Writ­ten words are how we re­mem­ber these days

With fewer peo­ple who ex­pe­ri­enced the wars around to tell their tales, it’s the chron­i­cles we turn to

The Woolwich Observer - - LIVING HERE - FAISAL ALI

WITH EV­ERY PASS­ING RE­MEM­BRANCE Day, the big wars of the 20th cen­tury slip fur­ther and fur­ther out of our col­lec­tive mem­o­ries. This year marks a cen­tury since ar­mistice ended the First World War, an event now largely re­moved from liv­ing mem­ory. We now just have sto­ries, for the most part.

Those sto­ries ex­ist for us al­most ex­clu­sively in the pages of his­tor­i­cal record – in the tes­ti­mony gath­ered by his­to­ri­ans and re­searchers for pos­ter­ity. Those tales that were writ­ten down and doc­u­mented can be re­called by fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, par­tic­u­larly in times of re­mem­brance such as we’ll mark on Sun­day, while those that were not are now lost to us for good.

It was that re­al­iza­tion that helped spark Elmira res­i­dent Clay­ton Ash’s de­ci­sion to col­lect the sto­ries of lo­cal vet­er­ans and record them in his book: The War Years of Welles­ley, Wool­wich and Elmira, pub­lished in 2014. The book doc­u­ments the con­ver­sa­tions had with those who fought in wars past and who, for the most part, are no longer with us.

“If you read about it, it’s ac­tu­ally in­ter­est­ing. Ev­ery­body talks about it, but no­body knows any­thing about it. So here now we have the in­for­ma­tion. We know how many [vet­er­ans there were], and who they were, when they were born, what they did,” said Ash, who for­merly served as pres­i­dent of the Elmira Le­gion, and has acted as the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s his­to­rian.

Ash com­piled the names and life de­tails of those young peo­ple that were en­listed right from the com­mu­ni­ties of Welles­ley, Wool­wich and Elmira (which were for­merly dis­tinct mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties). But be­yond just the names, the lo­cal au­thor found what­ever de­tails could be gleaned ei­ther through records or the words of oth­ers.

The book is also re­plete with the sto­ries of lo­cal peo­ple – men and women – and their ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing wartime, as well as af­ter the guns were beaten into ploughshares. The book also spans a wide range of con­flicts, from the early 19th cen­tury to the modern day con­flict in Afghanistan.

“The book starts off with the War of 1812,” notes Ash. “I wrote an ar­ti­cle about it be­cause there were peo­ple liv­ing in St. Ja­cobs that had ex­pe­ri­ence – their an­ces­tors were in­volved in the War of 1812. And I met them at the gro­cery store, and they were telling me about it. ‘Well, for heaven’s sake, I didn’t know that – he was a World War 2 vet.’”

Ask­ing Ash how he would char­ac­ter­ize the lo­cal con­tri­bu­tions to the war ef­fort, and it’s not the lives lost or bat­tles fought by lo­cal res­i­dents that he points to first. Rather, it’s

the con­tri­bu­tions of those made by his home­town dur­ing peace­time that stand out to him.

“Elmira, for a com­mu­nity its size, would win the prize pretty well each and ev­ery year for the sale of war bonds,” said Ash. “That was one of the things they did to sup­port the war ef­fort. They did scrap drives in Elmira, and af­ter the war there was a huge need of cloth­ing and shoes and ev­ery­thing else by the peo­ple in Europe. Not only the peo­ple in Hol­land, which Canada was re­spon­si­ble for, but all other peo­ples too.”

Like the vo­lu­mi­nous food drives and char­i­ta­ble ac­tiv­i­ties of to­day, the peo­ple of Elmira 70 years ago were quick to or­ga­nize to sup­port a good cause.

“And they had huge cloth­ing drives, and boot drives and ev­ery­thing else. And peo­ple gave lav­ishly to those pro­grams.”

But for Ash, some of his most trea­sured sto­ries are the ones with the deep­est per­sonal mean­ing to him. A son of a Sec­ond World War vet­eran, Ash grew up in the com­pany of those who had ex­pe­ri­enced the grisly bat­tles of the Great War and the even larger con­flict that erupted 20 years later.

“One of my favourite ones, I sup­pose, took place in World War Two on the HMCS Skeena. One of the sailors on the HMCS Skeena was a fish­ing buddy of mine. And he be­came al­most like a fa­ther to me,” re­called Ash.

“And lo and be­hold an­other gen­tle­man liv­ing in St. Ja­cobs at that time by the name of Amon Horst was also a sailor on the Skeena. And it’s the ad­ven­tures of be­ing on the Skeena, and the hours and hours and hours that these sailors put in out at sea. Rough sea, north sea, cold, and try­ing to hunt sub­marines be­cause the HMCS Skeena was a type of boat that went af­ter sub­marines.”

The ship met its end in Oc­to­ber 1944, but not at the hands of the en­emy. In­stead, a se­vere storm struck while she was an­chored off Reykjavik, Ice­land, pulling the Skeena off her an­chor, forc­ing the crew to es­cape the stranded ves­sel. Most made it, but 15 sailors per­ished.

Ash was for­tu­nate enough to find the copy of a di­ary be­long­ing to one of the crew mem­bers aboard the ship, help­ing to piece to­gether their ex­pe­ri­ences at sea.

Ul­ti­mately, writ­ing the book of­fered Ash an in­sight into the peo­ple he had known his whole life, and their ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing the war. It’s a les­son that many oth­ers can learn, too, in the pages of Ash’s work.

The sto­ries stand as lit­tle vi­gnettes of vet­er­ans to re­mem­ber them by. Keen ob­servers will even no­tice the names listed on the me­mo­ri­als around the town­ships ap­pear in Ash’s book, giv­ing greater in­sight into those we are en­cour­aged to re­mem­ber dur­ing this time of the year.

“I learned about some of the peo­ple I knew for years and years and years, and didn’t know that they were do­ing this in the war,” said Ash, on writ­ing. “I learned about the peo­ple that lived in my com­mu­nity.”

Avail­abil­ity of The War Years of Welles­ley, Wool­wich and Elmira is lim­ited, but the Town­ship of Wool­wich ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fice car­ries a small num­ber for sale.

[FAISAL ALI / THE OB­SERVER]

Elmira Le­gion his­to­rian Clay­ton Ash cap­tured the sto­ries and his­tor­i­cal records of lo­cal res­i­dents and their ex­pe­ri­ences with the nu­mer­ous wars fought over the last 200 years. The book spans con­flicts from the War of 1812 right through to the modern-day con­flict in Afghanistan.

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