Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Lost One

I once wrote that in every small town in Canada you will find a hockey arena, a hotel and a war memorial but the truth is that even in the smallest villages of this country you may not find an arena or a hotel but you will find a war memorial.

In Toronto the churches along Bloor and the Danforth that I see daily have memorials to young men long gone. Along the widest avenue there are towering monuments similar to what you see in Edinburgh and London and Glasgow (though not in Dublin). The university has a beautiful memorial and in the fraternity houses there are solemn plaques to commemorate the fallen. In Truro and Sudbury and Fernie, in Charlottetown in the centre of the town at the end of the main street, in tiny wooden rural PEI churches built in the 1800s, overlooking rolling fields of green and the Northumberland Strait, everywhere you go in this country the names of young men are carved into stone or bronze or oak so that we will not forget them.

In Flesherton, a tiny Ontario village, eighty four young men enlisted to fight the Kaiser. Nineteen did not return.

A map of a portion of East York, not far from where I live, places poppies over the addresses of boys slaughtered in France and Belgium. The street names are obscured by a sea of red. Neighbours lost sons and husbands. Some houses have more than one poppy. A bloody sea of grief and horror.

In tiny Goulais River, west of the Soo, perched just before the Highlands of Lake Superior rise out of the granite of the Canadian Shield, there is no hotel and no hockey arena but there's a war monument and there are far more names on it than you would expect for a town perched on what would have been the edge of the world a century ago.

Sometime in the 1880s my great great grandfather, Neil McLean, his wife Margaret and his family of eight children left what had been the family homestead for decades and moved to Kincardine in Bruce County. I have been researching the family for years and for a while there was a massive gap in what I knew. Two of the sons, the oldest, Malcolm, and the youngest, Neil, had appeared in Goulais River soon after but of their parents and their siblings nothing more was to be found.

A few years ago I found that Neil and Margaret were actually buried in Goulais and the picture began to become clearer. Then this past year it came into focus as I discovered census records that showed that actually the entire family but one of the oldest sons, Duncan, had sailed across Lake Huron and settled in Goulais almost immediately after they arrived in Kincardine. After this things become murky again. Of Duncan I have found no trace. One son, John, perished on Superior. His body was never recovered. Two daughters and a son moved west and were still alive when Neil passed away in 1929. The third daughter also disappears from the picture after the turn of the century. Malcolm or Uncle Mac as he was known, lived into his nineties, a relic of times long past that my dad and his siblings remember as a kind and gentle man.

In 1901 there is someone else in the picture in Goulais. a widower, Nicholas McLean, and his son Ivan, a twelve year old. Are they related to our McLeans? Based on family stories the answer is yes but how they are related, I don't know. Nicholas, born in 1853, is almost twenty five years younger than old Neil McLean, the family patriarch. In fact he is almost Malcolm's age, just a few years younger. Perhaps he is a cousin? There are two separate accounts of Ivan being related, one mention of him being a cousin of my grandfather's brother, another of him being my grandfather's uncle. He is definitely not my grandfather's uncle but one thinks that that traditionally we called older friends of family Uncle and Aunt and so I wonder if that is how he was referred to in the McLean family by some.

We know little about Nicholas. Ivan was born on July 5th, 1889 in or around Toronto. In 1891 the baby Ivan and his parents, Nicholas and Jane show up a ways from Toronto, in Grey County. In 1893 another baby, Norman, is born.

We don't know what happened to Jane but in 1901 Nicholas is in Goulais with this oldest son. In 1911 Norman is also in Goulais, living with his father. Ivan, now in his early twenties, is on his own but still in Goulais.

In the history of Goulais River, Valley of Trees and Water, there is a picture taken from around this time. Its some sort of club or service organization, I cannot remember which one. Ivan stands in the back. He is tall for a McLean (and for the time). He has a large, drooping mustache and he looks at the camera seriously. I have not seen the picture in a couple of years but I know that at least one of the other young men in the picture went to France and did not return.

My grandfather was barely a teenager when the armistice was signed and my own father turned thirteen when the war with Hitler ended. They were both the oldest in their families. My grandfather's youngest brother Morley fought in World War Two and his wife Etna served in the WACs in the same war. Other McLean involvement in the wars is a little cloudier. Stories tell of Uncle Mac fighting in both wars (he would have been 82 at the beginning of the second war) and also of Neil the younger fighting in the Great War. I could find no record of Neil McLean in service records of the CEF though and as a father of many in his late thirties I don't think that he enlisted.

One McLean who did go to France was Ivan. His service record tells us a lot about him, although his last name is spelled MacLean. Its the same Ivan McLean though, he has the same birthday and his father is Nicholas.

Ivan was a lumberman by trade and when war broke out he was working in the west apparently. He immediately enlisted in the 31st Battalion and would have shipped out to France very early.

For a record of the exploits of the 31st battalion I would recommend The Journal of Private Fraser, a book I actually owned before discovering Ivan's service record earlier this year. Donald Fraser describes in great detail what the regular infantryman had to endure. Its a terrible tale.

In September of 1916 its the Canadian divisons' turn at the Battle of The Somme. This is before Vimy Ridge and before Arthur Currie turns the Canadian Army into the elite force it would be in the last two years of the war but even in 1916 the Canadians are recognized for their ability in battle.

On September 15th they go over the top and begin the last part of the battle, a battle which they would successfully conclude a month or so later, a battle that cost the British the flower of an entire generation.

On September 15th the artillery does little to dent the German trenches and German rifles and machine guns take a terrible toll, a toll that Fraser describes in detail as he watches his comrades killed around him.

By the end of the first day of the battle the 31st has lost over a quarter of its strength, over two hundred and seventy men. Whereas usually there are a fraction of casualties who are killed, in this battle over half of those casualties are fatal.

One of them is Ivan McLean. His body was never recovered. His name is found on the Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge.

On November 11th, remember him and remember all of them.


LittleFury said...

I'm reading "At the Sharp End" the first volume of Tim Cook's two-part history of the Canadian Corps in the Great War. I've read quite a lot about that particular conflict, but Cook does a fantastic job painting a vivid picture of the daily life of the front line soldier, whose entire existence alternated between back-breaking drudgery and soul-shattering terror. Really brings it home in a way that even the mind-boggling numbers on the casualty lists cannot.

macaotim said...

Pretty interesting stuff. Over here in the Communist Wonderland Remembrance Day doesn't seem to be celebrated widely, however, many Chinese friends have recounted stories about war and lost relatives and all that stuff. No matter where you are, or where you are from...these conflicts have left massive effects in their wakes.

Great post Dog, glad I stopped by today!

kanadienkyle said...


Great read as usual. Am looking a little more into my mom's side these days.

Halfwise said...

My wife and I visited Ypres and the Vimy Memorial in September. I was proud - to the point of tears - of the courage and endurance of our soldiers. And I was ashamed to be part of a society that requires that of its people.

uni said...

Macaotim, I hear more stories of Chinese relatives who died because of Communists activities. You now, starving villages, a few cousins killed in prison etc.

From the older folks, lots of stories of starvation in the war. People dying along the sides of road thin and gaunt. The Japanese damn near starved the entire country to defeat.

Also BDHS, Ivan? The truth revealed comrade Patrovski?

Alice said...

A lot different than when we were kids. Was a disgrace, you'd have missed it entirely but for the poppies going around.
Whoever's responsible for the rehabilitation of Remembrance Day, I'm glad for it.

Came up with a good title too, you knew I'd have to pipe up on that one.

mike w said...

Great post, Pat.

Black Dog said...

Thanks for the kind words everyone.

I've heard good things about Cook's work LF and part of me wants to tackle it but I have read a lot about that the Great War and its awfully hard to stomach what happened. Not to sound overly dramatic but it just makes me very very sad to read about these poor boys. Don't know if its because I'm getting older or because I am a father but it just hits me way harder than it used to.

Alice - yes its changed a great deal since I was a boy and even since I was a young man. It used to mean very little. Times have changed.

Black Dog said...

uni - I know, Ivan. Funny, huh? The sad thing is nobody knows a damn thing about him. He went west looking for work and then he died on the Western Front and then there's no record of his father and brother. At least three of my grandfather's aunts and uncles also went west and there are two more who may have so its possible that that's where Ivan's father and brother ended up as well.

Don't know a damn thing about them really. Its sad. And its a bit of an accident that I stumbled onto them in the first place.

kyle - good luck, I'm sure you will find some interesting info

Halfwise - well said

uni said...

I know what that's like, it's a damn shame when an entire part of your family fades into obscurity. It's even worse when something like a war comes along and destroys parts of it for you.

I know nothing of my family history beyond the names of my grandparents. Whenever I've asked about lineage all I've ever gotten was, they were people. My mother's family had a shrine, with all the names of their line recorded. When the Communists came, one of my relatives destroyed it, along with all the family papers for fear the Communists would use it somehow. Now a lot of them don't even know how old they really are.

It don't get how young ones don't look up to and revere the older folk here. I was raised with a great deal of respect for previous generations, and veterans, regardless of what they did afterwards, deserve at least recognition and respect for what they did all those years ago.