Today we remember the end of WWI and all those who served, were killed and impacted by the Great War. A few months ago, I was the keynote speaker at a family history conference in Victoria and a year previously had been given the topic: 100 years since the end of WWI. I was flattered to be asked to speak but was concerned about what I would say; although I loved history, I knew very little about WWI.
As I am neither a professional historian, nor an expert on WWI, I decided to focus on what I do best: gathering stories. I chose to study Duncan, BC and spent many hours at the BC Archives in Victoria where I read about Duncan and the War through the Cowichan Leader from 1914 through 1918. I found myself immersed in the initial excitement followed by the unsettling reality of war that was revealed through graphic and tragic letters from the boys at the front. I was caught up in the town’s fervor to wrap bandages, raise money, send parcels, and preserve food – anything to help with the war effort.
I felt an overwhelming sadness on the battle days when everything was being reported as normal at home in Duncan (whose chickens laid the largest eggs?) while I knew that thousands were at that moment being killed at places like Vimy Ridge. By digging deep into one town’s war experience, I was able to feel a small glimpse of what it was like to live through the war, as a soldier and as a loved one at home.
We have a tendency to think that those who lived before were naïve and led simpler lives; as I read articles in the newspaper I realized that their concerns were similar to those we see in the news today – how will returning veterans be reintegrated back into their communities and into the workplace; how have the horrors of war impacted them; how should immigrants (“enemy aliens”) be treated; the importance of buying local and supporting the local economy through troubling times; recycling products and saving food.
Immersing myself in local history and focusing on the community helped me to better understand my own family and what their lived experience was on the home front through the war. As a result of my year of research, Remembrance Day is more personal, more poignant, more sad.
If you haven’t had a chance to delve into WWI history, I would encourage you to do so. In Canada, we have an amazing array of digital archives and records to help you learn about the experience of your WWI ancestor. Check out the Library and Archives Canada site for photos, personnel databases, war diaries, and more.
I am drawn to the past.
Although my father’s parents were both deceased by the time I was 11 years old, I can still map out the layout of their home in my mind: the black flagstones in the entranceway where I gave untutored tap dance recitals in my black patent shoes, the sliding screen door that grandpa walked through by accident (accompanied by some very choice words not fit for small ears), and the piano with the cushioned bench that I have in my home now; I loved to pretend that I could play elegantly just like Grannie Inkster.
Perhaps the fact that my beloved grandparents died when I was so young impressed on me the fragility of a life, the transience of unpreserved stories.
As a teenager and young adult, I travelled to Duncan, BC and interviewed my great-aunt, neighbours, and childhood friends of Grannie. One of them gave me the photo above; Peter had transferred from Nanaimo to work in the Nanaimo Duncan Utilities office while native Duncanite Kay worked next door at Fletcher Music.
I also met with a man who had served overseas with Grandpa Inkster in WWII in No. 16 Canada General Hospital Army unit. He provided me with photos, memorabilia, timelines, and most precious of all: stories.
A passion for stories has stayed with me and sharing these glimpses into the past brings me joy. Join me as I memorialize some of my family story adventures and as I share how you can do the same.