#420 Why the red poppies matter
ESSAY: A century since Vimy and Passchendaele: Two wars, two families, one message
by Howard Macdonald Stewart
First published Nov. 11, 2018
For Remembrance Day 2018 we offer a moving reflection by Howard Stewart — reprinted from Ormsby no. 195 (November 11, 2017) on this centenary of 11.11.18 — on war’s impact on his family in the twentieth century.
Howard touches on the personal and emotional repercussions on the families of his grandparents, the Clarke and Edwards families of South Vancouver and the Stewart and Holmes families of Comox, and especially the scars left on his grandmothers. – Ed.
What will we be remembering on Remembrance Day? Will November 11 be an occasion to celebrate Canadian achievements at places like Vimy Ridge, where Canadian divisions came together and took an important objective on the Western Front?
Or is it the time to remind ourselves of the mindless violence and horrors of war, better illustrated by the chaos around Passchendaele a couple of months after Vimy, and to recall the lifelong sorrow that war brings, so well illustrated by the entire monstrous experience of the First World War and the aftershocks that linger in the families of its victims?
We must never forget those four dark years where foolish old men on all sides threw away the lives of millions of far younger men — sons, fathers, brothers, husbands — in one criminally stupid battle after another, their flesh and blood mindlessly pitted against relentless machine guns and giant cannons, at the same time sowing the seeds for a much worse global conflagration barely a generation later.
Should we remember the heroism and selfless sacrifice of our young men in these wars or the oft-repeated plea to never, ever subject our people to such barbarism again?
Of course, we must remember both.
Yet there are some — our former Harper government comes to mind — who prefer to dwell mainly on the glory of our wartime experiences. In the process, they encourage us to forget that war — any war — is humanity’s lowest point. It is our greatest collective shame, a time when our most fundamental rule, Thou Shalt Not Kill, is not simply ignored but turned on its head; a time when we eagerly count and celebrate “enemy dead” as though they were ducks or deer.
Those “enemy dead” who were helpless civilians in places like Dresden or Hiroshima were an annoying anomaly. Today they are glibly totted up as “collateral damage.”
My family’s experiences with Canada’s twentieth century wars were not happy ones. Some other families in B.C. and elsewhere had better or more fortunate experiences, but I believe that mine are probably good examples of war’s dreadful impact and, I hope, worth sharing for that.
My own family’s trauma was multiplied tens of thousands of times across Canada and millions of times across the world.
When my mother’s father, Bill Clarke, signed up in 1915, he left behind his three young sons and Catherine, his pregnant wife, in South Vancouver. My mother, Ena — born in 1916 a few months after Bill had been sent to the Western Front — never met her father, and he never set eyes on his own daughter.
Bill Clarke fought until he was killed in late 1918, shortly before the end of the war. Catherine received news of her husband’s death as others were beginning to celebrate the war’s end.
Bill had been the oldest of Herbert and Georgina Clarke’s (nee Edwards) three sons. One of Bill’s younger brothers had been killed in a shooting accident and the other had later lied about his age to enlist. Their father, my great grandfather Herbert, then enlisted himself at the age of 54 — the recruiters were desperate by then — and went to France to extract this younger son from the fray. He succeeded, but the boy soon died anyway, during the flu epidemic of 1918-19.
By the end of 1918, Herbert and Georgina Clarke had lost all three of their sons. Imagine. They would spend the rest of their lives mourning them.
So Ena Clarke, my mother, and her three grieving older brothers grew up with their grieving mother and grieving Clarke grandparents beside the Fraser River, at the foot of Fraser Street.
Fast forward twenty years to the early days of the Second World War. My mother’s youngest brother, closest friend, and protector, Bob Clarke (born 1913), joined up early and trained to be a commando. He got tired of the endless waiting in Britain and came back to Canada to train as a pilot. He was flying a bomber over Burma when he, like his father before him, was killed in the closing days of the war.
Once again, his mother Catherine Clarke received notice of the death of her loved one just as others were celebrating the war’s end. As she had a quarter century earlier, she refused to believe the news and harassed the Canadian War Office for years, demanding proof that her beloved son was really dead. Did they have a body?
Finally they had to spell it out to her: when a bomber is shot down, there’s not much left of the crew.
The stories are scarcely less painful on my father’s side of the family. When my paternal grandfather, the English-born game warden and naturalist Ronald Stewart, went off to the First World War he left behind his wife Ellen (nee Holmes) and two young sons in Comox on Vancouver Island.
Ronald would spend years in the muddy ruins of northern France and Flanders, transporting materials and ammunition up to the front lines and bringing back dead bodies in the other direction.
He was joined there by his wife’s younger brother, Bill Holmes of Comox, who signed up in the wave of patriotic fervour sweeping the province. Bill would be killed in April 1917 at Vimy Ridge.
Later, on leave in England, Ronald met with his younger brother, Alec Stewart, for the first time in years. Alec was convalescing in a hospital, near their childhood home in Sussex. Ronald had emigrated to Canada; Alec to New Zealand. After enlisting in New Zealand, Alec had been sent to Gallipoli, where a great many Allied soldiers were being slaughtered. Alec’s body was shattered there soon after he got off the boat. He never recovered, spending the rest of his life on a disability pension.
My mother Ena mourned the death of her dear brother Bob and then died young herself, with the result that I spent much time with my two grandmothers in the 1950s and 60s. Losing first her husband at the end of one war, followed by her youngest son at the end of the next, had unhinged my grandmother, Catherine Clarke.
And, I slowly came to realize, my other grandmother, Ellen Stewart in Comox, had never stopped mourning the loss of her own beloved brother, Bill Holmes. Ellen blamed her husband and her other brother for Bill’s death, perhaps for encouraging him to enlist.
I don’t remember either of my grandmothers — or anyone else anywhere in my family — talking about the glory of those wars or celebrating our glorious victories.
As I got older, uncles and family friends would sometimes talk about their own experiences in the Second World War, usually after a few drinks. The stories they shared all those years later were tales of trauma: of dear friends and strangers alike suddenly struck down or torn apart in front of them, of carnage and broken bodies beyond imagining, of unspeakable fear in the face of these mangled bodies and violent death on all sides. These scenes would haunt their memories and dreams for the rest of their lives.
If you’ve ever been on the scene of a bad car accident, imagine that scene multiplied many times, with more likely to come at any moment.
Why is it so important to remember the real nature and impact of war? Surely it is so that we will continue to do everything we can to avoid it.
After the First World War and again after the second, the memory of what war is really like was still widespread throughout the global community. It certainly haunted my family for the rest of the twentieth century and beyond.
Many in the international community shared a profound commitment to preventing war from ever happening again, and to outlawing it. After 1945, through the newly-created United Nations, we eventually succeeded — more or less — in stopping the world’s most powerful countries from attacking others.
This held, more or less, until the Bush administration’s attack on Iraq in 2003. Now our superpower neighbour has elected a spoiled rich kid, a bullying buffoon, a sinister cartoon character whose gross stupidity humiliates his own country and terrifies most others. He has gone to the same UN that his country worked so hard to create and threatened to destroy a country of 20 million people. Most of them would be collateral damage.
Why are we not more outraged by such wanton disregard for the hardest-learned lessons of our global community in the twentieth century? Why is there not more vocal outrage over such bellicose behaviour from deviants like Donald Trump?
I believe it’s because we have forgotten the true horror that war represents. We have become inured to the images of it broadcast nonstop from benighted war-torn countries, mostly in the Middle East, mostly Muslim.
Yet we must remember. If the long-suffering, innocent people bearing the brunt of today’s criminal wars are ever to find ways to rebuild their lives, and if the lives of our own loved ones are to remain truly secure, then we must never forget that war is an abomination.
Remembrance Day must be the time to remind ourselves of our promise to never, ever, forget the unspeakable horror that is war, to reflect on the continuing impact on the families of its victims, and to remember our unshakable commitment to abolish it from the human experience.
Then, on November 12th, let’s get busy.
Howard Macdonald Stewart is author of Views of the Salish Sea: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Change around the Strait of Georgia (Harbour Publishing, 2017), which was long-listed for the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature and runner-up in the BC Historical Federation Historical Writing Competition. An historical geographer and semi-retired international consultant whose work has taken him to more than seventy countries since the 1970s, Howard has reviewed books for The Ormsby Review and BC Studies. His 17,000-word story of a 1973 bicycle trip down the Danube with the war hero and debonair cyclist Cornelius Burke was published by The Ormsby Review no. 21, September 28, 2016, and he is now writing an insider’s view of his four decades on the road, notionally titled Around the World on Someone Else’s Dime: Confessions of an International Worker. He has lived on Denman Island, off and on, for more than thirty years.
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“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster
 See Elizabeth Brooks, The Pioneer Birdmen of Comox: Allan Brooks, Ronald Stewart, Hamilton Mack Laing, Theed Pearse (Comox: Beach Walker Studio, 2006).