Most of us have relatives, friends and/or neighbours who have contributed to our country through military service, especially with our proximity to CFB Borden. So it comes as no surprise that at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month many of us find ourselves joining our fellow Canadians as we gather by the local Cenotaph or War Memorial in our cities, towns and villages. We assemble to honour and show respect for the men and women of our Armed Forces who have died in battle. The ceremony, as always, is highlighted by speeches from dignitaries, the presentation of numerous elaborate wreaths, the reading of Canadian veteran Dr. John McCrae’s iconic poem "In Flanders Fields", and the playing of The Last Post. Then, precisely as the clock strikes the eleventh hour, we pause for two minutes of silence. A few moments of personal prayer and quiet contemplation. Sometimes there’s even a parade. And perhaps most important of all, an opportunity to share memories, good and sad from those years of conflict. This is our traditional Remembrance Day.
In recent years Remembrance Day has grown to a full week of special observances and ceremonies, not only at home, but also in many places abroad to mark 50, 60 and 75 years on. And now, due to our current commitments to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, several new elements have become part of the modern lexicon for expressions of appreciation to our veterans. Not for just a day or a week, but year round. Yellow-ribboned window and bumper stickers and baseball style caps bearing the slogan "Support Our Troops" seem to be everywhere. The wearing of the colour red for a campaign called "Red Fridays" is a weekly event throughout this nation. The roadway leading to the National War Museum in Ottawa, the stretch of Highway 401 between Trenton and Toronto, and just this week, the main highway between Montreal and the Quebec-Ontario border have been renamed in tribute to our veterans both past and present.
For the here and now, we want to share with you the story of a World War II vet. Not a Canadian veteran, though there is a very visual and uniquely Canadian connection. It is the tale of a British World War II soldier named Robert Metcalfe who just recently passed away at the age of 90. In view of what he experienced during 6 years of combat duty, the very fact that Mr. Metcalfe lived to be 90 years old is quite amazing in and of itself.
In the early months of the war Robert Metcalfe was among the 400,000 members of the British Expeditionary Force which took on the juggernaut of the German Blitzkrieg. During the debacle of Dunkirk, he was injured in the legs while treating a wounded comrade. The battle was lost but an armada of small boats from Merchant Marine and Royal Navy vessels to private fishing boats and pleasure craft assisted in the rescue of the Allied forces. Mr. Metcalfe was evacuated aboard HMS Grenade, which was among the 6 British destroyers sunk by the enemy. Nevertheless, Metcalfe survived.
Following his recovery Robert Metcalfe was next sent off to join the Allied campaigns in North Africa and Italy. Enroute to his first posting under General Montgomery, his troop ship managed to escape pursuit by the infamous German battleship, Bismarck. Later in Italy, he was once again hospitalized. It was in this Canadian military hospital where he met a lieutenant and physiotherapist. A whirlwind romance lead to two marriage ceremonies on the same day. The morning wedding was conducted by the mayor of the small Italian town, followed by an afternoon service performed by a British army padre. After the war, the Metcalfes settled in Chatham, England where he continued to serve his country through a career in politics, winning election to the position of Warden or Chairman of the county.
At the age of 80, Robert Metcalfe wrote a book about his experiences entitled "No Time For Dreams A Soldier’s 6-Year Journey Through WWII". Upon his retirement the Metcalfes decided to move to Canada and chose Ottawa as their new home.
For the rest of our story, it would be helpful if you had in your hands a visual aid... a Canadian $10 bill. You know that purple one with Sir John A. Macdonald on the front.
One day, quite out of the blue, Mr. Metcalfe received a call from a government official inviting him to go downtown. They wanted to take his picture. He was not told what the photo was for, or even why he had been chosen. Our guess, somebody had enjoyed his book. At any rate, if you have your Canadian $10 bill, look at the back and the far right side of the note. The veteran standing at attention near the Ottawa War Memorial is of course none other than Mr. Robert Metcalfe. "He had no idea he would be on the bill", his daughter said.
After you have shared this story with family and friends, maybe you will wish to join the staff of mycollingwood.ca by honouring those countless veterans like Robert Metcalfe. Why not give that $10 bill to your local branch of The Royal Canadian Legion in exchange for a poppy. Or perhaps you could donate the $10.00 to an organization like the Wounded Warriors Fund. Full details are available by logging on to their www.woundedwarriors.ca website.
Our brief recollection of the life of Robert Metcalfe surely is a wonderful story of a memorable man. And he was only one of so, so many. We all know of at least a few of these valiant men and women ourselves with equally compelling stories. It is important that you share these memories with family and friends, particularly the children. For as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill observed following the Battle of Britain, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."