Bill Waiser has devoted his career to building a better understanding and appreciation for our history. He has done that through the classroom, including more than three decades as a university professor, as well as in newspapers and magazines, in books, on radio and television, and in hundreds of public presentations.
The breadth and depth of his scholarship is remarkable. He has moved easily from scholarship to public history and always with tremendous empathy for his historical actors.
Dr. Waiser’s work is grounded in western and northern Canada and spans centuries. His seventeen books include some with a focus on Saskatchewan and others on such diverse topics as Tommy Douglas, the 1935 On-To-Ottawa trek, and aerial photography.
He has introduced us to a history that could have been ignored, such as the use of prisoners in shaping Canada’s national parks, and the roles played by Indigenous people in the North-West Resistance.
Dr. Waiser’s outstanding career includes a leading role in the fight for access to historic census records, revealing him to be a champion for all historically minded Canadians. His success in connecting historical research to popular debate is helped enormously by the high esteem with which he is held among scholars.
This article was originally published by Canada’s History.
I first visited the Canadian Great War battlefields in the spring of 2006.
My partner Marley and I, together with our good friend Jim Miller, embarked on a mini-war tour in Belgium and France following a conference in Great Britain.
We all had ancestors who served in the Great War and never returned home.
In fact, we were the first family members to visit their memorials.
Jim’s maternal grandfather, John Rodger, died in the 1915 Battle of Loos and is remembered today in Dud Corner cemetery.
He has no known grave — just his name listed on one of the cemetery walls.
He left a wife and eight children in Scotland.
Marley had two great uncles who died in Flanders: James Herbert English at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, and David George Read at the Battle of Mont Sorrel in June 1916.
They too were never found and their names are among 54,000 British and Commonwealth dead commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres.
Marley’s father, James George English, was named in their memory in 1925.
But the really spooky part is that photographs of Jim English’s two uncles, in uniform, loomed over Marley’s mother’s locker at Peterborough Collegiate Vocational Institute — before Barb met her future husband.
My great uncle on my mother’s side, William Stuart Ritchie, was a member of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles.
He perished during the Battle of the Somme on Sept. 15, 1916, coincidentally the first day that the Allied forces used tanks on the western front.
Ritchie was buried in a makeshift cemetery, but his body was later never located — probably blown up — because of the constant shelling of the area.
More than 50 per cent of the Somme fatalities remain missing to this day.
I have since learned that other Canadians have similar stories of loss and that our families’ experiences were not unique.
Part of our April 2006 battlefields tour included a trip to the Vimy Monument.
I never realized at the time that my great uncle’s name was on the memorial.
I had always assumed he died during the Great War, given his year of death, but knew few of the details.
Unlike Marley’s family and their stories, my mother Jean never once talked about her uncle Bill, who died the year of her birth.
Nor had I done any research into his war record, never bothered to look for his attestation papers through the Library and Archives Canada online service.
Our trip to Vimy on a lovely Sunday morning was essentially a bonus after visiting Loos and Ypres to lay flowers and offer a few moments of quiet reflection for our family dead.
But Jim, Marley, and I never did get to see the monument. It was undergoing a major restoration in time for the 90th anniversary of the battle in April 2007.
This rescue work was badly needed.
By the late 1990s, the monument’s stone base was eroding in several places, the sculptures were discoloured by an unsightly mould, and many of the names of the dead had become unreadable from calcium leaching out of the stone facing.
The Canadian government was eventually shamed into action and approved funds in 2002 to save the memorial.
The multi-million-dollar restoration necessitated closing the site to the public so that the monument could be literally taken apart, stone block by stone block, and rebuilt.
For much of this work over the next four years, the memorial would be, as the French said, “en caché,” or covered.
We just chose the wrong time to visit.
The famous monument was hidden under a rectangular canvas shroud that from a distance looked more like a prairie grain elevator.
Disappointed, we vowed on the spot to come back when Vimy was once again open to the public and we could appreciate its renewed grandeur.
The pledge to return to Vimy prompted me to do some homework about the monument, and more importantly, learn about my great uncle William and his fate.
I had witnessed how Marley and Jim had been personally affected by visiting the memorials to their family members and wondered if my relative had been similarly remembered and how I would feel visiting the site.
That’s when I made the connection to Vimy.
William Stuart Ritchie enlisted on Aug. 25, 1915.
His “apparent age,” according to his attestation papers, was 28 (born 1887).
But that wasn’t true.
The census lists his year of birth as 1883 — a fact confirmed by a family genealogy tree.
Why he declared himself to be younger is not clear.
By that stage of the war, after Canadians had been badly mauled in Flanders, the Canadian Expeditionary Force was accepting men in their 30s or older.
Perhaps he believed that he’d have a better chance of being accepted if he presented himself as younger.
Born in Elmvale, Ontario, William had lived in the east end of Toronto since 1904 and worked as an electrician.
He married Agnes Lyon, a seamstress, in 1910, and the couple had three children, Harry (born 1912), Jean (1913), and Lillian, who died shortly after birth in 1914.
Maybe that’s why he signed up.
Private Ritchie was a member of the 83rd Battalion, recruited and mobilized in Toronto.
On reaching England, he was selected to serve with the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles — badly in need of reinforcements after its battering at the Battle of Mont Sorrel.
Ritchie joined the fight near Courcelette, part of the larger Somme offensive.
On Sept. 15, 1916, his battalion was ordered to attack the heavily defended Fabeck Graben trench and came under fierce German shelling as it moved forward.
That’s when Ritchie was reported missing.
William was found dead shortly thereafter and buried next to the road between the villages of Courcelette and Poziere.
The official casualty sheet for William says “Body not recovered for Burial” and is stamped at the bottom in capital letters, VIMY MEMORIAL.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission also lists my great uncle as being “remembered with honour” at Vimy.
But why was his name at Vimy, especially when he was killed at the Somme, seven months before the assault on the ridge?
In 1920, Toronto architect Walter Allward won a competition to design a national war memorial.
The Canadian government initially planned to erect the monument in the Ypres Salient in Belgium, but then decided to place it at Vimy, France in honour of the Canadian taking of the ridge in April 1917.
Work on the monument started in 1922 on what was known as Hill 145.
It would take two years to clear the battleground and complete a road because unexploded shells precluded the use of heavy equipment.
Allward spent more than a decade painstakingly overseeing construction of the monument, ensuring that the graceful design that had come to him in a dream was realized at the site.
One of the critical aspects was the choice of stone.
Allward searched throughout Europe — at considerable expense and precious time — before settling on Seget limestone from a closed quarry near Split, Yugoslavia.
This delay added to the Canadian government’s frustration with the glacial pace of the project.
Allward, in turn, was shocked when the secretary of the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission informed him in 1926 that his monument had to display the names of those Canadians who died in France — not just Vimy — with no known grave.
Allward resisted the proposal, suggesting that there was the “danger of having it look like a huge sign board.”
But the commission was not swayed, and after considering whether to inscribe the names on the monument’s two pylons or the floor of the base, Allward agreed to place them on the walls.
At the official unveiling on July 26, 1936, presided over by the former King Edward VIII, those in attendance greeted the memorial with a mixture of sorrow and pride.
And what made the monument such a poignant reminder of Canada’s great loss were the 11,285 names, in alphabetical order, that ringed the base in continuous lines across the stones.
The central statue of the mourning woman, known as Canada Bereft, was weeping for them.
Marley and I returned to Vimy on a sunny fall day in October 2013.
The trip was part of a small European holiday to mark our 60th birthdays.
I now knew from my research that my great uncle was memorialized there and that his name would be among the Rs, organized by last names in alphabetical order by rank.
It did not take long to find him, on a row of names at eye level, to the right side of the steps leading up to the top of the monument base.
I picked up a fallen red maple leaf, from one of the trees that had been planted at the site, and stuck it next to his name, while Marley took my photograph.
I also placed a little wooden cross against the wall below his name.
I still didn’t know much about him — especially why he enlisted shortly after the death of one of his three young children — but was glad to see his name.
I also thought of my mom’s family and what they and tens of thousands of others went through at the time, especially when the dead had been reported missing.
This connection to family brought me back less than two years later, this time with my sister Gail and brother Tom and his wife Irene.
Marley and I had told them about our past visits to the Great War battlefields in France and Belgium, and we decided to return together in April 2015.
We stood at the Brooding Soldier monument at Vancouver Corner in Flanders, 100 years to the day after Marley’s great uncle James English was killed at the start of the Second Battle of Ypres.
A special ceremony, involving the king of Belgium, was held to mark the first use of chlorine gas on the Western Front.
Later that day, we attended the ANZAC Day commemoration at the Menin Gate and solemnly stood with Australians and New Zealanders as they remembered their dead.
At the end of the service, the sound of the haka reverberated through the memorial.
We also spent a morning at Vimy and took a family picture near my great uncle’s name among those ringing the base of the memorial.
It was all quite moving, even for Marley and I, who had been there before.
There’s an overwhelming sadness when you visit cemetery after cemetery and look out upon the maple leafs on the headstones.
Thousands more Canadians have no known grave — are still somewhere out there.
My ongoing search for more information about my uncle William’s war experience has greatly benefitted from Library and Archives Canada’s decision to scan the personnel records of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and put the material online in 2018.
I now know, for example, that William trained at the Toronto Exhibition grounds, that he sailed from Halifax in late April 1916, and that he landed in France six weeks later.
The record-keeping was a model of efficiency.
The file includes a card indicating that memorial crosses were sent to his widow Agnes and his mother, Janet Ritchie.
The Ritchie family has had little more to add.
It was so long ago, and many are now dead.
But I did get a photograph of the Ritchie family headstone in the Elmvale Presbyterian Cemetery.
William’s name and death in France are inscribed on one side of the stone pillar marking the grave of his parents, who lived into the 1920s and would have known the heartbreak of losing a son to war.
What I couldn’t find, though, was a photograph of William.
That was recently resolved thanks to a November 2017 notation at the end of William’s entry on the Canadian Great War Project website.
William attended St. John’s Presbyterian Church on Broadview Avenue in Toronto.
His photograph is among 32 congregation members who perished during the war.
I visited the church during a trip to Toronto this past August and found his picture on a wall in the stairwell to the second floor.
Some, like William, are in uniform, others in street clothes.
The same men — this time, just their names — are honoured on a bronze plate in the chapel.
There is also a framed, hand-lettered scroll for 1916-17, listing those from the church who served during the war.
The scroll is carefully wrapped in plastic and leans against a wall in a church storeroom.
Beside William’s name is a red dot, denoting killed, that has faded over the years and is barely discernible.
It’s not the fate Canadians expected when they marched off to war.
Nor was it the future families expected for their loved ones.
And if we can do anything 100 years later, it is to remember people like William Ritchie, John Rodger, James English, and David Read.
Their memory should not be reduced to a name on a list or monument.
They deserve better.
This piece originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Bill Waiser’s father served in the British Columbia Regiment during the Second World War. PHOTOS: Bill & Marley Waiser.
On Nov. 8, 2018, just days before the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, known as the Great War, the University of Saskatchewan will be dedicating a memorial bench on the university campus.
The bench installation will cap four years of activities initiated and sponsored by a university Great War Commemoration Committee (GWCC). But once the anniversary of the end of the war comes and goes, will the bench become just another artefact?
One hundred years ago, the University of Saskatchewan decided to recognize service in the war while the conflict was still underway. In 1916, the board of governors recommended that the names of all students, faculty and staff who enlisted be painted on ribbons along the corridors of the first and second floors of The College Building.
These ribbons were part of the original building fabric and predated the war. But they proved ideal for acknowledging the participation of nearly 300 people, mostly students, including future prime minister John Diefenbaker.
These individuals were given a place of honour at the University of Saskatchewan. But no explanation was ever offered as to why the names were there, and their significance was often not apparent to anyone visiting the building.
This omission was corrected with new signage at a re-dedication ceremony in August 2014, along with the addition of the names of those individuals who were missed during the original commemoration process.
Unlike other universities, Saskatchewan decided not just to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the war, but to re-visit and examine the impact of the war on the university and Saskatoon and the contribution of the university to the war effort.
The GWCC comprised a broad representative committee of students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni and retirees, who took on the work.
The university hosted an Indigenous roundtable at which First Nations and Métis peoples were invited to share their memories of the war and what it meant to their home communities.
The only wrinkle was finding a place for the pipe ceremony, a sacred prayer, to set the right tone before the event.
There was also an antiques road show at which families brought in their Great War memorabilia, as if they were sacred treasures, to be assessed by experts in the field.
A series of lectures examined particular aspects of the war — with the emphasis on Saskatchewan’s involvement.
One of the speakers was Globe and Mail editorial artist and Saskatchewan graduate Brian Gable who spoke about cartooning during the First World War.
The GWCC also organized off-campus events.
Saskatoon’s Woodlawn Cemetery has a next-of-kin memorial lane, the only surviving one in Canada. With the support of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, families were encouraged to purchase an elm tree for their loved ones as both a personal and community memorial.
When the site was dedicated in 1923, 112 trees had been planted along the main road into the cemetery — to replicate France’s tree-lined avenues. The president of the Saskatoon Heritage Society led a walking tour of the site as part of the university’s commemorative program.
Nutana Collegiate, Saskatoon’s first public high school, also served as the venue for a special event. At the end of the war, the student body raised enough funds to commission paintings by some of Canada’s leading artists in memory of those who were lost during the war.
But there was a catch: the paintings were not to depict a war scene. Today, the paintings, worth several million dollars, hang in the school library. When a commemorative program was held there — to tell the story behind the paintings and seek funds for their restoration — the crowd, many of them alumni, filled the library and spilled out into the hall.
Recordings of these events have been deposited at the university archives as part of an ambitious online project to make publicly available the great wealth of university holdings related to the war.
The committee is now winding up its activities with the installation of a memorial bench, carved by a local stonemason. The dates, 1914-1918, and the words, “remember us” (the us also standing for the University of Saskatchewan) are inscribed along the back of the bench.
Between them is the silhouette of soldier, head bowed, standing in repose. The figure has historic significance; it was used in the student newspaper, The Sheaf, after the war.
The bench will join other campus memorials to the war and will be placed in the quad immediately north of the Memorial Union Building (commemorating the Second World War) and near the original student residences.
In 1928, the university dedicated memorial gates at the original campus entrance. The names of 67 war dead are engraved on a tablet there. There is also a memorial stone with a plaque dedicated to Saskatchewan men who served in the 46th Battalion. It was known as the suicide battalion because of its incredibly high casualty rate.
The question, though, is whether these memorials, including the new bench, will continue to resonate with the university population and the wider Saskatoon community once the centennial of the end of the war is marked.
They certainly have a place of prominence. Hundreds of people pass them everyday on their way about campus. But do these people ever pause to reflect on the meaning of these memorials and remember the commitment made a century ago to never forget?
As the relative of a soldier — a great uncle — memorialized on the Vimy Monument, I’ve visited the First World War battlefields. I’ve looked out upon a sea of maple leaf headstones in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in France and Belgium.
I’ve read the rows of names lining the inside walls of cemeteries — those with no known grave but believed to have died nearby. And I’ve attended the Menin Gate “last post” ceremony, held every evening in Ypres regardless of the weather.
This experience has made remembrance all the more meaningful, all the more necessary. It’s not something that should be limited to one day a year.
Just as the First World War demanded increasingly greater sacrifices, Canadians need to be continuously reminded to never forget. That’s the purpose behind the installation of a new memorial bench at U of S.
It is a place for people to take time to sit and think about the service and sacrifice and to remember. What better way to honour their memory?