For some families in Oak Bay, the First World War is removed by only one generation.
James Campbell was 22 years old when he enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915. He was wounded at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917, but after recovering for several months at a hospital in England, he was sent back to the battle field.
He was killed shortly after during a raid on an enemy trench.
When Campbell’s niece heard that Oak Bay’s archivist would be heading to Europe to honour local soldiers who were killed in the First World War, she asked the archivist to take a note she had written to her uncle.
It was a glorious sunny day in September when Oak Bay archivist Caroline Duncan visited the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France, where Campbell’s name is engraved.
His name is near the statue of Mother Canada, who looks to the east, mourning her sons.
“I read the note aloud while standing there by his name,” said Duncan.
She pinned the note to a commemorative certificate with a District of Oak Bay lapel pin given to her by Oak Bay’s then-mayor Nils Jensen. She placed it on a tomb in front of the memorial, along with the certificates of the other five Oak Bay soldiers commemorated at the site.
Although the names of 95 Oak Bay soldiers who died in the Second World War are engraved on the Oak Bay Cenotaph – built as a Second World War memorial in the late 1940s – in Uplands Park, the names of locals who died in the First World War have been lost over time.
As a project to mark the centenary of the war, two Oak Bay Archives volunteers – Alan McKinlay and Leona Taylor – researched military records, directories, censuses, newspapers, minutes, correspondence and other sources to discover how many of Oak Bay residents died between 1914 and 1921 (the date that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission sets for official war dead).
“So far, we’ve identified 50 men killed during the conflict or who died of their wounds,” said Duncan.
Given that Oak Bay had a population of about 2,500 during that period, Duncan said it’s hard to imagine the impact on the community after losing 50 men.
“Every family would have been impacted; many losing a son, father or brother,” she said. “It is devastating to think of the loss.”
Before she headed to Europe, Duncan had already prepared a detailed spreadsheet of each person’s place of burial and grave location within their respective cemeteries.
Of the 50 Oak Bay war dead, 30 were buried in northern France and Belgium.
“Using this information, I prepared individual certificates with the name, rank, service number, date of death and biography of each man, and included a message from the residents of Oak Bay to say that we remember and honour the sacrifice they made a century ago,” said Duncan. “Mayor Jensen read and signed each one.”
Duncan carried the 30 certificates, as well as Canadian flags, with her to Europe.
She arranged for private guides ahead of time, sending them a spreadsheet of cemetery locations. But even with their knowledge, some of the cemeteries were difficult to find.
“One [cemetery] we visited was in an orchard and another in a copse of maples; some consisted of a few dozen burials while others had thousands and were once part of a large casualty clearing station,” she described.
“All were strikingly beautiful and peaceful.”
Duncan said that what she most wanted to achieve with this project was to personalize the stories of Oak Bay residents.
“To remember each person as an individual – a fellow resident who shopped along Oak Bay Avenue, attended local schools, watched the waves at Cattle Point, stood atop Gonzales Hill and surveyed the beauty of Oak Bay, just as we all do.”
She says that after researching the men, their families and stories, she felt a personal attachment to them.
“Many of those killed were young – just teenagers or early 20s,” she said. “I have a 19-year-old son, and to think of the heartbreak each mother felt on receiving a telegram that her child was injured, or missing or killed… it’s overwhelming to think of.”
Duncan believes that many of the grave sites she saw in September have never been visited by their families.
“For most Oak Bay families, travelling to Europe in the years after the war would not have been possible,” she said. “To be there and to carry a message from our community is something that I felt very deeply.”
“Standing beside their graves was profoundly moving.”
Jensen told Oak Bay News that Duncan’s initiative was “very impressive.”
“When she first told me I was very excited for the simple reason that we should do everything to keep the memories alive of our heroes that paid the ultimate price.”
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