Bat­tle scars

Canada's History - - EDITOR’S NOTE -

In 2012, I vis­ited the Vimy Memo­rial in France as part of a bat­tle­fields tour. The view from atop Vimy Ridge was breath­tak­ing; it was easy to see how the cap­ture of this ridge in April 1917 was con­sid­ered a crown­ing achieve­ment for the Cana­dian Corps.

Equally stag­ger­ing was the sight of the 11,285 names etched into the memo­rial’s walls, each rep­re­sent­ing a Cana­dian sol­dier killed in France but whose body was never found. Lit­tle did I know at the time that the name of one of my own an­ces­tors was carved in that white stone.

I had grown up think­ing that no one in my fam­ily had served in the First World War. Our photo al­bums con­tained no im­ages of men in uni­form, and we had no war medals to dis­play.

How­ever, in re­cent years, I dis­cov­ered that at least three of my rel­a­tives en­listed.

Jeremiah O’Connell, my grand­mother’s un­cle, vol­un­teered in Septem­ber 1915. He died barely a year later, his body shat­tered by a Ger­man shell and lost amid the ruin of the Somme.

Jeremiah’s younger brother, Martin — my great-grand­fa­ther — vol­un­teered in March 1916, only to change his mind in late July, on the eve of his bat­tal­ion’s de­par­ture for Europe. Why did Martin refuse to go over­seas? I sus­pect it was re­lated to his fi­ancée Vi­ola’s preg­nancy. Martin re­turned to Ap­ple River, Nova Sco­tia, and, on July 31, 1916, the army de­clared him a de­serter. He and Vi­ola were mar­ried nine days later.

Ru­fus, the youngest brother, was drafted late in 1917. Just a cou­ple months later, while still in train­ing, he con­tracted the Span­ish flu and spent months in hos­pi­tal con­va­lesc­ing. The war ended be­fore he could reach the front.

The Great War cost the O’Connell fam­ily dearly: Jeremiah lost his life; Martin likely lost his rep­u­ta­tion; and both Martin and Ru­fus lost their brother.

Sadly, my great-grandpa had only a brief time with his young fam­ily. Vi­ola died of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis in 1922, and Martin him­self died of can­cer just seven years later, leav­ing my Granny Dorothy or­phaned at the age of twelve — an­other child of the Great War gen­er­a­tion who faced heart­break and loss.

This Novem­ber marks the one hun­dredth an­niver­sary of the end of the First World War. A cen­tury later, the con­flict con­tin­ues to af­fect us — even if we don’t fully re­al­ize it.

In this spe­cial is­sue, award-win­ning mil­i­tary his­to­rian Tim Cook ex­plains how the Great War pro­foundly changed both Canada and Cana­di­ans. Else­where, we ex­plore how the war im­pacted chil­dren; we re­call the deadly Span­ish Flu that erupted near the end of the war; and we pro­file the last Cana­dian sol­dier to die in com­bat — his death came mere min­utes be­fore the armistice was de­clared.

As for the O’Connell broth­ers, I don’t re­call any men­tion of them as I was grow­ing up. After Martin’s death, my Granny was taken in and raised by a fam­ily liv­ing near Truro, Nova Sco­tia. By the time I was a child, the story of the O’Connell broth­ers was an­cient his­tory.

As far as I know, there are no pho­tos of Jeremiah, Martin, or Ru­fus, nor any let­ters from them that might re­veal their feel­ings about what tran­spired dur­ing the war.

What lit­tle I do know about them comes as frag­ments of facts found in their at­tes­ta­tion pa­pers at Li­brary and Ar­chives Canada. I know, for in­stance, that Martin stood five foot six and had blue eyes and a “florid” com­plex­ion. Thanks to his med­i­cal files, I even know that he was miss­ing two toes on his left foot. But I’ll never know whether Martin re­gret­ted his de­ci­sion to go AWOL or know the depths of his grief upon learn­ing, just a month after his mar­riage to Vi­ola, of Jeremiah’s death.

Per­haps he told my Granny — but, sadly, I never thought to ask her. We lost her in 1999, and her sto­ries of the Great War re­main unspoken and un­known.

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