The following excerpt is from the novel “Arse Over Teakettle,” a story about a Toronto family struggling to cope with the horrors of the war years. It describes the events on the day after the news reached the city that peace had been declared.
Tuesday, 8 May was officially V-E Day. Unlike the previous day, which had been spontaneously jubilant, the mood became more reflective. Perhaps a few hangovers and exhaustion from late-night revelling contributed to the more sombre mood. Although the exhilaration created by the war’s end continued, the reality of the cost of the conflict also came more into focus. It had been a brutal period in the history of mankind.
At Vimy Ridge, thirty-five thousand graves had been added to the fifty-nine thousand already scattered throughout the cemetery. The wounds inflicted by the loss of loved ones on the fields of battle remained raw. At the Christie Veterans’ Hospital on Christie Street near Dupont Street, wounded veterans remembered the comrades who had not returned. The day before, those unable to walk without support had stood in windows and on balconies. They had held their crutches in the air to create V-for-victory symbols. Now they sat silently in their hospital rooms, lost in memories. Victory had been achieved, but at a terrible price.
Throughout Canada, there were thirty-one thousand enemy soldiers in prisoner of war camps. It would be a considerable logistics problem to ship these men home. Many of those returning from similar camps in Europe would suffer in the years ahead, some never fully recovering their health. “Man’s inhumanity to man” was a phrase with new meaning.
On V-E Day, people flocked to the churches of the city. They filled the high naves and humble sanctuaries beyond the crowds of Christmas and Easter. The services expressed thanksgiving for the deliverance of the nation from the tyranny of the Nazis. The most frequently sung hymn was “Now Thank We all our God.” One of the largest gatherings was at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church. They suspended the flags of the forty-nine countries of the United Nations from the rear gallery of the church. The congregation offered prayers for the days ahead, as families knew that the altar of sacrifice yet remained. Troops that were no longer required in Europe to police the peace would be transported to the Pacific front. This meant that casualty lists would continue to grow.
Under clear skies, a military parade marched to the Toronto City Hall. The flags of the “colour party” represented all the Allied nations, banners fluttering in the light breezes of spring. Later it was discovered that a flag that had belonged to a regiment that had served during the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 had mysteriously disappeared while being carried in the parade. Veterans had retrieved it from its display case in the Arcade on Yonge Street, and now its whereabouts was unknown.
During the service at the city hall cenotaph, twenty thousand people sang, “Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow.” A Victory Choir and bands from the three military services provided stirring music. Sunshine reflected from the shiny buttons on the military uniforms and sparkled from the raised bayonets. There was no shouting or laughter, as the throngs pondered the losses inflicted. When the last refrain of music died on the breeze, the canyon of Bay Street fell silent. The crowds quietly dispersed. Most returned immediately to their homes, as restaurants were closed and there was nowhere to buy even a cup of coffee. In hotel dining rooms, cooks had abandoned the kitchens, leaving tourists hungry. A few enterprising restaurateurs hastily opened but charged inflated prices.
Later in the day, King George VI addressed the Empire. People listened intently as he said, “Memories of the sacrifices and the suffering of the war years will remain hallowed forever.” Prime Minister Mackenzie King suggested, in his radio speech from Ottawa, that “The nation resolve and rededicate.” On a lesser note, officials reported that in York Township, in honour of the victory, extra money would be spent on the parks, and Fairbank Park was among the recipients. My dad was pleased that a baseball diamond was to be included in the plans.
The government stated that although rationing would continue, the board would constantly review the situation. However, they decided to end immediately the restrictions on gasoline. Rubber tires would remain scarce, and officials suggested that motorists continue to reduce their driving speeds to decrease the wear on tires as well as to conserve gasoline. Sales of tinned meat and fish would remain severely restricted, as supplies were required to feed the starving populace in Europe, where there were thousands of refugees. A limited number of refrigerators and electric ranges would be available, and within six to eight months, experts hoped that new automobiles would roll off the assembly lines.
In the evening, the Royal York Hotel held a grand dance in its ballroom. It was one of the few noisy celebrations in an otherwise subdued city. The affair was more riotous than the previous New Year’s Eve. However, most families remained within their homes, close to those they loved.
Wednesday morning, people awakened to the new day. As Ken and I walked to school, we gazed at the lifeless flags and decorations in the parlour windows and on verandahs along Lauder Avenue. When we neared the schoolyard, we noticed that a group of children had gathered and were gazing down at the flats, as we called the level field to the south of the school. It was where the community had held the bonfire two nights before. Wisps of smoke rose among the ashes and floated lazily in the still morning air.
The smouldering ruins were testament to the immensity of the fire, the charred remains seeming to symbolize the end of a tumultuous era in history. The conflict in Europe would remain forever in the collective memory of the nation.
The old adage was true: We never say good-bye to the past.