Story by Bruce Sach
It’s only since I began cycling through the country’s national cemetery that I have realized the importance of this place to Canada and its history. The story of an Ottawa man, Alexis Helmer who has a plaque in Beechwood next to his parents’ grave, moves me in particular.
Lieutenant Helmer left Ottawa with nine of his chums from Lisgar Collegiate and McGill to fight in the First World War in Belgium. Seven of them perished, victims of the initial German gas attack. Helmer survived, only to die a few weeks later, in the Second Battle of Ypres. His name is inscribed at the Menin Gate in Ypres, meaning his exact burial site is not known. His death inspired John McCrae to write his famous poem, In Flanders Fields. It would hard to find a Canadian who is not familiar with this poem.
Another soldier from the same battle who is also buried at Beechwood is Alan B. Beddoe, who became a German prisoner of war. After the war he was one of the top heraldry experts in Canada and worked as an integral member of the team behind the Books of Remembrance, which commemorates the more than 118,000 Canadians whose lives have been lost during battles since the Boer War. Beddoe was the man behind “Pearson’s Pennant,” the nickname given to Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s drive to adopt a new national flag in the 1960s.
More Remembrance Day Coverage on Vacay.ca
From the Beechwood Cemetery, a 15-minute bike ride takes you to the Books of Remembrance in the Peace Tower. The First World War Book of Remembrance includes the name of more than 66,000 men and women who lost their lives. The books are massive and one beautifully illustrated page is turned every day.
The Ottawa landmarks take prominence every Novemeber 11 during Remembrance Day activities, when they are central figures during television coverage. This year, the spotlight will shine even more intensely on the National War Memorial, where Corporal Nathan Cirillo sacrificed his life during the October shooting spree that shocked the nation. Also known as The Response, the attraction holds a prominent place next to Parliament at the head of Elgin Street. On your visit, don’t miss the National War Memorial nor the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where the remains of an unidentified Canadian soldier, who had been buried in a cemetery in France during the First World War, lies.
Ottawa Honours First World War Heroes
If you haven’t been to Ottawa recently, you must visit the new Valiants Memorial just across the street from the National War Memorial. Here, three participants from the Great War are commemorated.
General Sir Arthur Currie, the first Canadian commander of the Canadian Corps, led Canada to victory in the Last Hundred Days of the war. His statue is near the bust of Corporal Joseph Kaeble, who was fatally wounded while single-handedly attacking 50 enemy soldiers, for which he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for courage.
The third valiant is Matron Georgina Pope. A pioneering army nurse, her statue looks up Wellington Street toward Parliament. She was the first Canadian to be awarded the Royal Red Cross for her service in the First World War.
And what of all the animals serving our armies whose lives were lost? Horses were sacrificed in huge numbers in the war, but mules and dogs also made contributions. Engraved cairns honour the horses who carried soldiers and pulled gun carriages, supply wagons and ambulances. There is a statue of a Red Cross dog on Confederation Square just down Elgin Street from the Cenotaph. You’ll have to look hard, it’s easy to miss. Head for the huge statue remembering the Boer War and you’ll find it. There’s a nice added touch — horseshoes and a big dog paw print were placed deliberately into the cement between the Red Cross dog statue and the cairns.
If you have time, check out Ottawa’s oldest, but least known museum, the Bytown Museum situated in between the Fairmont Chateau Laurier and Parliament Hill. Currently, the museum features an exhibit called “Ottawa Answers the Call: The Capital and the Great War.”
The Canadian War Museum has an exhibit on how Canadian troops adapted to the changing battlefield conditions in wartime Belgium. Fighting in Flanders. Gas.Mud.Memory. runs until April 26, 2015.