November is Remembrance month – and the guest speaker at the November meeting of the BWG Local History Association was Ruth Brooks, a past president of the Bradford Legion, and former Poppy Fund Chair.
Brooks not only talked about the Legion, and the origins of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance, she shared some personal stories of her father, Lt.-Col. Murdoch G. McIver.
McIver served overseas, during World War II, with the Queens Own Rifles. He joined the Reserves after the war, when he returned to Canada.
He wasn’t the only serviceman in her family tree. “My grandmother was a double-Silver Cross Mother,” Brooks said, having lost two sons in World War II. “It’s the reason I belong to the Legion.”
As for the story of the poppy, Brooks noted that there is a Canadian connection.
“Poppies need an alkalized soil to grow,” Brooks said, but the soils in Europe were acidic. It wasn’t until the bombardments of the First World War when mortar shells smashed apart the limestone boulders that littered the landscape that the soils became alkaline enough for poppies to grow – inspiring Canadian field doctor, Col. John McCrae to write In Flanders Fields.
That poem inspired American Moina Michael to launch a campaign, in 1919, vowing to wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance; it may have been her poppies that inspired Frenchwoman Mme. Anna Guerin, to make and sell cloth poppies, to raise money for children in war-torn areas.
The Great War Veterans Association began selling the poppies in 1921 – an activity taken on by the Royal Canadian Legion in 1925. “Now the money collected goes into a Poppy Trust Fund,” Brooks fund.
The fund assists veterans, their dependents, and youth. It provides bursaries for high school and university students, funds educational programs, and in Bradford, supports the 37 Bradford Orville Hand Air Cadet Squadron.
And it provides assistance to veterans and their families, whether or not they are members of the Legion.
“The Legion doesn’t ask your financial situation,” Brooks said. “If you need help, we give you help” – assistance which includes providing comfort to veterans in hospital, and the Leave the Streets Behind program for homeless vets.
Brooks explained that it’s not only those who served overseas in times of conflict who are considered veterans, but anyone who has served in the Armed Forces. “Whether you stand on a bridge in Oka, Quebec, or fight wildfires in Fort MacMurray… You’re putting your life on the line,” she said.
Brooks has made it her work to put together a Book of Remembrance, with a page for every local soldier who fell in World Wars I and II, the Korean Conflict, and Afghanistan.
Each page includes information and a photo provided by the family – although, Brooks noted, “Most of the people in the First World War, there were no pictures. All we have is their name and where they are buried.”
In contrast, she spoke of the grave in Bayeux, France, where a young soldier killed at the age of only 16 is buried. Despite the length of time that has passed, every year there are “flowers and a fresh photograph” placed on the grave, she said.
Brooks noted that most of those who enlisted locally for World War I signed up with the Infantry, but in the Second World War most joined the Air Force. “This is an Air Force town,” she said.
Not her father, though.
“My dad went to the Air Force. His eyes weren’t good enough,” Brooks said. So he memorized the eye chart, put away his glasses “and joined the army,” she said.
McIver was not among the troops who landed on the beaches on D-Day – he was just completing officer training – but he rejoined his regiment in France in July of 1944, and was part of the fight to liberate the Netherlands.
The Germans held the Scheldt Estuary; the Canadian forces had to drive them back to secure the port city of Antwerp. During the fighting, “the Germans flooded the polders,” Brooks said. The Canadians “fought dyke to dyke” for three weeks – taking cover in waist-deep water when they came under German fire, then scrambling back on top of dykes – earning them the nickname, ‘Water Rats.’
The Dutch people have always been grateful to the Canadians who liberated their country, but it’s less commonly known “how much respect the Canadians had for the Dutch people – it went both ways,” Brooks said. “The Canadians loved the Dutch people.”
The Dutch stuck by their principles despite starvation and Nazi occupation, and refused to give up their Jewish neighbours. When her parents returned to the Netherlands in 1984, for the “Liberation of Holland plus 40” celebration, they were billeted with a family in Apeldoorn, who had hidden a Jewish family in a haystack while the Gestapo searched in vain.
“When you go to the graveyards and places like that, people take their children,” to teach the lessons of history, Brooks said. “Every grave of a soldier in Holland is tended by a Grade School child,” and flags are placed on the graves on May 5, Liberation Day in the Netherlands, and Nov. 11, Remembrance Day.
“They will never forget us,” she said.
“I often get asked, can this happen again, and I say yes, it can happen again,” said Brooks, “when people don’t understand their government, when people listen to a demagogue and don’t use their common sense…. Democracy must be defended.”
Brooks also promoted the ongoing Veteran Banner program, that invites families to commemorate a loved one who served – whether from Bradford or elsewhere - with a sturdy banner, displaying a photograph of the loved one and details of their service.
The banners cost $150 each, which covers the cost of production and a donation to the Poppy Fund, and are hung on the light standards in old Bradford. Next year, they’ll be displayed in Bond Head as well – but not in the newer part of Bradford: the lamp posts there don’t have the “two arms” needed for the banners.
“If we run out of signposts, we’ll find a place of honour to put them,” she said, whether at the Legion, the library or in storefronts, during the month of November. For the rest of the year, the banners will hang at the Legion Hall.
The BWG Local History Association thanked Brooks, presenting her with a Poinsettia and a donation to the Poppy Fund.
The next meeting of the Association will be Christmas at the Auld Kirk – a special afternoon of music and the Christmas story at the Auld Kirk Heritage Site, 3380 Line 6 of Bradford West Gwillimbury on Dec. 8, from 2 to 4 p.m. The Auld Kirk is the church founded by the Scotch Settlers who came to West Gwillimbury from the failed Red River Colony, in 1819. Its preservation and restoration has been the special project of the BWG Local History Association.