For Terrace resident Carol Schmidt, seeing her grandfather’s name at the Canadian National Vimy Ridge memorial in France was a poignant reminder of the tragedy of war.
“It really was a very striking, emotional feeling to be standing there,” Schmidt says.
Schmidt and her brother, Bryan McConachy, visited the Canadian war memorial near Arras, France to see the name of their grandfather, Private Alfred Brodie Swanston, inscribed on the outside of the monument’s enclosing walls. The memorial was built in 1936 as a tribute to the more than 66,000 Canadian men who gave their lives fighting in the First World War.
The pair decided to go on the same year as the 100-year anniversary of Armistice Day this Nov. 11. Schmidt says they are the first members of their family to visit.
“You’re just overcome by the enormity of it…I don’t think you can get a grasp until you’ve actually seen it,” Schmidt says.
“I was always brought up with a lot of respect for Remembrance Day because of my grandfather… to me, it’s a reminder to people to please, never do it again.”
Swanston had enlisted in 1915 when he was 26-years old and signed up with the 43rd Battalion Cameron Highlanders of Canada in 1917. He was injured the same year from a bullet in the right shoulder, but he recovered and rejoined the regiment to fight in France.
Then on August 27, 1918, just months before the armistice, Swanston was killed in battle near Vimy Ridge when he was 29-years old. His body does not have an identified grave market to his name, and he joined the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers on the memorial who were posted as missing or presumed dead in France.
Together, Schmidt and McConachy scanned the list of names in alphabetical order until they found his. They carried Swanston’s beret and identification tags with them, artifacts passed down through the family for the last century.
“My grandmother would have had them when I was a youngster, then they were in my mother’s cedar chest. Now my brother’s had it in a plastic bag at the bottom of a filing cabinet,” she says with some humour.
Along with the beret and dog tags, the family had also kept an eight-inch brass shell casing from the war, laden with inscriptions of battles including Ypres and Vimy Ridge. There are also two brass Christmas boxes received in the years following Swanton’s death, and a soldier’s ‘death penny’ — a First World War memorial plaque given by the British Government to next of kin.
They are now looking at for a permanent home for these artifacts.
Schmidt says it was important for them to visit the National Memorial because their grandfather’s untimely death had affected the family so deeply. Suddenly her grandmother was widowed and left to care for three children — Schmidt’s mother was just 4-years-old at the time.
“Even though my mother has little memory of her father, she had a big attachment. She always talked about him as a playful Dad,” Schmidt says.
Looking at all the names etched on the memorial alongside Swanston’s also held the reminder for Schmidt of the importance of Remembrance Day, and to honour all men and women who lost their lives fighting for what they believed would be a better life for future generations.
“It’s pretty hard for a five-year-old or 12-year-old now to be thinking about the effects of a World War,” she says. “But I think we do a good job of telling them to respect and honour the people who have died to give us our good life.”