For the last ten years or so of my teaching, I arranged the Remembrance Day services at our high school, when dwindling numbers of WWII vets would come and be cheered by the interest the students demonstrated on that day. Remembrance Day posters and samples of student work assigned by teachers would decorate the halls and the gymnasium. Our huge Styrofoam cenotaph cross, made by a former Industrial Arts teacher, would have been hauled out of storage and patched up to take centre spot on the stage. Following each of two services, students would come onto the stage and be allowed to stick their poppies into the foam, their own little gesture of remembrance.
Very few of them knew a lot about the wars. Obsessed as we have been over the last decades with getting “Canadian content” into our history, the war years have tended to fall into a chapter of history texts that teachers struggled to get covered in the spring, following a year’s march through the course that left birch bark canoes, “coureurs-de-bois”, John Cabot, and Wolfe & Montcalm scattered along the path. Certainly a whole course could be taught on any week of one of the wars—try to cover it all in a hurried chapter in spring.
I was born just after WWII, and managed to absorb some of the feel of it as I grew. Some of my uncles on both sides had been in WWII; my father was in the navy at the time, but never left Canada, apparently being involved in training. I always had an interest in the stories of the wars and knew a lot about what had happened, but can’t really put myself in the place of veterans just because I know most of the words to Vera Lynn songs.
When I taught grade 9 British history years ago, I used to devote more than the approved allotment to the war years, still just scratching the surface. One aspect that I liked to bring home to the students was the age of many of the soldiers in the wars. I think most of them still identify war soldiers with their parent’s age group, feeling that those who joined the army and went off to war were at least into their thirties, if not in their forties. Most seemed quite surprised when told that many soldiers were little older than their fellow students in grades 11 and 12, and in fact quite a few even lied about their age and snuck in earlier. They were quite shocked to hear stories of soldiers like Thomas Ricketts from Newfoundland (then not a part of Canada), who joined the service illegally at age 15 (the age of most Grade 9’s) and was awarded the Victoria Cross for courage in bringing a Lewis gun across no-man’s-land in the face of enemy fire, and leading his platoon into a firefight driving the enemy back. He received that Victoria Cross, the highest award for valor for those serving under the British Empire, at the age of 17! Could any of our students imagine themselves in similar situations? I might say “unfortunately”, but the truth I guess is that fortunately most of them face decisions not much larger than which Ipod model to request for Christmas.
When Ricketts died in 1967, having returned from the war intact and lived a life as a pharmacist in St. John’s, he was given what amounted to a state funeral, and a monument in his honor was erected on the site of his drug store. No doubt Newfoundland Grade 9’s, standing at the fringes of the crowds, wondered at the time what was so special about “that there fellow”.
There are a thousand-and-one stories of the wars, and for some reason I often find the stories of Newfoundland soldiers, like that of Ricketts, to be some of the most amazing ones. Perhaps it was Newfoundland struggling to establish its own identity in the company of the larger nations, perhaps it was the strange situation of boys from the outports finding themselves in soldiers’ uniforms carrying rifles in a strange European land, still infused with the courage they had developed fighting against an unforgiving sea on the rough coast— I don’t know. Certainly Newfoundland has never forgotten them. Over there they remember the wars on July 1st, at least for the morning, as Memorial Day, then they later join the rest of their adoptive nation in Canada Day festivities. July 1st for the Newfoundlander marks the battle of Beaumont-Hamel, when many feel Newfoundland, like Canada at Vimy Ridge, achieved world respect from the courage shown by its troops.
Unlike the victory of Vimy, Beaumont-Hamel was a loss and defeat, but has gone down in the textbooks as a prime example of courage and discipline that few who research it easily forget.
It was your typical story of war mishaps. The Newfoundland Regiment sent out over no-man’s-land to do battle, expecting a number of preparatory attacks to have taken place when they in fact didn’t, and walking straight into enemy fire that was not supposed to have been there. A number of expressions about what happened next became textbook quotes, one being a description of the Newfoundland reaction to being under withering enemy fire: “with chins tucked down as if walking into a blizzard”. The advance is cited as a prime example of military discipline at its best, and the muster on the following day counted off 69 men standing able out of the 801 who had started out on the advance. Another famous quote indicated that the attack failed only, “because dead men can advance no farther.”
These are strange things to our youth, historic events that are becoming harder and harder to relate to their life of today. The handful of World War II veterans who manage to show up for services are grandparents and great-grandparents to some of them, and like the leaves of a November fall are disappearing one by one until soon none will be left.
We continue to remember, and remain hopeful that if we ever face crises in the future, somewhere in the hearts of those Grade 9’s obsessed with music, girls, video games and four-wheelers, there still are a few Thomas Ricketts. I certainly hope so, for all our sakes.