Naval Veteran at Memorial Event: "You Will Never Understand What Your Attendance Means to Us"

·4 min read

A naval officer said “you will never understand what your attendance means to us,” in the first of Burlington’s two Remembrance Day ceremonies this morning. That lack of understanding seems mutual, as so many in the audience will never understand the magnitude of the service and sacrifice of those honored today, try though we may.

Old and young naval veterans gathered by the Naval Monument at Spencer Smith Park many wore flawless blue dress and white berets. Waves crashed and sprayed across the promenade. Planes soared through the grey morning sky where the faded white ghost of the sun began to reveal itself, the sun rose lazily while soldiers stood in uniform and at attention by the monument.

In the afternoon an Avro Lancaster, World War Two’s biggest British Bomber plane, part of Hamilton’s Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s collection, was set to fly over the region. A crowd gathered in long winter coats on a cold morning in remembrance.

“It’s like an old summer day on the Atlantic,” said the naval officer. The audience laughed but it was another thing they couldn’t truly understand.

Wreaths were laid by the foot of the Naval Monument behind which stands a tablet bearing the names of the fallen. The monument is dedicated to the 2024 naval personnel and the 31 warships of the Royal Canadian Navy and the 1466 merchant seamen and 75 ships of the Canadian Merchant Marine who were lost during World War Two. The numbers are almost too big to comprehend, the names of the fallen too many to fathom as individuals, they become abstract.

After the ceremony, the naval veterans gathered for a shot of rum, where they toasted absent friends. They were joined in their drink by a game Minister Karina Gould and Mayor Marianne Meed-Ward.

In the discussions that followed among the navy men some teased and joked with each other, others spoke more somberly. An elderly navy man talked about his family as a military family, his father buried alive in the trenches in northern France, some hundred years ago during the war. The naval veterans plotted to head off to the Halton Naval Veterans Association. Amongst each other they oozed a familial kind of familiarity, maybe it comes from the shared secret, that shared harrowing experience they lived the rest of us can’t understand.

The 11 am ceremony took place at the Cenotaph by City Hall, in the recently unveiled Veteran’s Square. The event was advertised as a virtual one but the city was unable to keep the people away as Brant Street was thronged by crowds listening quietly.

The drone of the bagpipes sounded and the colour guard marched in. The colour guard bore the flags, wore monochromatic blue plaid kilts and dark coats, some adorned with service medals. The sun shone brightly by the late morning and the bronze soldier at attention atop the monument cast a long shadow across Veteran’s Square.

The veteran who led the ceremony became another to try and bridge the gap of understanding. Breaking down the word “remember” into “re” and “member” and asking us to consider it serving to reintroduce the fallen into our membership. Maybe that makes it easier to remember the fallen as an individual, he spoke then of the popularity of wartime poems to the same end, to understanding.

And so he read:

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.”

-John McCrae

The veteran leading the 11 am ceremonies came from a military family as well, his grandfather had to be sent home from World War One after lying about his age to join the military, he was 16. So few veterans remain from the World Wars to tell their stories.

Many of us have relatives who served though it grows more distant generation by generation, fewer storytellers, faded memories, the sacrifices abstract and difficult to comprehend, the individuals become statistics or a name among many on a memorial tablet. And so we gather on November 11th, and in the moment of silence when everything else from our noisy lives full of self-importance and mixed up priorities shuts down, even for a moment, maybe we can get close to understanding.

Thank you to all veterans for your service and sacrifice.

Ryan O'Dowd, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Burlington Gazette

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