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.