by Sam McBride
The first monthly meeting of the 2014-15 year of the West Kootenay Family Historians Society (WKFHS) will be on Monday, Sept. 8, 2014 starting at 6:45 pm in the lower level of the Castlegar Library.
The first part of the evening will feature a presentation by guest Sylvia Crooks, whose new book, timed appropriately with the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, is “Names on a Cenotaph“. The second part of the meeting will be the annual general meeting of WKFHS, including the election of officers for the coming year.
To understand the Kootenays, you need to understand the region`s history. And nothing in recorded history impacted life in Nelson and settlements around Kootenay Lake more than the four years and three months of the First World War. Bad as the Second World War was, it resulted in about a quarter of the Kootenay soldier deaths in the Great War a generation earlier.
“Names on a Cenotaph“ is a remarkable achievement of rigorous research, thoughtful analysis and interpretation, and lively writing. The poignant stories of many of the soldiers are accompanied by hauntingly good studio photographs which provide a good feel of who they were. The details of where the men came from born, where they settled and their jobs or professions are fascinating, particularly the large number of Englishmen who were enticed to come to isolated spots around Kootenay Lake as fruit farmers.
Each Remembrance Day we are encouraged to remember those who gave their lives for their country, but, aside from relatives or friends of the family who died years before we were born, we have not known the names and circumstances of those honoured in ceremonies held next to a cenotaph. In the chaos and anxiety of the war years, the first and overriding concern of authorities when men died in battle was to replace them with new recruits. The needs of mourning relatives and any individual memorials to the war dead were secondary considerations. Excessive grieving in public was frowned upon as possibly damaging to the war effort. Even after the war, authorities did a poor job of remembering the Kootenay fallen, as the cenotaphs erected with lists of names are riddled with errors and omissions. By using a wide array of sources to properly identify the men and tell their stories, Sylvia Crooks is righting a historic wrong, and providing a base for future studies.
Kootenay men were in virtually every significant battle Canadians fought in throughout the war, including the famous victory at Vimy Ridge. But until reading this book I did not realize what a huge role Kootenay soldiers had in the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, arguably the most important Canadian action of the war. Without their heroic stand against a poison gas-led German attack with only improvised protection, the Germans could have broken through and possibly knocked Britain out of the war. Going through school in Nelson I remember learning about Canadian soldiers withstanding the surprise use of poison gas in an important battle, but the fact that 18 – more than 10% — of the Canadians who died holding off the key attack on April 24th were from the Kootenay and Boundary region was not mentioned. Now we know, and it is something Kootenay folks of today can take pride in and think about on Remembrance Days.