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First Person Remembrance Day was never personal. Then I learned about Mervyn Naish

Chelsea O'Byrne

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

This week, First Person reflects on the pride and the heartache of Remembrance Day.

This week, First Person reflects on the pride and the heartache of Remembrance Day.

It is odd sometimes how we make connections with the living and the dead. I made mine with First World War soldier Mervyn Naish when my wife bought an antique dresser at an auction in Barrie, Ont., some 70 years after he died.

A week or so after she brought it home, I found the dresser still in the garage and had a closer look. When I examined it, I noticed a document lodged at the back of a drawer. It was yellowed with age, the same colour as the wood, and might have been easily missed.

I carefully retrieved what turned out to be an original Canadian Expeditionary Force Death Certificate for Mervyn Naish of the 1st Motorized Machine Gun Brigade. The certificate was rather ornate, not large, maybe 20 by 30 centimetres with the details written in fountain pen. I held it carefully because I was holding a piece of history that I knew didn’t belong to me. Mervyn had died of his wounds, which means he likely suffered before he passed away, poor kid. I knew I had to return this certificate to anyone connected with this fallen soldier.

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I began my search by checking the war memorials in Simcoe County, just north of Toronto, not far from where the auction was held. The county is full of smaller towns and each has a war memorial to commemorate their fallen soldiers. As a lawyer, I often attended satellite courts throughout the County, and on my way home I would check each town’s memorial. I had never before scanned the long, sad lists of names carved in stone, and the experience was sobering. Each name had been a young man who was someone’s son, or brother, or husband.

Mervyn Naish, however, was not one of the names. He was proving to be elusive.

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Discouraged by my lack of success, I lost interest for a few months. But one rainy morning I was racing to court in Penatanguishene, Ont., when I spotted a memorial in the village of Waverley, which I hadn’t seen before. I stopped on my way back and scanned the list of casualties.

Among the fallen soldiers of Medonte Township was the name, Mervyn Nash. Although the spelling of his surname was different, I felt sure that this was the right man. Later that day I checked the telephone directory for this area and came across another Mervyn Nash. I didn’t believe it at first. I reread the name several times. I felt a mixture of shock and relief as I knew this must be the family.

I didn’t call the number, and I can’t explain why. At this point, I decided I just needed to drive over and deliver the certificate.

The following Saturday, I placed the certificate in a legal file folder and drove to the township where Mervyn Nash lived. It was a sunny spring morning and the weather was warm. I stopped at a variety store and asked the fellow behind the counter if he knew Mervyn Nash. He did, and gave me directions to his farm. It was a short drive.

As I turned into the farmyard, I realized I had been looking forward to this moment for some time. Folder in hand, I walked up to the house and could see someone sitting at the kitchen table through the screen door. I knocked.

The man stood up and I could see he was dressed as if he’d just come in from working outside. He was wary of this stranger at his door.

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“Are you Mervyn Nash?"

When he replied yes, I pulled out the document and, without explanation, handed it over: “I think this belongs to you.”

I watched him mouth the words as he read, and when he looked at me, he was overcome, unable to say much except that he wanted to know who I was and how I had come into possession of this certificate. I explained my story and search of the last six months, then asked him for Mervyn’s story.

The man I was speaking to had been born shortly after the end of the First World War and named in honour of his fallen uncle. Uncle Mervyn had enlisted in Orillia, Ont., in January, 1916. Because he was underage, he used a false name and date of birth. He died near Arras, France, a year and a half later, on Aug. 8, 1917.

Mervyn brought me inside and showed me his uncle’s photograph taken shortly after his enlistment. He had been entrusted with his uncle’s medals, letters and the relics associated with the young soldier, but had never before seen the death certificate.

Mervyn and I spent the morning together. We walked around the farm, noting where the Coldwater River flowed through and where the salmon came in from Georgian Bay to spawn. Everything was green and lush - a beautiful and tranquil setting, quite unlike the trenches and battlefields of the First World War. While we spoke, we both thought of the young soldier who had been born and raised in the hills of Medonte, Ont., and who had never returned from the war. Every few moments the conversation would naturally return to him. I asked Mervyn about the misspelling of the last name and was told that this was no accident.

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Back at the house, he pulled out the old family Bible and showed me how the family name was once spelled Naish. It was changed to Nash when the family had moved to Canada from England. The young soldier had used the old family name in order to get around the local recruiters, who would have known the Nash family and that Mervyn was underage.

Before I knew of Mervyn Naish, Remembrance Day was never personal. I never had a relative killed in any war. But every November 11th since then I have thought of him during the minute of silence and when the bugle is sounded. I imagine that he, like many others, was a boy in a hurry to get off the farm, into a uniform and off to Europe, before all the excitement ended. I have thought of the sorrow that would have befallen his family when they received word of his death. I can only think that this certificate was too painful to look at or to hold, and became lodged in a hidden part of a drawer, and then forgotten with the passage of time. This is one soldier’s story that needs to be remembered.

Michael W. Shain lives in Little Current, Ont.

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