Military mementoes given away as generations age, lose connection with those who served

A photo of Andrew Duncan sits on the wool jacket that once belonged to the soldier, who served overseas with the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada from 1914 to 1919, before coming home to Winnipeg. His grandchildren have donated his kit to the regimental museum in Winnipeg. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC - image credit)
A photo of Andrew Duncan sits on the wool jacket that once belonged to the soldier, who served overseas with the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada from 1914 to 1919, before coming home to Winnipeg. His grandchildren have donated his kit to the regimental museum in Winnipeg. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC - image credit)

Connections are being lost and memories receding through successive generations, as a sentimental tradition reaches the end of a path for many families of military veterans.

The custom of handing down war mementoes is the flickering of a bygone time, and museums are seeing a surge in donations.

"It's sad to see the link being broken between the families that are moving on and whoever was there [in the wars]," said Hugh O'Donnell, a retired regimental sergeant-major for the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada, headquartered at the Minto Armoury in Winnipeg.

"But at the same time that's what these guys fought for" — peace so the nightmare of war could be forgotten, he said.

What is vanishing is the link to those who wore the uniforms. Many children of First World War soldiers are dead or elderly, and the grandchildren are now getting on.

"In some cases their turn is coming soon, too, and so they want to make sure these things go to a good home instead of getting abandoned to whoever cleans out the place after they go," O'Donnell said.

Darren Bernhardt/CBC
Darren Bernhardt/CBC

In many cases, soldiers who returned never spoke about what happened in the war, so their children knew little about it and the grandchildren even less. By the time mementoes stored in trunks and attics reach the fourth generation descendants of soldiers, there is little connection anymore.

In other cases, the lineage ends with no one left, said Gord Crossley, curator of the Fort Garry Horse Museum and Archives, a regimental museum in Winnipeg.

"We've seen an increase in families who either don't want to keep these things or in some cases, don't know what they're about, coming to see us in the museum," said Crossley, who is also the heritage officer for 17 Wing Canadian Forces Base in Winnipeg.

"I'd say probably within the last five years [donations have increased], and most because of the passing on of the Second World War veterans."

Items tell stories

The items that come in tell fascinating stories, said Crossley.

An aluminum tin came in some years ago with two names scratched in it — one of an American soldier and one of a Canadian. Both were captured by the Japanese army at different times in the Second World War.

The U.S. tin was first marked by the American who owned it. It was later taken by the Japanese and issued to the Canadian, who inscribed his own name.

"It's actually deformed on the bottom from scraping it with their spoons to get every morsel of what little food they were given," Crossley said.

The Canadian soldier, a Winnipegger, brought it home once he was freed. He later lost his vision due to the diseases and malnutrition suffered as a prisoner, Crossley said.

Darren Bernhardt/CBC
Darren Bernhardt/CBC

O'Donnell said he noticed a spike in donations shortly after the pandemic began and people stayed home, turning a focus to organizing and purging.

"We've had [souvenir] plates … commando daggers from when the guys went up to [Scotland] to train for the Dieppe raid, various other items of clothing," he said. "It's a real mix of what's out there."

There's also been a mix of emotions as people give up the items, he said.

"Some are really, really having a hard time parting with them, but they know their time is coming. Others, well, they don't really want them around anymore, but at the same time they're the last link."

Darren Bernhardt/CBC
Darren Bernhardt/CBC

For Ian O'Connell and Clinton MacKenzie, sending their grandfather's First World War uniform to the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders museum at Minto marked a homecoming.

Andrew Duncan served overseas with the 43rd Cameron Highlanders from 1914 to 1919 and was twice wounded by shrapnel at Vimy Ridge in France, before coming home to Winnipeg.

After his death at age 85, his items went to his two daughters and their families, eventually ending up with O'Connell in Washington, D.C., and MacKenzie in Ottawa.

The nearly complete kit — from wool kilt and jacket to leather spats, horsehair sporran and Glengarry bonnet — arrived at the armoury in September 2021, making their way back to Winnipeg.

Darren Bernhardt/CBC
Darren Bernhardt/CBC

It also came with a pair of medals, plaques and embroidered handkerchiefs, the latter of which Duncan created while convalescing from his injuries.

"I'm going to be retiring here in a year or so and I have three daughters, all of whom have very small places and none of whom were particularly interested in the uniform because they've never met my grandfather," O'Connell said.

"So I was like, what am I going to do with this? I'd hate for my daughters to try to figure that out after I pass away at whatever future point that is."

Their research led him to the Highlanders museum website. O'Connell then reached out to MacKenzie, who was in a similar situation, with one daughter who knows little about Duncan.

Soon, all of Duncan's once-scattered pieces were reunited in a collection.

Darren Bernhardt/CBC
Darren Bernhardt/CBC

While it was slightly sad to see the uniform go, "it felt a whole lot better to put it in the hands of an organization that's going to take care of it," said O'Connell.

MacKenzie agreed.

"I'm not not going to be able to retain and take care of them forever, so if I can find a good home for them, that's a great thing. And it looks like we were able to."