Guest column by Michael Major/Special to the Langley Advance
I set out to read the service records of all the First World War soldiers whose names adorn the Fort Langley cenotaph. I was looking for something or someone who would fit a narrative that would make a great article.
However, what transpired was a reinforcing of my belief that the humanization of the lives that were taken, the bodies that were shattered, and the minds that were irrevocably damaged, is what is missing from our observance of Remembrance Day. I’ve read more than a hundred service records, going far beyond the names on the cenotaph, and as a peacekeeping veteran, I see all too much of myself in those pages.
It is a certainty that if I had been born a century prior I too would have volunteered to fight for king and country. Just as I volunteered in 1998 to serve my country and my Queen as a reservist with the Royal Westminster Regiment.
So many of these men entered through the same armoury doors in New Westminster that I did. So many of them walked the same halls and marched the same parade square as did the younger version of myself. While I read through the service records of the men who fought, I could not help but see this as the robbing of human potential. So many young men with futures full of possibility and optimism taken away by the actions of an enemy an ocean away. It’s amazing how the handwritten and typed words of a service record will transform a faceless and anonymous name into a living breathing person.
From the colour of their hair and eyes, to the wounds they sustained, the last will they wrote, and the names and addresses of their parents, each detail adds a piece of the puzzle to who these men were.
There too is something chilling and eerie about looking at the signatures of men who have been dead for a century.
The dozens upon dozens of records, pictures, and files I researched showed me something that should not be so difficult to see.
What I saw in these century-old documents was the human beings who each of these men were. They had families, hopes, dreams, and fears.
They signed up because they believed it was the right thing to do and they left home on a grand adventure that turned into the greatest nightmare that could be inflicted upon them.
We often say that they gave their lives for freedom. But, that is not the truth. The truth is their lives were taken from them violently and horrifically by an enemy who had the same happen to them and their brothers in arms.
Each one of these men was unique and in each record there was something that stood out.
For those who were wounded, the severity and nature of their wounds struck a chord inside me. For those who died, it was the unceremonious way it was recorded, a simple ‘killed in action’ written over and over again throughout their service record.
For those soldiers who were discharged, their records left me with the question of who did these young men become?
I see in these men the best and bravest we had to offer.
The courage it took to climb over the parapet into the fire of enemy machine guns is unfathomable. These men were not born to be soldiers, and the ones who returned home tried to build the peaceful quiet life they envisioned whilst suffering in the front lines of warfare.
Time and time again they proved to be the best warriors on the planet, but what is not in the records is how these men had the spirit and the will to be these warriors.
I am not only in awe of these men, but I am and will be forever in debt to them for laying the foundation of our freedom with their own bodies and souls. As I got to know these men, I am saddened by the realization that everything about them aside from the records, pictures, and diaries is lost to the relentless march of time.
We have lost to the ages every soldier who fought in the First World War, muting their voices permanently. We often say ‘Lest We Forget’ but it seems too much like these men are almost forgotten.
It is easy to attend a service at a cenotaph and glance at the names, but each one of those names is a human being not unlike myself. They, too, were once children full of innocence, much like my own children.
In death, war has reduced these men to names on a plaque or etched in stone, and a collection of documents scanned into PDF files. These men could not have predicted that we would gather around cenotaphs that would bear their names. No one in 1918 would have considered the possibility that we would gather to remember on the 100th anniversary of the 1918 armistice.
As I put myself in their boots and attempt to see through their eyes, I see that these were simple and humble men.
They could not have known what this war would bring, but they went and they fought.
If they could have looked into the future to see us around stone monuments to their sacrifice, I have little doubt that they would see the free and peaceful Canada we have become and know that not only is it worth fighting for but it is worth dying for, as well.
I am certain that they would be honoured that after a century passed, we still remember and pay tribute to all those whom we have lost and those who today take up the torch thrown from failing hands. As long as we do not break faith with those who died, I know they will sleep though poppies blow.
– Michael Major is a veteran of the NATO peacekeeping mission to Bosnia, and in the lead up to Remembrance Day the 37-year-old Walnut Grove man was provided plenty of inspiration to write and try to encourage people think about war with a different lens. This particular piece was spawned from his desire to learn about the men behind the names on the Fort Langley cenotaph.
• See related story about Major and this project