On the same day that the Armistice ending The Great War, WWI was signed on November 11, 1918, my English grandmother married my grandfather, a young Canadian soldier in Folkestone, England. “It all started on The White Cliffs of Dover,” he used to say at noisy family Christmases. That date forever has an extra special meaning for us on Remembrance Day.
Grandma loved to tell us about how all the church bells were ringing and people were dancing in the streets when they walked out of the photographer’s studio after their wedding. She thought everyone was celebrating her wedding but in fact, the Armistice had been signed while they were in the photographer’s. She was engaged twice previously—once to an Englishman and once to another Canadian, before marrying my Canadian grandfather. Both of her previous fiancés and a brother had been killed in France. In 1919 she left England behind and boarded a ship bound for Halifax with hundreds of British war brides sailing to join their new husbands in Canada.
My great-grandmother was a widow with sons who had enlisted for service and she was left at home with three daughters, the eldest being my grandmother who was in her early twenties at the time. Tens of thousands of young men enlisting to train and fight in The Great War (WWI) resulted in a shortage of barracks. One day an army officer knocked on the door of their terraced house and asked how many soldiers my grandmother’s family could accommodate. Her mother’s reply, “Probably two or three”. My grandmother described how the Major asked to go through the house and then informed her mother that they would be taking 17 soldiers into their home. They received a stipend for housing them and providing meals.
What would your reaction be if a military officer showed up at your front door and told you he was going to billet a dozen soldiers in your home for an indeterminate length of time, and you had to provide meals and laundry service for them? And you had no choice in the matter. Families willingly accommodated them One hundred years later, billeting soldiers in private homes seems unimaginable. But it was a widespread practice during the First World War and every family “did their bit”. She described how some of the young men were illiterate miners from the north of England who had never been exposed to such things as how to use table cutlery and basic hygiene such as bathing and brushing your teeth. She and her sisters enjoyed the social life which included going to dances with all the soldiers.
Later on in the war, as the various allotments of soldiers were rotated out to cross the channel, their house was requisitioned to provide accommodation for Belgian refugees —women and children. My grandmother had many amazing stories about these experiences. Now that she’s gone and I’m older, I can think of so many more questions I wish I’d asked her.
We recognize November 11th with special reverence. Our own family includes many veterans who served in both wars, including one uncle who was captured during the Japanese siege of Hong Kong in 1941 and served four years as a Canadian prisoner-of-war in Japan. As a baby boomer, we all grew up with friends and schoolmates whose fathers, uncles, cousins and grandfathers served overseas. Remembrance Day services were and remain very personal.
Watching the news on TV today about the horror of the ongoing wars in this tired old world and the living conditions of other innocent citizens in regions of conflict, we need to always be thankful for being born in Canada. Hopefully an army officer will never knock on our doors and tell us we have 17 soldiers moving in. We welcome new Canadians. We live in a peaceful country and for that we can be eternally grateful. Remembering 100 years ago today. Happy Anniversary Grandma and Grandpa . . . and thank you for everything.