I remember how Grandma’s memories stung her


Although I have never been in Perth to mark Remembrance Day, my grandmother felt the loss of her brother deeply, year-round, decades after the fact when I was a kid.  My Great-Uncle Tom was killed in 1917 on the World War One battlefields of France roughly five weeks before the final assault on Vimy.

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My father, who died in 2002, was given the first name of his late uncle (Thomas), just as I was given the first name of my uncle, Dad’s brother Kenneth, who died suddenly in hospital in his thirties before I was born – Perth’s Great War Memorial Hospital, to be precise.

Thomas Earl Butler was my paternal grandmother’s brother. Any memories of Grandma talking about him are filtered through the eyes of the less interested child that I was when these stories were told. How I would love to hear them now.

Grandma was primary homemaker for her father, a widower, when news came by telegram of Tom’s death – as reported in the Perth Courier:

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I remember Grandma had a commemorative plaque which paid tribute to Tom. I’m not sure but I believe it may now be at the Perth Legion’s museum.  The formal portrait of Uncle Tom, in his handsome uniform (different from the one in the press clipping), was taken in Perth before his deployment.  My sister is looking after a cloth belt which was sent home from the front completely covered with various regimental pins from across Canada.

The newspaper clippings come from Veterans Affairs Canada, as do these copies of Uncle Tom’s ‘attestation papers’. (Looking at his signature, I can see an amazing resemblance to my grandmother’s penmanship, as well as my Dad’s!)

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With so many casualties, and burial taking place close to the battlefields, it was a different kind of war.  I don’t know what, if any, discussion there would have been in Harper, in the rural countryside outside Perth, about going to war.  I suspect, being the First/Great/War to End All Wars, there would have been a mixture of patriotism and excitement at the sheer novelty.  Twenty-year olds don’t die!  (They still think they don’t!)

“Complexion: Fresh” was racist code used to distinguish non-white soldiers, gladly accepted when county-by-county quotas were low, from their ‘fresh-faced’ comrades. That is sick!

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website provides these stark ‘Casualty Details’ (I have added links):

Name: BUTLER
Initials: T
Nationality: Canadian
Rank: Private
Regiment/Service: Canadian Infantry (Central Ontario Regiment)
Unit Text: 75th Bn.
Date of Death: 01/03/1917
Service No: 787151
Casualty Type: Commonwealth War Dead
Grave/Memorial Reference: VII. D. 17.
Cemetery: VILLERS STATION CEMETERY, VILLERS-AU-BOIS

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There’s a bit more of an online tribute, however generic, here.

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