soldier of King George V actually confronting each other close up. At that moment, I sensed that his fears were the same as my own.”
When my Uncle Jimmy continued speaking, a strange quality crept into his voice.
“On that Christmas Eve, I knew that the German whom I had met was as weary and homesick as I was. I wondered whose son or brother he was. If I met him again, would I be forced to kill him? Would he kill me? The thought haunts me to this day.
“The truce continued throughout the following day, and then the killing continued. It’s not surprising,” My Uncle Jimmy added, “Those who call the shots rarely stand in the line of fire.”
Silence fell around the table when my uncle finished speaking. My dad shook his head quietly and my mom said nothing. During the days ahead, I had thought about the strange tale. I knew that the Bible said that killing was wrong, and yet to kill in battle was considered noble. What was the lesson of my uncle’s story?
Then I thought about the minister’s words. He had asked if I could give up my life for a stranger. When I grew up, if I were forced to fight on a battlefield, might I encounter an enemy soldier? If I gazed into his eyes, how would I feel toward him? Laying down my life for a friend, I could understand. However, could I sacrifice my life for a person who was not only a stranger, but an enemy? This was a far more difficult question than the one the minister had asked. I had no answer.
Slowly, my thoughts returned to the school’s Remembrance Day service. The pupils around me were standing to their feet.
The final hymn was “O Valiant Hearts.” For the first time, I thought carefully about the words, particularly the final line of the following verse:
O valiant hearts, who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you love.
James Langran, 1835–1909
It was true. The sacrifices of the soldiers would always be hallowed in the land they loved. The lessons I learned on this Remembrance Day would remain with me throughout the many years ahead. Would I ever know if giving up one’s life for an enemy was the correct course of action?
At the conclusion of the service, St. Simeon’s minister offered a final prayer. Marching from the assembly, there was no need to enforce the rule of silence. For many, it was the first time they had witnessed anyone openly mourning the loss of a loved one. Even the death of my uncle Will had failed to prepare me for this occasion.
Now, on November 11th each year, I attend the Remembrance Day services at Toronto’s Old City Hall at Queen and Bay Streets, in front of the impressive stone cenotaph. After all these years, the poetry, music, and thoughts of those who led the services never fail to arouse deep emotions. I appreciate anew the depth of gratitude I owe to those who had travelled life’s pathways before me.
However, the battlefield is not the only altar of sacrifice. I owe much to those who pioneered the struggle for equality before the law and fought for legislation to outlaw hate crimes and bigotry. I am in debt to those who created Canada’s social programs, which assist those in need. Today, universal health care helps define our nation. The warriors who battled for these ideals should never be forgotten.
When I hear the words of “In Flanders Fields” and “O Valiant Hearts,” I recall the first service of remembrance that I experienced at D. B. Hood School. The past never dies. It remains a part of us forever.