The façade of the Court House of Niagara-on-the-Lake was festooned this month with red knitted and crocheted poppies made by loving local hands.
Poppies wrapped around poles guided us along King Street to Castelreagh and to the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum, where more poppies tumbled from tower to ground.
On the lawn were white cards stuck in the earth, like mini-gravestones with the names, rank, birth and death dates of the fallen from Niagara-on-the-Lake in the First and Second World Wars.
The majority were young, in their early twenties, and while we may feel anger that so many youths were sacrificed to the political global ambitions and decision-making of men who would never experience war in the trenches, at sea or in the air, perhaps we can put ourselves in the place of those who enlisted and consider the “why” of why they wanted to go to war.
Adventure? Joining pals and siblings on a lark? Seeing the world? Getting off farms and out of small towns? Leaving restricted social or economic lives? Patriotism? Sincere belief in a just cause?
Whatever the justification, many Canadians volunteered, taking the risk, leaving lives and loved ones behind. Yes, we feel compelled to remember them but let it not be solely for their sacrifice, which diminishes their choice, their beliefs, their heroism.
It isn’t about jingoism. It is about the decision-making of two generations who believed in their communities, their country, their institutions, their faith and one another.
When we wear our poppies, let’s think about not only why they went and fought so bravely, but if they survived, the consequences they bore for the rest of their lives. Many could never speak of what they saw and endured.
For years, veterans could take refuge in the companionship of others in the Royal Canadian Legion branches across the country. Many Legions now struggle to survive.
Our very own Niagara-on-the-Lake branch thrives where much more is on offer than the Thursday fish fry.
Soon, three of us will again judge this year’s children and youth entries to the Legion’s Remembrance Day Poster and Literary Contest. Our panel is often touched by the creativity and sensitivity of these meaningful art works and essays submitted from schools in NOTL, Virgil and St. Davids.
The entries often relate to Second World War cemeteries, poppies and loss as names such Ypres, the Somme, Vimy, Hill 70 and Passchendaele are so frequently intoned during our Remembrance services.
Less celebrated, overlooked, but equally important, were the battles leading up to D-Day such as those of the 1943-1944 Italian campaign. Also, less heralded but essential to our understanding of the Second World War battles is the artwork created by Canadian official war artists, dug in, witnessing, slogging through rain, mud and ruins to document the action.
Charles Comfort (1900-1904), painter, sculptor, teacher, was assigned to accompany the First Canadian Infantry Division and the First Canadian Army Tank Brigade. Both would play a vital role in the liberation of Italy as they advanced up the Italian peninsula toward Rome.
Sicily was taken after fierce fighting by Patton’s 7th U.S. Army and the Eighth British Infantry, including the Canadians, under Montgomery in July and August 1943.
Mussolini and the Italian government had fallen. The Germans were in control. Christmas 1943, the Canadians took Ortona after vicious “mouseholing” house to house battles.
The battle-hardened Germans constructed two major fortification lines of defence: the Gustav Line and the Adolf Hitler Line which ran east to west, coast to coast, across the Apennine Mountains.
Inland, they held the high vantage point of the Abbey of Monte Cassino with its sweeping view of the rivers and landscape to the south and its vital position between Naples and Rome.
The Canadians were part of the fierce four-day battle for Monte Cassino, which fell on May 18, 1944. Next, they were to breach the Hitler Line. Under heavy mortar and machine-gun fire they succeeded in defeating German defences, forming a bridgehead across the Melfa River and securing the Liri Valley on May 23.
Rome fell to the Americans on June 4, 1944. Less than 48 hours later, the D-Day invasion began with Canadians landing under blistering fire on Juno Beach and moving on to ultimately defeat Hitler.
Charles Comfort would also go on to great achievements in the Canadian art world, including being the director of the National Gallery of Canada and the formation of the Canada Arts Council.
Penny-Lynn Cookson is an art historian and writer living in Niagara on the Lake. See her Zoom lectures on Spanish Exceptionalism: El Greco to Picasso, Nov. 10 to Dec. 15 from RiverBrink Art Museum in Queenston.