The war and memory course has just finished the battlefields of the First World War and after spending a night 20km’s from the beaches of Normandy, the enormity of both wars has set in. Here is an account from Carla-Jean Stokes, one of our MA students, that sums up the week nicely…
This morning began with an early run through foggy Ypres. We jogged to the Menin Gate, up the stairs and through a grassy path. We then swung down into the streets of what is now known as Ieper. We zigged over the cobble stone roads and passed the Cloth Hall, and I wondered if this was something that the Canadian soldiers had done nearly a hundred years ago. Perhaps they, too, had spent early mornings (and late nights) wandering the streets of a new town. It seems likely that, they, like us, ventured out while their friends hung back at their quarters, sleeping off the previous nights’ drinks.
We had occasion to visit two of what Professor Roger Sarty referred to as “treasure chest” museums. These mixed-bag collections of everyday items have always fascinated me. The piles of seemingly mundane objects remind us that these people really did live, and that a war actually did happen. These objects illustrate that people who fought wars carried specific objects to pass time, save lives and drink those rum rations.
We later visited two Commonwealth cemeteries, the first near Hill 62 and the second at Tyne Cot. I found myself spending these visits snapping photos of the personalized messages on those few gravestones of known soldiers. These few (most bore the simple phrase “Known unto God,”) carried messages that acknowledged sacrifice, loss, and most strikingly: love. Rather than view this cemetery as a collection of well-kept white stones, I remembered that we walked over the last resting place of actual people. And this is surely why we study history.
One was the “Youngest son of Matthew and Hannah Hunt,” a “hero” of “their house.” Another concluded its message with “Love Mum.” One mother declared her son was “Sadly missed,” and “mourned.” A different soldier was buried “far, far from home.” Of all, a headstone at Hill 62 which bore the simple phrase “Dearly Loved,” left a lump in my throat. Love and family were, and are, what connects us all.
Over the next two weeks of this tour, all members of the group will have occasion to present the biography of a soldier. I chose RCAF crew member Dennis John Quinlan almost at random, after having found a collection of his letters and realizing he was only twenty-two when he died in the Second World War. I scanned over his letters–about twenty between him and his mother spanning a year or so. Again, these letters are filled with, above anything, love.
Dennis’s letters indicate a strong connection to his family at home. He expressed happiness at learning his mother and fiance were spending a great deal of time together. Of this, he stated, “it gives me great peace of mind indeed to know that my two loved ones are together.” In a reply, his mother stated “son how very proud I am of you, and my heart is full of loving thoughts for your safety.” While these letters do not provide much insight on the particulars of Dennis’s life before 1941, they remind the reader that the war consumed actual people who lived real lives. All of Dennis’s letters to his mother conclude with xoxoxox’s, and “oceans of love”, he referred to his mother as “mums” or “mumsy.” In one of the last letters Dennis’s mother sent, she wrote “Here is a great big hug and kisses galore for my brave boy. May God grant your safe return. 5000 miles of love, Mother.”
While we find ourselves removed from the world wars–we could never hope to know what these soldiers experienced, it is compelling to realize that we really are all the same. In the words of John McCrae, we’ve all loved and been loved.