Sharon Wildwind is the author of the Elizabeth Pepperhawk/Avivah Rosen Vietnam veteran mystery series. She’s in the process of putting the finishing touches on Loved Honor More, the fifth and last book in the series.
Meet Me at the Cenotaph
by Sharon Wildwind
That phrase is a big deal in Alberta. Every Remembrance Day thousands of people meet one another at cenotaphs throughout the province to stand in a moment of silence.
The roots for this begin in 1885, when the Canadian Pacific Railroad was completed. For decades the CPR conducted a colorful poster campaign encouraging Europeans to “Own your Own Home in Canada and Apply for a Ready-Made Farm.” The posters, which featured charming pre-fabricated farm houses and cheerful cows grazing on lush green grass were — let’s just say not exactly accurate was an understatement. Still people immigrated to Alberta in huge numbers.
The dream of many British immigrants was to make their fortune in Alberta, and then retire in England. They maintained a fierce loyalty to everything British, and taught their children to do the same. They believed that if England was at war, then Canada was at war. When the Great War began families encouraged their men to enlist to take up the fight.
In August 1914, Alberta was a few weeks shy of its 8th anniversary as a province. Imagine a landmass the size of California, Minnesota, and Connecticut combined, with a population of less than half a million people (about the same population as current-day Omaha). There were five cities in the province: Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Red Deer, and Wetaskiwin.
For the men in those cities, enlistment meant a short walk or streetcar ride to the local recruiter.
In rural areas, which made up 99.9% of the province, settlers and First Nations people farmed, ranched, dug coal, cut timber, worked for the railway, and trapped furs. Recruiters got the word out when they would be passing through an area. Men flocked to join up. Men who lived in areas too sparsely settled to have a recruiter come to them walked or rode horseback to the nearest community or the nearest railroad line where they caught a train to Edmonton or Calgary in order to enlist.
During the Great War 35% per cent of the men in Alberta between the ages of 18 and 45 enlisted. Out of that total half a million population in Alberta roughly 1 out of 20 were either wounded or killed in the war.
The majority of Alberta women who served were nurses. Within three weeks of war being declared, graduates from virtually every nursing school in Canada, including the ten schools in Alberta, volunteered to serve for the duration of the war. Not all applicants were selected, but between 1914 and 1919 over 3000 nurses were in the Canadian military and 2504 of them served overseas. This was at a time when the average graduating class was 8 nurses per school per year.
When the war ended, people in Alberta played a large part in the founding of the fledgling Canadian Legion. Branch #1 is still open and still active in downtown Calgary. In fact, any legion with a branch number less than 75 was probably founded in the years after the Great War.
There’s an Alberta joke: how can you tell you’re in small town Alberta? You look for the curling rink/hockey arena, the Canadian Legion, and the cenotaph. Except that it’s not a joke. Every city and virtually every small town has a cenotaph. Each one has a distinctive local flavor.
In large cities, like Calgary, they tend to be of white marble, some of them with bas-relief carvings of soldiers with their heads bent and/or memorial wreaths, like this example from Regina, which isn’t in Alberta, but the carving is an excellent example of cenotaph art, and I wanted to include it.
Each small town cenotaph has its own personality. The most common form is a stone cairn with one or more bronze tablets. In many communities the names of each man and woman who died in the Great War is inscribed. The photo here is from Crossfields, which has a population of about 300. It’s dated 1974 and was erected by the Royal Canadian Legion, Crossfields, Branch 113. I suspect it is a replacement for the original cairn.
My husband and I try to pay our respects at the cenotaph in every town we visit. The most memorable was in a tiny railroad town in British Columbia. It was late afternoon, cold, with a misty rain falling. We’d driven a couple of circuits around town without finding the cenotaph, thought we were sure there must be one. We’d checked the usual places: in front of the town offices, the Legion, and the library. There was no city park, which was the only other place we could think of that it might be. We speculated that the memorial might be a bronze plaque in one of the churches, as was occasionally the case.
As the afternoon light faded we spotted something that might be part of an old cemetery. It turned out to be the cenotaph. It was in a rock grotto, backed right up to the side of a mountain. Obviously no one came here much any more. Vines covered most of the surrounding rocks and dead leaves littered the marble flagstones. There was a wrought iron fence around the cenotaph, which was a six-foot tall marble obelisk, with long bronze plaques on all four sides. Obviously this town had raised a great deal of money for this memorial.
One side was names from men and women who had fought in World War II, but the other three sides were covered with double columns of the names of men who had died in World War I. Name after name after name, all from this one small town, including a list of six men with the same last name. Chances were that all six were from the same family: fathers, sons, brothers, and cousins. By the time we’d read all the names, it was too dark to take a photo, and I didn’t feel much like taking one anyway. It felt as if we were standing on hallowed ground and a photo would have ruined the feeling. We chose to take away only a memory instead.
This year it’s my turn to work holiday shift so chances are I won’t make it in person to the cenotaph this year, but my heart will be there. Or maybe it will be at that cenotaph in British Columbia. I sincerely hope that in the intervening years since we visited people have come along to clear away the vines and dead leaves and that there will be people there today reading that list of names.
Kaye asked for a photo of my office. It is such a mess I don’t dare photograph a lot of it, but this is my version of nirvana: uncluttered desk space; lots of inspiration cards, photos, and booklets, a journal, a black gel pen, and a cup of tea. If I’ve got that, I can write.