I was raised in Waterdown, a village that has since been overtaken by suburban sprawl, a generation after the Second World War. But it was the First World War that dominated the village, and my childhood. There must have been Second World War veterans around, but it was the men of the earlier war that made the deepest impression on me.
Perhaps it was because I was fascinated by the experiences of my own grandfather, a gentle soul who had spent four years pulverising parts of France and Belgium with the Canadian Field Artillery. Whatever the reason, as I made my rounds reading hydro meters – an ideal job for meeting people – I tended to linger at the homes of Great War veterans.
There was Stan, who had followed his older brother into uniform. His reward for late enlistment was missing a trip to the bloody fields of Flanders – instead, he got an excursion to Siberia. A few blocks to the south lived Wilf. He also went to Siberia, with the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Wilf had been a druggist when the war interrupted his life, and he came back to Waterdown to open a drugstore. His grandson operates it still.
Mickey lived in a nearby cottage that seemed to me to have only the barest essentials. He had served in the Royal Navy, and I always wondered if his wartime service had given him a fondness for living a simple life.
I never spent as long talking to these men as I wanted; I did have a job to do, and some of the routes were long. But the odd anecdote, a look at faded photographs that hung on the wall, a chance to hold an old cap badge – that was enough to spark my interest.
Years later, I met one of Canada’s last Great War veterans. Clare was 104 then, but 90 years earlier he had lived on a farm north of Waterdown. He had enlisted as a teenager, partly because his father didn’t want him to enlist; he seemed less worried his son would be killed than he might be morally corrupted.
Clare was neither, and in a comfortable seniors’ home in north Toronto, he told me about the Waterdown of his youth, the young men that I knew only as old men, and the war’s impact on the township we both knew so well.
They’re all gone now – Stan and Wilf, Mickey, Clare, my grandfather. But every November, theirs are the faces I call to mind, the faces that made the First World War real to me.
(Editor’s note: the author is professor of history at the University of Western Ontario and an acclaimed author. Prof. Vance’s commentary was originally published on Remembrance Day 2012)