By Kate Butler
For some, history is seen as series of numbers and dates, but those numbers and dates only truly gain their meaning when linked to human stories. At this time of year, we cast our thoughts to the impacts and legacies of the First World War and the Second World War, but, their scope often feels beyond comprehension. We may know that the First World War began in the summer of 1914 and lasted nearly four and a half years, but can you truly wrap your mind around the fact that over 650,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders served, or the fact that over 66,000 of them lost their lives? In the Second World War, a conflict of some six years, well over one million individuals from Canada and Newfoundland served and over 44,000 didn’t return home. That doesn’t even begin to touch on the numbers of those who were wounded or suffered lasting physical and psychological impacts in the years following the conflicts.
Some numbers might seem quite small, but still evoke strong emotions, such as the ages of those who went overseas. I remember being struck when looking at the birthdates of some of the veterans from the Haliburton area who served in the First World War. Despite training and then serving in some of the most infamous battles of the war, such as Vimy Ridge, some of these men, such as Wesley Baker of West Guilford, were still only twenty years old by the time the war ended.
Other numbers that hit home include 109, the number of the battalion which trained in Haliburton to serve in the First World War. Yes, there’s the fact that its number pointed to the existence of so many other battalions with so many other men, but in addition, once the battalion went overseas in 1916, the men were reassigned to other battalions, such as the 20th Toronto Battalion and the 21st Kingston Battalion. These reassignments happened to fill gaps which had been left by the loss of men. It’s difficult to imagine the emotions that must have stirred for the men of the 109th, not only to be separated from the men with whom they had trained and built a camaraderie over a number of months, but to know that that they were now needed to fill a gap and why that gap existed. Each one of those men also had a story.
Some numbers are just especially poignant. For instance, the number of one, for John McGrath, who was the first person from the village of Kinmount to lose his life in the Second World War. Though Kinmount may be outside of Haliburton County, John’s mother Phyllis Clarke had grown up in Haliburton, so the family was still strongly tied to the village. A gunner in the Royal Canadian Artillery, McGrath was just 23 years old when he was killed in July of 1944. Photos taken before he headed overseas in 1941 show him proudly posing with his mother and aunt, possibly in Haliburton Village. Those around him appear to be putting on a brave face, but they must have been feeling such turmoil inside.
The impacts of war on the home front were far reaching. In addition to the stress and worry for loved ones overseas, there was also the question of how to best make a difference from a distance. A peek into the pages of the Minden Echo and Haliburton County Recorder (as it was known at the time) from May of 1942, starts to give us some idea of the contributions local residents made. We know that the Women’s War Workers’ Committee was meeting in Haliburton regularly at that time, and the committee was making decisions about how best to spend funds that they had raised in support of the war effort. $25 was to be sent to the War Victims Fund, and the same amount to both the Russian Relief Fund and the Red Cross Hospital. These amounts may seem small to us today, but when one accounts for inflation, each donation amounts to over $400 in today’s funds. The fundraising had been completed through community events, such as euchre evenings and rummage sales, which makes it all the more remarkable. It really speaks to the desire of community members to help in any way they could and their awareness of the larger global impact of the war. Individual donations were also mentioned in the newspaper, including one for $5 from Dorothy Clarke, who was likely thinking about her nephews serving overseas.
We also know of the work of the Haliburton Red Cross during war time. The women of the Red Cross spent the winter of 1941 to 1942 busily knitting a staggering number of items to be sent overseas. Some of the items enumerated in the pages of the Echo include hundreds of pairs of socks and gloves, numerous scarves, caps and even quilts. Thoughts turned not only to those who were serving overseas, but also to young civilians impacted by the war, as shipments included children’s dresses and boys’ suits. It was a time during which individuals, faced with a conflict of staggering proportions, chose to find their own way to make a difference, even if that was simply with one hand-knitted item after another which they hoped would keep someone warm.
At Remembrance Day, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by numbers, but there is huge value in looking at individual stories to bring the conflict into perspective. Each person who served overseas or contributed on the home front had their own hopes and dreams, as well as their own fears. Though time may distance us from the conflicts of the First World War and the Second World War, we c an still connect to those from the past at a very personal level and we should try to, not only at Remembrance Day, but throughout the year. Lest we forget.