We Stand on Guard

This year, Remembrance Day marked 101 years since the end of WWI and each year, I faithfully wear my poppy to show my respect for those who’ve served and sacrificed in conflicts all over the world, so that we can live lives of freedom.

A poppy, growing on the fields of Vimy Ridge, near Beaumont-Hamel

I look forward to going to my local Remembrance Day ceremony, where I stand among throngs of like-minded individuals – while hundreds of service men and women stand on guard for us. I can never get close enough to see the ceremony, so I look up at the bare sky as the sound of gun-fire from the 21-gun salute echoes up St. John’s Harbour, and for those few seconds, chills run through me as I think about the unimaginable experience of war. Something that I can never truly understand.

21-gun salute on Signal Hill, St. John’s

This past week, I had the privilege of attending the Remembrance Day Candlelight service held for residents and families at the Caribou Veteran’s Memorial Pavilion in St. John’s, but this time, I had a front-row seat. I watched as dignitaries and special guests gave heartfelt speeches, sang songs and said prayers honouring the sacrifice of these veterans.

The Caribou Monument outside of the Caribou Veteran’s Memorial Pavilion

I witnessed the camaraderie that only those with shared experience can understand. The wry jokes; the firm handshake softened by a lingering pat on the shoulder; the line of young cadets placing their candles on the Year of the Soldier memorial; the group gathered round the piano after the ceremony, singing “Danny Boy.”

Candles laid at the Year of the Soldier memorial, Caribou Veteran’s Memorial Pavilion

I also had the opportunity to speak with two veterans, Mr. George Hudson, 97 and Corporal Fred Tavenor, 84. Mr. Hudson served during WWII and Cpl. Tavenor during the cold war.

Both men were quite young when they enlisted – only 17 years-old – and both had tried to convince their parents to sign for them when they were just 16.

A hand-painted rock commemorating service, Caribou Veteran’s Memorial Pavilion

Duty Calls

“I wanted to do my duty,” Mr. Husdon recalls. He volunteered for the 59th Newfoundland Heavy Regiment, part of Britain’s Royal Artillery, which defended Britain’s coasts against invasion. Mr. Hudson sailed out of New York harbour in February 1941, to Liverpool. “When we left here, it was all snow, but when we got to England, everything was green. It was a beautiful day.”

Mr. George Hudson, Gunner, British Royal Artillery, 59th Heavy Regiment, at the Candlelight Ceremony

From Liverpool, they made their way to their headquarters in Kent. “The English people were good to us,” he says. “We didn’t go hungry. And I was a good boy,” he laughs. “I always made sure I wrote home to my mother.”

In Kent, they trained and waited for the invasion they expected would come. When it finally began, they travelled from southern England, up to the north.

“We had long guns – 20 feet long,” he says. “The shells alone were 200 pounds, but we were young, strapping lads. I remember an officer saw a fisherman lift one of the shells by himself and said, “my goodness…do you know that weighs 200 pounds?

“At the end of the war, the British Army gave me a new suit and sent me home. Some of my friends had a really hard time after we got back – they lost their identity.”

A Moment of Grace

Nurse Vanessa Stanley has been caring for the veterans at the pavilion for over 12 years. Last year, she was chosen to accompany the Royal Canadian Legion on their annual Trail of the Caribou pilgrimage, which visits five battlefield memorials in France and Belgium that commemorate Newfoundland’s contributions during the First World War.

Nurse Vanessa Stanley at Beaumont-Hamel

The most significant battle to many in this province took place during the Battle of the Somme on the morning of July 1, 1916, near the towns of Beaumont-Hamel. Of the 800 Newfoundlanders who went into battle that morning, only 68 were able to answer the roll call the next day, with more than 700 killed, wounded or missing.

Caribou Memorials commemorating WWI. Caribou Veteran’s Memorial Pavilion, Beaumont-Hamel and Bowring Park

Like most people, Vanessa had heard the stories about the Battle of the Somme, but to actually visit the site really put things into perspective for her. “What they must have gone through,” she says. “It was quite something to see their story come to life.”

But of all the things that Vanessa saw and experienced during the pilgrimage, the most emotional moment for her was one of the simplest. “Just before the ceremony at Beaumont-Hamel, I watched a Scottish man perform Amazing Grace on his bagpipes. I’ve always loved the bagpipes and hearing them play that song just made it…real. I realized I was walking in history.”

It’s in the Blood

For Cpl. Tavenor, it was men like George Hudson who inspired him to enlist. You could say that even before Cpl. Tavenor served in the military, he served.

He was a young boy in St. John’s during WWII and grew up on Raleigh Street, which bordered Buckmaster’s Field, then a military base. Today it’s known as Buckmaster’s Circle.

Corporal Fred Tavenor, Royal Canadian Airforce, at the Candlelight Ceremony

“There were all kinds of service men around town,” says Cpl. Tavenor. “The allied Navy boats would come in the harbour and the crew would go up to Knights of Columbus on St. Clare Avenue to rest up. In the wintertime, I would drag their belongings up to the K of C by sleigh. Some days I’d make two or three dollars, and sometimes even five dollars. That was a lot of money back then.”

Due to Newfoundland’s strategic location as the “crossroads to North America,” it was believed that there was a big risk of the Island being attacked, either by air or sea.

A volunteer unit, known as the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) organization, helped maintain home defense. One of their duties was to enforce a permanent blackout. Volunteers would scour the city each night and check for any lights that could attract the attention of enemy naval vessels or aircraft. Ironically, Mr. Hudson was an ARP volunteer during that time.

“I remember the blackouts,” recalls Cpl. Tavenor. People had to cover the headlights of their cars and make sure there was no light shining from their windows at night. There was a real fear of being bombed.”

Remembrance Day cymbal/symbol at the St. John’s service. Standing guard for those who served – and for those who were lost.

When Cpl. Tavenor was old enough, he joined the army cadets, and then the reserves. “When the call went out for recruits to go to Korea, I was 16 and underage but really wanted to sign up. That night at supper, when I mentioned the word ‘Korea,’ mother and father jumped up off their chairs. Needless to say, they didn’t sign for me.”

Then finally in 1952, still underage at 17, Cpl. Tavenor’s parents relented and allowed him to join the air force. By the time he got to Quebec for basic training, the Korean War was all but over.

His long and varied 22-year career has taken him all over the world, most notably to Germany in the early 70’s during the Cold War.

He and his young family lived off-base in an apartment building along-side German families. “It was a dangerous time,” he says. “Tensions were high, and you always felt observed. Every now and then, we’d be told to go home, get the kids out of school and go to the (bomb) shelter.”

As with Mr. Hudson, Cpl. Tavenor has stories of fellow service men who struggled after their service ended. While life has been good to Cpl. Tavenor, it was a challenge to revert to civilian life. “When I got out, I was lost,” he says. “What do you talk about when you’re in the air force? You talk about air force life. And that’s what I missed. Even now, if I talk to someone from the service…it never goes away from you.”

Remembrance Day Parade, St. John’s

Giving Back

For Vanessa, her experience on the Trail of the Caribou has forever altered her viewpoint. “I always had a soft spot for our vets,” she says, “and caring for them these last few has been one of the highlights of my career. But now, it’s more than that. We use the word honour a lot, but that’s what it is. It’s an honour to care for them. It’s a form of thanks.

“They’ve done their duty. Now it’s our turn.” ■

This story was written by Robyn Lush, a communications manager with Eastern Health.

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