This is a personal reflection on the Deseronto First World War Commemorative Project by archivist, Amanda Hill.

Deseronto memorial

Thirty-four names on a bronze plaque fastened to a granite block. Thirty-four people who didn’t come home from the First World War. Thirty-four reminders of a distant conflict which swept up men and women and dealt out death and disease.

We will remember the names on the cenotaph, simply because they are there. Some of the men could not write their own names: the forms they completed when they enlisted show a simple cross and ‘his mark’ where a signature should be. But there they are, cast in bronze, waiting to be noticed every November 11th, an enduring feature of this small town’s landscape.

They might be impossible to forget, but today they are just names. All the people who ever loved or hated or once said “Hello” to these men are gone. No-one alive ever met them. Who were these dead soldiers? What happened to them? Who missed them when they didn’t come home?

As the 100th anniversaries of their deaths approached, I tasked myself with answering these questions. I would write up these men’s stories and encourage others to contribute what they know.

But as my project began, I realized the cenotaph is just the tip of a rocky iceberg. There should be three hundred more names upon it: the men and women who enlisted but were not killed, who made it back to Canada, who saw the war through to demobilization. Those people came home, but what happened to them in the war? How damaged were they? How would their experiences affect them and their families for the rest of their lives?

I imagine the memorial stone extending far into the earth, with the missing names carved into its hidden depths. Surely those unrecorded people are just as worthy of remembrance, just as brave. Or do you have to die in wartime to be a hero?

And so, my research expanded beyond the names on the panel of bronze. Soon I was investigating some 350 men and women connected with this small town who joined the forces during the First World War. What should have been two months’ work exploded into something which would take five years. For the official point of view, I dug through birth, marriage and death records, war diaries and army personnel files. I talked to family members for the more personal stories which have been passed down the generations. My spouse began to get resentful of the time I was spending on these long-dead people.

The official records reveal these men and women as they appeared to administrators during their brushes with bureaucracy. The stories passed down in their families tell us how they were remembered after the war by those who knew and loved them.

A name on a stone means next to nothing by itself. But every name connects to evidence of existence. Threads teased from records and stories can be sewn into a basic outline of a life: a frame to be filled out with finer stitches as more details are discovered. When these individual glimpses are pulled together, they form a new type of memorial: a tapestry of lives connecting us to the past of our community and to each other as human beings, all capable of daring and delinquency, love and loss.