Death came knocking: the search for an Ottawa neighbourhood’s fallen

News Article / February 1, 2019

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By Dave O’Malley

Young men and woman who are killed on active service are said to have paid the “supreme sacrifice”. I guess that is true. There's not much more you can give than that. But I posit that the greatest sacrifice of all is borne by the families of those killed in the line of duty. Aviators, soldiers and sailors who die in battle are lionized, and rightly so, but it's their mothers, fathers, wives and families who are conscripted to carry the burden of that sacrifice to the end of their days. 

The neighbourhood I live in is called the Glebe. It's a funky 130-year-old urban community in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada—red brick Victorian homes, some stately, some working class, excellent schools as old as the neighbourhood, tall trees pleached over shady streets, open-minded and highly educated people, happy kids, diverse, desirable and timeless, close to everything, surrounded on three sides by the historic Rideau Canal.

People come from all over the city, the country, even the world to walk its pathways, attend its festivals and sporting events and skate the canal. You may find a more upscale neighbourhood, a trendier one, a more affordable one, but you will never find a better one.

It is a truly perfect place to raise a family, build a business and live out a life as I have done. It is safe, historic, dynamic, walkable, serene and peaceful . . . but once, it must have felt like the saddest place on earth. Its shady avenues ran with apprehension and despair, its busy serenity masked the constant high-frequency vibration of anxiety and the low pounding of sorrow. Behind every door and every drawn curtain hid anxious families. Behind many were broken parents, heartbroken wives, memories of summers past and lost, the promises of a future destroyed, children who would never know their fathers. These were the years of the Second World War, and the decades following that it took to wash it all away.

A neighbourhood affected by war

There was nothing particularly special about the Glebe that brought this plague of anguish, nothing it deserved, nothing that warranted special attention from death. Indeed, the Glebe was not singled out at all, though it may have felt like it. Every community in Canada and across the British Commonwealth took the same punishment, felt the blows to its heart, felt its life blood seeping away. During those six long years of war, every community across the land stood and took it, blow after blow after blow. Parents stood by while their sons and daughters left the family home, left the routines that gave comfort, the futures that beckoned, and began arduous journeys that would, in time, lead most to war and great risk of death.

Some would die in training, others in transit. Some would die of disease and even murder. Some would die in accidents close to home, others deep in enemy lands. Some by friendly fire, others by great malice. Many would simply disappear with no known grave, lost to the sea, a cloud-covered mountain, a blinding flash, a trackless jungle. Some would die in an instant, others in prolonged fear and pain. Most would make it home again. An extraordinarily high number would not come home in one piece. 

Though it was not alone in its sorrow, the Glebe was the first community in Canada to feel a blow. The first Canadian to die in the war and, in fact, the first Allied serviceman who died in the war, came from here. Pilot Officer Ellard Alexander Cummings, a former Glebe Collegiate Institute student, was killed just a few hours after war was declared on September 3, 1939, when the Westland Wallace he was piloting crashed into a mountain in Scotland in fog. 

The first Canadians to die on North American soil in the Second World War were from Ottawa, including Glebe resident Corporal David Alexander Rennie. He was lost in early September 1939, along with another Ottawa aviator, Warrant Officer Class II James Edgerton “Ted” Doan, when their Northrop Delta airplane experienced an engine failure and crashed into the New Brunswick wilderness while en route to Cape Breton to join in the search for German submarines. Corporal Rennie lived with his parents on Ella Street, just a few blocks from my home. They were the first of many, many families in the Glebe whose lives would be destroyed by the war. Their son would not be found for another 19 years. [The wreckage of the Northrop Delta was found in July 1958 by two J.D. Irving, Limited, employees who were conducting an aerial survey of the area. The company placed a plaque commemorating the two aviators at the crash site.]

Over the years, I have written or published many other stories about Canadian airmen during the Second World War; several have intersected with my neighbourhood. David Rouleau, who lived just north of my home, was lost in 1942 at Malta. Lew Burpee, who lived just a few blocks away, was killed a year later during the near-mythical Dam Busters Raid on the Ruhr River dams. In that same one-year span, two cousins who lived right across the street from me were lost on operations: Jim Wilson and Harry Healy. Several blocks north lived Keith “Skeets” Ogilvie the last man out of the tunnel during the Great Escape. He narrowly escaped being murdered by the Nazis upon his capture, survived the war, and served in the RCAF until 1963.

All these men walked the same streets that I do. I can pass their homes any day, enter their churches, visit their schools. They all went to the Mayfair, Rialto and Imperial Theatres to find out the news about the war or just to escape from it. They played hockey on the frozen canal. They used the same butcher. This immediacy, this connection is a very powerful thing. It brought home to me the loss in a very personal way. 

When I wrote a story about 617 Squadron Lancaster pilot Lewis Burpee on the 75th Anniversary of the Dam Busters Raid in 2018, I pinned his and the homes of others I had written about on a map of the Glebe. Seeing these homes and their physical relationship to me and to each other had a very powerful effect on me. In fact, it obsessed me.

I began to wonder how many other stories there were in these streets and avenues. How many more had been lost? How many families were affected? What I found out left me speechless. In the age of the “infographic”, I set out to demonstrate visually what that number of fallen meant to my personal community, by mapping death's footprints. 

I commenced my search by writing to all the churches in the Glebe and surrounding areas that existed in the Second World War and still exist today. Following the First and Second World Wars, many churches in Ottawa dedicated large bronze plaques to commemorate those members of their parish who died in the war. I had seen several over the years. Several churches had photos of these plaques on their websites, while others wrote back to me, attaching photos of their plaques.

There were four major public high schools in downtown Ottawa in 1939: Glebe Collegiate Institute, Lisgar Collegiate Institute, Ottawa Technical High School, and the High School of Commerce. Of these four, only Glebe and Lisgar still function today. In the lobby of Lisgar, I found a bronze plaque with the names of those former students who had died in the Second World War. On the Glebe Collegiate website, I found a list of all those Glebe students who had died. I also found an entire section of Glebe Collegiate's website where students had researched most of the names from the plaque and had compiled short histories of each of the fallen alumni. 

The quest to map the Glebe

At the end of May, I began my quest to find and map the fallen in the Glebe. To do this, I would have to find the addresses of every young man listed on these plaques and in Casualty Lists published in the Ottawa daily broadsheet newspapers. In the case of the Glebe history project, many of these addresses were part of their research.

I cross-referenced every man on every plaque in every church and school with the Canadian Virtual War Memorial site in the hopes of finding their stories, addresses and photos. I also purchased a membership and began cross-referencing the dates of each man's death. Though, for privacy reasons, you would never see this today, newspapers almost always included the address of the next of kin. If he was married, both the address of parents and wife could be mentioned. If both were within the boundaries of my map, I used the parental home. I did not map both addresses. 

Starting with the posted date of the serviceman's death, I scoured every page of each issue of the “Ottawa Journal” moving forward until I ran into a story about each person's loss. Five months into the search, the “Ottawa Citizen” became available online and more fallen came to light. All of the men who qualified were mentioned in one of the hundreds and hundreds of official casualty lists published in both papers. I did not differentiate the manner of their deaths, though most died on active service. A small proportion died of disease, motor accidents, train wrecks and heart attacks, but if they qualified to be on an official casualty list in the local papers and on the “Canadian Virtual War Memorial”, then they qualified for this map.

If the man died in Canada in training, the story usually appeared in one to two days, but if he died overseas on active service, it could be weeks before his name appeared in a story or on an official casualty list as either missing in action or killed on active service. If a man was missing in action, then his story would appear in the paper again in one of two ways. In a few months, if he was alive, a story would appear informing readers that he was a prisoner of war. If he was dead, the wait would be a bit longer, but in six to eight months, another piece would appear in the paper stating that he was, for official purposes, presumed dead. As 1944 turned into 1945, the tone of newspaper stories took a turn for the better. With the war winding down, the airman or soldier's photo might be accompanied by short headlines such as “Safe in England”, “Liberated”, or “Returning Home”. Still, there was fighting to be done and the Glebe was not out of the woods yet. The killing continued.

In the Glebe, as in most urban neighbourhoods at the time, the Grim Reaper took the form of the telegram boy who had the duty to deliver both good and bad news. Mothers, looking out from their front porches, fathers from their parlours, wives from their washing, must have cringed to see the young man from the Canadian National Telegram and Cable Company pedal or drive down their street, and willed him to move on. In all cases, the next-of-kin was informed by telegram before the official casualty lists were published in the paper, but on a few occasions, happy stories (award of medals, a marriage, etc.) about a serviceman appeared in the paper after the next-of-kin had been notified of his death. These must have been difficult to read for the parents and families.

Search parameters

My original goal was to map only residents of the Glebe or former students at Glebe Collegiate who were killed or died while on active service. To map these men, I needed to extend the map of the Glebe beyond the recognized boundaries of the neighbourhood, as many students of the high school lived outside the neighbourhood. In the end, it seemed the full complete story could not be told unless I mapped each and every one of the fallen—aviator, soldier or sailor—whose next-of-kin resided within the edges of my map, regardless of their connection to the Glebe. 

Each pin on the map represents the home of the fallen's next-of-kin. For the most part, this meant the parental home or the marital home (the residence shared with a wife), but in a few cases, where parents were deceased, this could mean the home of a grandparent, uncle or even sibling. I used only addresses that were mentioned in Casualty Lists or as reported in the daily broadsheet newspapers.

The men I was able to put on my map represent only a tiny fraction of the men and women who died in the war. But among these names I found the complete picture of the war as it affected my country. There were men who died in the opening hours of the war and men who died in the closing days. There were men who died on Valentine's Day, D-Day, Canada Day,  Remembrance Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Most died on active service and in combat, but some died of disease or even murder. There were men who died in car accidents overseas and training accidents in Canada. 

Virtually every major battle that Canadians were involved in is represented by someone in this group: The Battle of the Atlantic, the Battle of France, the Battle of Britain, Battle of Hong Kong, of Ortona, of Monte Cassino, of El Alamein, of Anzio, of the Scheldt Estuary, the Dieppe Raid, Dam Busters Raid, D-Day, Battle for Caen, Battle of the Falaise Pocket, the Siege of Malta, the North African Campaign, the Conquest of Sicily, the Aleutian Campaign, Bomber Command, Fighter Command, Coastal Command, Transport Command, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, Burma, Singapore and more.

Some were lost in the Mediterranean Sea, the North Sea, the Irish Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel. Some died before they could get to the war, others on their way to the war. Some died after the war but before they could get home. They are buried in Holland, Italy, Great Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, Canada, North Africa and, of course, at sea. Many have no known grave and are commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial, the Malta Memorial, the Halifax Memorial, the Bayeux Memorial, the Groesbeek Memorial, and the Ottawa Memorial. 

392 names

In the end, I found 392 names of servicemen who were included on casualty lists and for whom I found an address. I have another 50 or more names of men who I know were killed but for whom I can't find addresses. There are, I am convinced, others who I haven't yet found on casualty lists. The 392 are by no means all of the men who died and who came from the Glebe area—they are only the ones whose stories I found. I welcome any additions and omissions. I am currently working with my web developer to display this data on Google Maps, thus enabling us and you to add to the list and, perhaps one day, map all of the approximately 110,000 Canadians who died in wars since the Boer War.

This project began as a result of curiosity and then became a Remembrance Day Project that I struggled for months to complete. Sadly, I was still adding names well after the 11th of November. It is now simply an homage to a generation of parents, brothers, sisters, wives and grandparents who carried the terrible weight of sacrifice well into the 21st Century. An homage to the Silver Star Mothers, the broken fathers, the shattered families and the solitary wives. God bless them and may we never forget them.

Dave O’Malley is an Ottawa-based graphic designer and writer. His articles appear regularly on the Vintage Wings of Canada website, where this article originally appeared. The article is translated and reproduced with permission of the author.


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