Fort Langley author wins accolades for WWI book

A book by Fort Langley’s own Mark Forsythe is the winner of this year’s Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal for Historic Writing.

From the West Coast to the Western Front: British Columbians and the Great War by Forsythe and historian Greg Dickson took the top prize, presented in late May by the British Columbia Historical Federation.

The book was one of Forsythe’s last projects as host of the CBC radio show B.C. Almanac, before his retirement from broadcasting.

Forsythe reached out to his listeners for tales of their families lives during the First World War, and got a deluge of information.

“These are stories that you’re not going to find anywhere else,” he said.

Some stories were highly detailed, derived from letters or diaries saved and passed down, while others passed along stories told verbally.

Some stories from the Great War were never or seldom told.

“My grandfather who was in the First World War never ever uttered a word to me about the war,” said Forsythe.

His co-author Dickson, on the other hand, had documentation in the form of letters home from his relatives who served overseas.

The tales aren’t all about soldiers on the front lines.

One of the ones that stood out for Forsythe was that of Grace MacPherson, a young Vancouver woman whose brother had gone to the war and been killed.

At 19, MacPherson, one of a handful of women who could drive in B.C. at the time, tried to sign up with the Red Cross as an ambulance driver.

She kept being turned down, but got a job in the Canadian War Office in England.

After the Battle of the Somme, when every available man had been sent to the front, MacPherson was finally allowed to drive an ambulance. She arrived in France two days before the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Some of the stories come from Langley and its neighbours, including the story of Charlie’s Tree, the ivy-covered memorial where the Trans Canada Highway had to bend to avoid plowing under one man’s memorial to his fallen friends.

Charlie Perkins himself apparently sat in the way of the construction crews, and drew so much attention that the highways ministry had to alter the route of the road, changing the course of the highway to spare a single tree, which still stands as a memorial to this day.

There is also information in the book on the 18 chestnut trees planted in Langley to commemorate the local men who never came home from the war.

The book also looks into stories that are not often told, of minorities and how they served, or tried to serve, in the war.

Chinese-Canadian Tom Louie of Kamloops rode all the way to Alberta to join up when B.C. recruiters wouldn’t accept Asian-Canadian soldiers.

There was also George McLean, a First Nations man who won the Distinguished Conduct Medal for single-handedly capturing 19 Germans on Vimy Ridge. He was the son of Allan McLean, one of the Wild McLeans, a group of brothers hanged for murdering a constable in the 1800s.

Forsythe, like most of those born after the wars, grew up learning about them in school, but this allowed him to put faces and names to the broad outlines of history.

“Actually seeing people emerge, real people, from these profiles,” he said.

Royalties from the book are going to the Canadian Letters and Images Project, an online project to collect as much information as possible about all of Canada’s wars and share it widely online.

More than 15,000 letters, diaries, and photos have already been digitized since the project began in 2000.

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