At 99 years of age, British war veteran Austin Burnett has led a full life, including spending the entire Second World War serving in the Canadian army. But there was one thing he had never done until this weekend: attend a Remembrance Day service.
Mr. Burnett made his first appearance at a service to honour the war dead on Sunday, laying a wreath at the Canada Memorial in London. He has lived in London for decades but had never been to the ceremony before, partly because of the difficult memories of his war years which included losing several friends and two younger brothers. But last spring he told his friend and helper Berwyn Rutherford that he thought it was time he went. She got in touch with the Canadian High Commission and Mr. Burnett was invited to participate in the service.
He found the ceremony overwhelming at times and broke down in tears at one point. Afterward he said he wanted to come partly out of curiosity and mainly to show his appreciation for Canada. “It was the nicest day of my life,” he added.
Mr. Burnett’s route to the Canadian army was pure happenstance. Born in Hull in northeastern England, his family moved to London when he was 11. He quit school three years later in order to earn some money, landing a job with the railway and working out of King’s Cross station.
He left for Canada in his early 20s, looking for adventure and made his way to Vancouver. That’s where he was when the war broke out in September, 1939. Mr. Burnett signed up within days, joining a Canadian regiment in New Westminster, B.C. He spent the war as a corporal largely attached to armoured units across Europe. He injured his foot in Italy, lost several friends and found out later that his brothers, Peter and John, also died fighting.
After the war, Mr. Burnett returned to London and worked briefly for a shipping line before rejoining the railway and becoming a union leader. He dabbled briefly in politics, running unsuccessfully for a seat on the London local government, and pursued his passion for history, earning a degree in history in his 70s. He has lost two wives and lives alone in a house next to Ms. Rutherford.
“Those six years in the war were the most important six years of his whole life,” she said Sunday. She added that while his hearing and eyesight are poor, he still has an interest in history, particularly the war years.
Mr. Burnett is one of a handful of Britons left who served in the Canadian army during the war. Ineligible for a Canadian veteran’s pension, Mr. Burnett and a few others receive financial support from the Canadian Women’s Club, a London-based charity.
When asked what it was like to serve with the Canadians during the war, Mr. Burnett smiled and said: “Marvellous.”
And he plans to be back for next year’s Remembrance Day service. “I’ll come every year,” he said. “My ambition now is to live to be the oldest man in England.”