(This column, written by my father, first appeared in this paper in November 2009. I am submitting it again as my father, a native of Havelock, NB prepares to celebrate his 95th birthday).
Memories of Remembrance Day
My son, Dr. J. Richard Jackson, has asked me to prepare a brief commentary on Remembrance Day as I recall it, during the period prior to 1939. Perhaps it is my age that prompted the request. Come November 11, 2009 it will have been 91 years since that memorable day when the guns fell silent throughout the world. And, God willing, I will have lived all but 85 days of those 91 years.
While I can’t remember the first three or four Remembrance Days, those that followed up to 1939 were the most memorable, and stand out in my memory far more than those which followed.
In my infancy and as a little boy I was fascinated by a large framed photograph which monopolized one end of our parlour wall. Boys always love pictures of soldiers. This photo portrayed a soldier in full uniform in the centre; and along the sides of the photo and above were other soldiers. Everyone looked so stern. I knew this photo held special significance for our family.
When I got older it was explained that the soldier in the centre of the photo was named William John Nash. He had been adopted by my grandparents Jackson in their later years when he was only six years old. He had been sent out from England for adoption. He was the adored son of my grandparents and an adopted brother to my father. But he was killed at Vimy Ridge. My grandfather never recovered from the loss and died soon after. I have the medals that William Nash did not live to wear and the tag he wore around his neck that identified his body.
I learned from an early age that my father had physical disabilities. Some days he could barely walk, would be terribly stooped, and was in great pain. He had enlisted in the Canadian army during World War I when he was 41 years of age. The stress and demands on him were too great and, after months in a military hospital, he was sent home on crutches. This disability remained with him throughout his life.
I also had an uncle who returned from France, his lungs devastated by mustard gas.
So, World War I had struck close to home. To assist the reader I note that I was born in a Moncton hospital and soon took up residence in a small settlement near Havelock, NB. This is the area from which my memories originate and where my thoughts return on Remembrance Day.
As boys we looked forward to Remembrance Day. We would get together and wish we had been in the war. We identified the soldiers who had been overseas. They were supermen. They were commonly referred to as “Returned Men”. They were looked up to, honoured, and respected. Boys whose fathers had been overseas would get together and exchange “war stories”. It was, as I hear my young grandsons say, “awesome”. Often, we hoped for another war so we might participate. For some of us the day of participation came earlier than expected.
Havelock is a small village. It had a small population. It was supported by settlements which branched off like spokes in a wheel. But they, too, had small populations. A book I have lists 41 soldiers who returned from the First World War and 11 who did not return. Not included in the above numbers is the settlement of Lower Ridge – not a large settlement—which sent forth an additional 32 soldiers. I have heard it averaged out to almost one man per household going overseas. Six did not return. Reading from the above mentioned book it states, “Probably no place in Canada with so small a population contributed so many to World War I.”
Very quickly after the end of the war communities throughout Canada erected monuments to the “fallen” as they were referred to. Often these monuments were called “cenotaphs.” Havelock celebrated the erection of its cenotaph on August 24, 1921.
At this point the reader may ask “What has the foregoing got to do with Remembrance Day?” My answer is, “Everything.”
The Sunday before Remembrance Day (and for years it was commonly called “Armistice Day” or just “November 11th”), the church would be decorated with flags, memorabilia, men in uniform, etc. There would be a parade of the soldiers who were able to walk. The service would open with God Save the King, sung a little louder than normal. Most churches had a list of the dead affixed to the wall at the front of the church. This would be read slowly. Two minutes of silence would be observed. Some churches had special seating not only for the former soldiers who were in the parade, but also for the close relatives of those who did not return.
Finally, there was the sermon. A sermon I will always remember was given by a Moncton pastor whose name I no longer remember but who had lost a leg in France. He preached this message at a special Remembrance Day service. Never have I heard such a sermon.
Obviously, a church service commemorating the recent deaths of so many soldiers as well as for the parents and friends of the dead in attendance was far more overwhelming than if the service had take place 25 years later when memories had weakened by the passage of time and many deaths intervened. These early services were very real. Church services varied from church to church.
Then, on November 11, the service at the cenotaph took place. There was the march to the cenotaph. The public stood quietly round and about. There was usually at least one “dignitary” in attendance and sometimes a bugler. A two-minute period of silence would be observed. The local pastor would ask God’s blessing on those in attendance as well as the departed. His remarks and their length depended on the local pastor. As is true today, some pastors and some churches placed a greater emphasis on Remembrance Day than did others.
The day did not end at the cenotaph. After the service, a chicken supper was usually served to veterans and members of their immediate family. In Havelock, it was held at the Havelock Hall. Mum and Dad would go, on occasion taking me. Between the service at the cenotaph and dinnertime some of the veterans would have found refreshments. These liquid refreshments were far more appealing than chicken. The evening would end with a review of all the old First World War songs.
It is fitting that we continue to set aside a day to give thanks to the God who has brought us through two world wars and other regional conflicts. It is fitting, too, that we honour those who served and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. May we never take for granted the freedom we enjoy nor those who fought to defend that freedom.