LEWISPORTE, NL — Growing up in Campbellton, General (Retired) Rick Hillier was surrounded by people who served in the First World War and Second World War.
“And for the vast part of my growing up, we never knew a single one of them – it was pretty incredible,” said the former Chief of the Defence Staff for Canadian Forces in addressing those gathered for the Lewisporte Scholarship Fund gala/dinner on Oct. 28.
“We knew people, but we did not know they had served – that wasn’t recognized and I know many of you will recall that,’ he said, “and I think it was absolutely criminal that we didn’t appreciate, we didn’t remember, we didn’t commemorate the incredible service they had given us — some at a huge cost to their mind and to their body, even though they had returned home.”
So Hillier embraces opportunities to recognize those who have served or serve in the nation’s military. He did so on Oct. 28 by presenting Commander’s Coins to veteran Robert Rose and Trooper Trevor Bennett.
The coin says, “For Canada” and features a statue of the monument at Vimy Ridge and a yellow ribbon for support of the troops, and has the four maple leafs of the rank of General of Chief of Defence Staff. It is a way for Hillier to tell them “thank you” for their service.
He recognized the contributions made during the Second World War by soldiers like Rose.
Hillier also noted, “the world is still a nasty place.”
“We still need incredible young men and women to serve our nation in uniform and sometimes put their lives at risk, in harm’s way, on our behalf, doing things our nation asked them to do,” he said in recognizing Bennett, who recently returned from a deployment. “I’m glad that you are here tonight and serve our great nation.”
Hillier spoke about the harsh realities of war, the sacrifices made and the inspiration he has gained from so many people throughout his life and career.
He noted the importance of remembering the victories on the battlefield, but also honouring those lost in the fight.
This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. The Canadians once again were able to take back an area after other nations failed to do so. Once again, it came at a cost and the loss of 15,654 Canadians.
Hillier read a letter from a Canadian soldier who had served at Passchendaele, an area known to the Canadian military to be synonymous with mud and soldiers sinking, drowning and dying in mud holes and sink holes.
The letter detailed an incident in which he was involved in bringing in supplies. They waded through the mud, mindful to stay in line and not venture to the right or left and into a mud pool.
One of the soldiers did fall in, and efforts to save him were unsuccessful.
Hillier read: “We finally procured a rope and managed to loop it securely under his armpits. He was now gradually sinking until the mud and the water reached almost to his shoulders. We tugged at that rope with the strength of desperation in an effort to save him, but it was useless. He was fast in the mud and beyond human assistance. Reluctantly the party had to leave him to his fate and that fate was gradually sinking inch by inch and finally dying of suffocation. The poor fella now knew he was beyond all aid and begged me to shoot him, rather than leave him to die a miserable death of suffocation. I did not want to do this, but thinking of the agonies he would endure if I left him to this fate I decided a quick death would be a merciful ending. I am not afraid to say therefore that I shot this man at his most urgent request, thus releasing him from a far more agonizing end.”
Hiller said to those gathered, “ladies and gentlemen, when you stop and think 100 years ago, of the kind of decisions, of the kind of situations that Canadians were in, how could we not go out on 11 November, coming up very soon, and remember and say thank you and appreciate that service.”
He went on to speak of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and some of the notable contributions made at Monchy-le-Preux and Beaumont-Hamel, where on July 1, 1916, 801 soldiers went over the top and only 68 were there to answer the roll call the next morning.
“There went the leadership of our great province for really the next 50 years,” Hillier said.
During visits to Beaumont-Hamel, Hillier and his wife Joyce will bring along beach rocks from places like Laurenceton, where people like Pte. Allan Tetford came from, and fought and survived.
And from places like Comfort Cove where Pte Willis White was a lumberman before the war. Hillier noted that the White family had received a telegram in April of 1916, informing them that their son was killed. It was a case of mistaken identity, as White had loaned his field jacket to a fellow soldier who was killed by enemy fire. The man wearing the jacket died, and White was left unconscious in the attack. The body was identified according to the jacket he was wearing, and thus the reason for the telegram to the family of Willis White.
White regained consciousness three weeks later and was able to identify himself. Thus a telegram was forwarded to his family advising that he was indeed alive.
In a cruel twist of fate, White was one of those killed at Beaumont-Hamel months later, and a telegram was once again sent to the family for a second time advising of his death.
“Can you imagine that family – you know they must have been assuming, thinking, hoping, believing maybe that that was going to be a mistake again,” Hillier said.
He added, “It would be wrong to stand up here and talk if we didn’t say, it’s coming up to 11 of November. We remember the men who went up Vimy Ridge, we remember the men who fought at Passchendaele and we remember the Newfoundlanders who did us proud by the loyalty and the courage that they showed to their brothers and their fathers and their sons, because they wouldn’t let each other down, no matter how horrible it was.”
Hillier went on to speak about those that have offered inspiration to him, whether it be from the battlefield 100 years ago to present-day soldiers in the Canadian military and those who show their support to those who serve. The reasons to be a part of honouring them on Nov. 11 just kept adding up.