(Photo in the Header image provided by Sam’s great-uncle from WWII)
Tomorrow is November 11th and Remembrance Day is important, but many of us (young people especially, including myself) don’t truly understand and appreciate this day of memorialization. We learn a moderate amount from textbook stories in secondary school history classes, but how impactful are facts without personal connections?
I grew up looking at the faces of soldiers or concentration camp prisoners in captioned photographs and felt incredibly bad about what they went through. I cannot, however, imagine the emotions that these photos must evoke when those faces represent one’s friends and family – it’s this special link that I find fascinating.
The thing about history books is that they often generalize or focus purely on overall facts which can dehumanize the tragedy that is war.
This is why I wanted to reach out to my peers, to see if they could share stories that have been passed down to them, share their personal experiences with Remembrance Day, and to share something about their loved one that had nothing to do with the war. I ended up only needing to talk to two friends who had expressed interest because they both provided me with a surplus of material. They are wonderful young women and I thank them for providing all of the photos in this blog as well.
Two soldier’s lives are to be featured today: one who is still alive and one who died in combat overseas.
Poppies for Poppy
My friend Sam is 22 years old and she is lucky enough to have learned a lot about her grandfather John (who she calls Poppy) from the man himself as he is still alive and well at age 89.
John joined the army at 16, he was quite a bit under the age requirement, but the war was coming to an end and the Canadian army needed more men. He was to join his three older brothers who were already fighting in WWII.
“He went to basic training, and, as he tells it, he had the time of his life,” Sam comments, “he absolutely loved it.” Apparently, John really enjoyed the training schedule, the camaraderie, and the physical activity. Sam states that “he often speaks about his time in the army as the best time of his life.”
By the time that John finished training, but before he was deployed, the war had ended. He was one of the lucky ones. His three brothers Nick, Donny, and Walter all made it back home to Canada with photos depicting the innocence and youth of their fellow soldiers overseas.
John’s wife Isla, Sam’s Nana, also had three brothers who fought in the war. Unfortunately, Isla’s family wasn’t as lucky as John’s – two of the three brothers died in combat. Isla’s WWII memories differ from her husband’s quite a lot. “She lived in Scotland, and had a much harder time than my Canadian-born Poppy. When she’s speaking about that time, she most often talks about rationing – and we actually still have some of her rations cards that she saved.” Sam recalls that even today, her Nana “never puts more on her plate than what she will eat, and all of her grandchildren are frowned upon when we don’t finish.”
After the war, John and two of his brothers started a moving company that they sold while Sam’s dad was still in high school.
“I can’t say that I have ever really spoken to my Poppy directly about Remembrance Day,” Sam confesses, “though when I was younger my father took me over to grab a bunch of Poppy’s war photos for me to take to school. It is around this time where he most often speaks about how much fun he had during training.”
Sam’s take on November 11th is honest and similar to what I would guess many other millennials experience. “Remembrance Day is kind of just another day to me – it’s actually my boyfriend’s birthday so it’s not exactly a focus, as bad as that may sound. I participate in the moment of silence every year, and am completely aware of what it represents, but at the same time, it doesn’t ever have a lasting impact on me.”
Fun fact about John: “My poppy love love loves hockey (and being active in general)! My youngest brother is the only one in my family who still plays competitively and not in a beer league. My Poppy often goes to his games. My Poppy himself played hockey until he was 80, and I actually had a supply teacher in high school recognize my last name because he knew my Poppy and uncle for that fact.”
Descendants at Dieppe
Hanna and I have been best friends since we were 11 years old and she’ll be turning 26 this month! She broke our childhood pact to visit Europe together, but it was for a good reason – for a life-changing university history trip! Hanna’s relation to her great-great-uncle may sound distant, but her connection to him and her family’s history is admirably strong.
Jimmie Burnett was 19 when he was killed in combat, but he had enlisted when he was only 16. In order to do so, his dad helped him lie to the Canadian Military and said that his son was 18 years old. Private Jimmie Burnett’s tombstone at Dieppe, the Normandy beach town where he was killed, says that he was 21 when he died, but it is actually two years off.
“He was my grandfather’s uncle on my dad’s side, Papa was named after him (Jim) and was born in ’42 about a month before the family got any confirmation that he had been killed.” Jimmie Burnett was killed on August 19th, Hanna explains that “the allied forces tried to gain a stronghold and failed miserably in 1942 (trying to create a second front and alleviate the eastern front where Russia was struggling to hold off Germany).”
“I first started to learn about him when I got accepted into this History class in university that studied war and memory and particularly how we memorialize Canadian efforts in WWI and WWII. Papa had started doing some family research and when I got our assignments for the class, which included a soldier biography, I hit the ground running. We got hold of his military records and chatted with his youngest sister who was just a kid when he went to war, Margie.”
On the aforementioned European university history trip, Hanna was able to discuss the battle of Dieppe with her classmates while standing on the same beach where her great-great-uncle had been killed. At this point, she was knee deep in research and very connected to Jimmie. “I just remember bawling my eyes out when one of our profs asked ‘how do you feel being here?’ Dieppe was a huge loss of life – I think the casualty rate was like 95% – and I couldn’t believe that the allies had chosen such an easily defensible place to attack the Germans.”
Hanna was also able to visit Jimmie Burnett’s grave site the next day. Luckily, her peers were very supportive. The combination of a number of emotional moments on her trip contributed to her feeling closer to her family than ever before. Hanna admits that she felt a stronger connection to our collective history and had never felt more patriotic than she had during that time of her life. She discloses that she felt especially “patriotic because the war ended a terrible evil in the world and was fought with purpose. Jimmie, like his brother, his sisters, and mother were a part of that.”
The pride that Hanna has in her family history coexists with her general heartache over her family’s loss. “I was so proud but also endlessly sad – my brother was 19 at the time. Could I imagine him going to war?”
When I asked Hanna about how she felt about Remembrance Day before and after her research, she told me that her family had already taught her that “it was a day worth really respecting.”
“You wear the poppy and you’re told as a kid that Canada has this really great reputation as a peacekeeping nation and between that and a number of wars, many people have given their lives in service of our country. But to form that connection and to become a part of someone’s military story, that changed me. I think about Jimmie and his sacrifice every day, but particularly around Remembrance Day and August 19. I have had it memorialized on myself with a tattoo so that I never forget not only his sacrifice, but also just him. Jimmie the 16-year-old kid who protected his family and loved his siblings and was this unique person. My Papa never got to meet his uncle but feels this huge connection to that lost part of his life. I now feel the same and on Remembrance Day get to share that sense of loss, respect, admiration and support with others all across the country.”
Fun Fact about Jimmie Burnett: Hanna discovered some personal anecdotes when talking with Jimmie’s sister Margie. “We found out some amazing stuff – like how he was this devilishly charming guy with a reputation for the ladies, even as a 16-year-old and he went AWOL a whole bunch of times during basic training because he kept sneaking off to hook up with chicks.”
I believe that oral story-telling and passing down personal documents is the most important part of historical education. We all get the overview of what our nation tells us happened in textbooks, but it’s the individual experiences that will further the appreciation of Remembrance Day for younger generations.
Do you have connections to anyone who has felt the harsh reality of military pursuits past and present? Let me know in the comment section, everyone’s story is important – no matter how great or how small.