In honour of Remembrance Day, this week First Person looks at the memories and heartache of war.
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Usually on Remembrance Day, I join a motley crew of peaceniks, gathering around the Spanish Civil War monument in Victoria. We provide an alternative to the booming cannon and vigorous hymn-singing offered in the official ceremony just across the road. I wear a white poppy. But last year, I became torn about that tradition.
Remembrance Day came early for me in 2019.
Three decades after my mother died I was able to bid a formal goodbye to her younger brother, whose body had been washed away on the tide of war 75 years earlier.
Growing up, we British-born children had been told that our uncle, Pilot Officer Leslie Mayers, had perished while flying his RAF plane full of supplies over Romania. The truth was far more fascinating.
Uncle Leslie had died at 23, while taking part in a daring operation called Gardening by Moonlight. Air crews from across the Commonwealth took their bombers into the air on nights with a full moon, so they could lay mines (colloquially known as cucumbers) in the Danube, disrupting oil shipments from Romania to Nazi Germany.
Leslie and his four crew died Oct. 5, 1944, when ack-ack fire punctured the fuselage of his Wellington bomber. One airman’s body – that of radio operator Charles Gunby – was found on the south bank of the Danube, along with the starboard wing. It is presumed that the other four were washed away by the strong river currents.
Seventy-five years later, the British embassy in Bratislava, Slovakia, held a memorial ceremony on the site where that body had been retrieved from the riverbank. I am Leslie’s oldest surviving family member and the only one who could attend, although two other cousins in our now far-flung clan had made the pilgrimage to Slovakia before.
The granite memorial, installed in 2003, is simple, as was the service. Fierce rain cancelled the scheduled flypast from the Slovak Air Force but didn’t diminish the energetic tones of their brass band – although their goose-stepping arrival took me by surprise. The embassy had to reach into nearby Austria to find an English-speaking cleric who offered words of consolation. We laid wreaths and then planted little wooden crosses.
It seemed ironic that Uncle Leslie died in a battle to block the enemy’s access to oil and that three-quarters of a century later the world is still at war over oil.
I was born in Sheffield during the Blitz in 1941 and am told I only met Leslie once, when I was 3. Ironically, he had been sent back to England for “attitude adjustment.” He had slugged a senior officer who was “bothering a young woman.” I learned this when researching the history of his squadron and it occurred to me that perhaps this Mayers helped fuel the feminism of our family’s later generations. My mother was a fierce advocate for women and my life has been rich with women’s issues.
Equally comforting is the thought that my Uncle Leslie, son of a Roman Catholic tradesman, orphaned at 16, with roots in Sheffield, England, is part of a family that has since spread to three continents, and now includes Black, Jewish and gay members. I like to think this diversity is part of what my uncle was fighting for.
The other benefit to coming together to mourn Uncle Leslie was that I learned about his Canadian connection. His good friend Dick Sutcliffe was an RCAF pilot who later flew for Canadian Pacific Airlines and retired to Vernon, B.C. I was able to track down two of his sons and get a transcript of an interview their dad had done, with lots of rich detail about my uncle. I also discovered my uncle had been engaged – and have been in touch with his fiancée’s family. They told me she always “carried a torch” for her dashing airman.
I also learned he had been a member of the “goldfish club” after he was forced to ditch a plane into the Irish Sea and was saved by his life preserver. In 1942 the Vichy French interned him briefly when he made a forced landing in Morocco.
The day after the ceremony, I visited the mass Russian cemetery known as Slavin, high on a hill in Bratislava. Only 278 of their Second World War dead have plaques: The other 6,570 are unnamed. I thought of their families with nowhere specific to mourn and marvelled at the resources of a small British embassy determined to honour its fallen by erecting a monument (financed by local British companies operating in Slovakia) and organizing an annual tribute.
I had learned that Uncle Leslie liked a beer or two. And it was deeply moving to be able to hoist a pint to his memory, and to the other four crew.
This year, I’ll pin on a red poppy and wear one of those poppy-festooned masks sold by the Royal Canadian Legion. As the British ambassador reminded us in Slovakia, the red poppy represents the blood of those who died; the black centre represents those left to mourn.
Mourning has been made tangible for me: I don’t remember Uncle Leslie, but his life and death have been made real – by the kindness of the British ambassador and staff, by connecting with other folk who lost a family member in the war, by the words of comfort spoken by the imported minister and, yes, by the vigorous rendition of the traditional hymn of loss, O God, Our Help in Ages Past.
Anne Moon lives in Victoria.