Friday, 11 November 2011

Remembrance Day: Mary, Ina and Vera

When my Granny Ina lost her husband, Herbert, on a battlefield in the First World War, a grateful nation sent her a medal and a note from King George V.

He whom this scroll commemorates was numbered among the those who at the call of King and Country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger, and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty and sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom.

Let those who come after see to it that his name not be forgotten.

My grandmother put the scroll away.

I found it, when I was a curious kid rummaging through her sock drawer looking for hidden candy.

The medal and scroll, obviously, hadn't meant much to Granny.

She never talked about Herbert. It was as if he hadn't existed.

The only evidence of Private O'Neill was the man who lived with us, his son Vern, a 50-something oddity with the mind of a ten-year-old who used to take me out on Hallowe'en dressed like Freddy the Freeloader.

Granny was one of the first War widows in my family.

She was a cold woman, who wasted no time in putting Herbert in the sock drawer to marry my Grandfather, the widower Loyal Crown who had lost his first wife in childbirth. There was no future for a widow in the '20s and I think Ina married Loyal out of necessity. She needed support in raising Vern and he needed a wife to help raise his own son, Lloyd.

Nearly nothing was said about Herbert. I couldn't tell you his regiment or where or how he died.

It was just that way. No time for sentimentality.

There were many more tears shed for the next generation of war dead in my family. My great grandmother, Mary, lost her grandson Bobby in a plane crash in World War II.

My own Dad died a year out of the Army, a casualty of the mental illness sort.

I can't tell you much about Bobby. Only that my brother Bob was named after him. Sometimes, when I was playing with my toys on the floor, I would hear his name whispered, but only occasionally, in the hushed and revered tones saved for heroes.

And I certainly can't tell you much about my own father, who died when I was an infant. I only remember a picture of him. His name was whispered at the table, too, but not in the way of heroes. Only in the way of men who met their end tragically, by suicide or misadventure.

I used to carry Dad's medals around, but I don't have them anymore.

After I wrote a story about him for the Ottawa Citizen a decade ago, I gave his letters and medals to my brother, Bob, who actually did remember the guy.

This morning, I opened up the small box in my bedroom that held the Memorial Cross awarded to my grandmother's first husband. I held the Greek-style bevelled cross, admired the tiny Maple leaves etched on its arms along with the Crown and the Royal cipher, GRI, representing the King, and Emperor, George V.

I wondered what Herbert might have been like. I thought about Bobby, too, and my Dad, all hail fellows gone too soon, casualties of the folly of misguided men and nations.

They exist now in the ground. Herbert and Bobby are somewhere in Europe. Dad rests among his comrades in Victoria Lawn Cemetery, the final resting place of veterans, in my hometown of St. Catharines. His grave is marked with a stone, his name and a number.

Their widows, mothers and grandmothers have been put in the ground as well.

They, too, were the casualties of war.

We must never forget them, either.

Today, in an hour, I will watch the Remembrance Day ceremonies and I will pay tribute -- in my heart, at least -- to Herbert and Bobby and Russell.

And later, I will raise a glass to remember my significant others, the women who sacrificed their lives in the name of war.

To Mary. To Ina. To Vera.

God Bless.

Update: After writing this, an old friend from school managed to track down the final resting place of Herbert O'Neill. Private H.V. O'Neill was killed in an air raid on May 19 1918. He's buried in the Etaples (France) Military Cemetary, plot 66, row D, grave #3.

What a wonderful gift on Remembrance Day. Thanks Barb!


  1. has free access to Canadian military records to honour Remembrance day. I think your grandfather's records are there. I found an Attestation paper for a Herbert Victor O'Neil married to Mary Ina and also a casualty report.

  2. Hello: Do you still have that? I'm re-running my blog in honor of the 100th anniversary of WWII.