IN A HERO’S FOOTSTEPS
Morgan Modjeski explains how descendants of a Saskatchewan soldier continue to honour his legacy.
Family members of Lt. William Hayes say they have a better understanding of his life as a soldier after touring some of the battlefields he fought on during the Great War. A wreath of poppies at his Tisdale gravesite honours Hayes, who died of cancer in 1959.
Margaret Joan Looby has always been able to keep herself together at Remembrance Day ceremonies.
Through the speeches, the ceremonial march and the moment of silence, she’s able to fight back tears. It’s a sense of pride she inherited from her father, she says. But when a lone bugle plays The Last Post, the 86-year-old starts to shake.
“That’s rough,” says Looby, her energetic voice shrinking to a whisper for a moment before perking back up. “Because I’m so close to tears and I don’t do that — I’m not one of those people that weeps at a moment’s notice.”
She expects this year’s ceremonies, which she’ll attend in Bjorkdale and Tisdale, to be different.
This year’s Remembrance Day will be the first since Looby — known as Peggy — saw for herself the places in Europe where her father, William L. Hayes, served for four years as an infantryman during the First World War.
On a Monday morning inside her home near Bjorkdale, memories of her father, who climbed to the rank of lieutenant, are spread across a table in the form of old photos, a letter from a dear friend and articles from the past.
Visitors to Looby’s home are likely to find her waiting outside to greet them. Few would guess she’s pushing 90. Inside, one of the first photos visible, on a wall straight ahead, shows Lt. Hayes in his uniform. Next to it is a photo of his German wife, Hedwig Johanna Marie Eisenkramer. Placed carefully on violet-painted walls, it’s almost as if they are watching over the home.
Hayes set up his homestead in Saskatchewan in 1908, two years after he arrived from England. Almost 110 years later, his descendants — and his story — are still present.
Looby said she’s heard numerous accounts about her father’s time at war from her mother, from the man himself when she asked and from recordings after his death. But it was not until the recent trip, when she and about 20 of his descendants toured sites where he fought, that she felt she had a full understanding of her father’s time at war, she said.
“It’s the one part that wasn’t quite completed. Now I know the whole deal. Now I’ve gone over and walked in his shoes and I have been there.
“Now, it’s complete — not a dream, but a story.”
Hayes met his bride in a billeting house during the war and brought her home afterwards. While Looby fondly remembers him as a loving father, she was able to complete her own personal account of him as a soldier because of the trip.
The gravity of her father’s accomplishments was fully felt when her family went to the small French village of Iwuy, about 20 kilometres south of the Belgian border. Dignitaries and French citizens welcomed them with open arms.
People wanted to show their respect to the family of a man who fought to free the community from German occupation about 99 years ago.
“We owe the greatest respect to the Lieut. William Lucas Hayes family,” wrote Michel Lespagnol, president of the Iwuy’stoire, an association charged with maintaining the history of the Iwuy community, in an emailed interview.
“Coming from so far, he could have stayed quietly in … Saskatchewan, instead he preferred as many other Canadian (s) coming to France to get rid of the invaders, fighting for a noble cause.”
Hayes was awarded the Military Cross. It’s said he levelled a machine-gun nest, rushing the location with a bomb that killed the soldiers inside and enabled troops to advance past the location in 1918.
Lespagnol is now said to occupy the same house Hayes bombed. He said he has “deep respect” for Hayes and his family, noting it was an emotional experience for him when some of the adult grandchildren arrived at the hall in Iwuy where the celebration was held and broke down in tears.
He said a “communion” between the people of Iwuy and the Hayes family was formed that day. The community will always be thankful for the contribution of Canadian soldiers, he said.
More than 200 Canadians who perished in battle are buried in Iwuy. The fact Hayes was even able to return to Canada following the war is a miracle, says Looby, recalling moments when her father would tell her the story of how he got a scar on his neck.
An enemy soldier, hidden in a foxhole, shot him almost square in the throat. The injury — one of two he sustained in battle — was not fatal, but it indirectly allowed him to return home and raise a family.
Looby’s daughter Andrea, the youngest of six, said the trip to Europe instilled in her a deeper sense of pride in her family and this aspect of her Canadian identity. In a phone interview from Edmonton, she said her grandfather was just one of many ordinary Canadians who did something extraordinary in a time of chaos and conflict, “Not because they’re going to gain anything from it, but because it’s the right thing to do.”
Canadian soldiers like her father were fighting for some of the most basic human values — peace and freedom, she said.
The fact she’s a descendant of someone so “epic” has had a lasting impact on her. After the trip, she wrote an email to her mother saying the family is “blessed to be here” given some of the close calls and circumstances her grandfather faced on the battlefield.
“It reminds me that I have to do my best to honour my grandpa’s sacrifice by being the best person I can be every day,” she said.
“In reality, those are big shoes to fill and I probably will never be able to do something like he did. But I can make the best of the fact that I’m here and I have the freedom here to make a difference.”
Margaret Leepart, another of Peggy’s daughters, said despite the fact her grandfather’s Great War legacy was formed more than 6,600 kilometres away on the battlefields of Europe, it’s been embraced by his family.
She never got to meet him, but regularly speaks with her sons about the type of man he was and the actions he took during the war. They hold their great-grandfather in “high regard,” she said, even 58 years after he died from pancreatic cancer at a Tisdale hospital in 1959 at the age of 70.
She hopes the stories will help maintain his memory and contribute to the larger message that peace must be preserved.
“If you don’t keep learning, keep remembering and think of these things over and over ... then history is bound to repeat itself,” she said.
The stories, passed down by children and grandchildren, may keep future branches of the Hayes family stopping by a grave in the Tisdale cemetery to place a poppy on the small tombstone of a man whose contributions — in war and in life — were so great.
Margaret Joan Looby, right, spends some time with her daughter, Margaret Leepart, examining photos and memorabilia of Looby’s father, Lt. William Hayes. About 20 of Hayes’ relatives recently toured the battlefield sites where he fought during the Great...
Lt. William Hayes’ descendants have been able to compile an assortment of photographs and artifacts detailing his life and military service.