One hundred years ago, my maternal grandfather served in the trenches of Ypres, Belgium as a young infantryman in the Canadian Army.
I had a sense of my family's military history from when I was quite young. Summer visits to my maternal grandfather's house in New Brunswick always prompted me to ask questions about the various fascinating objects that I saw there.
Ernest Sansom was born into a family of millers and woodsmen. When he was a young man his father left to take a lucrative job in British Columbia and sent money back for the family to join him. However Ernest's mother refused to go, and his father never came back. To help support the family, he lied about his age to join the military. He saw action in both World Wars, ultimately becoming a high-ranking officer.
He was proud to serve but he never spoke openly about his experiences, and my mother told me to not ask because it upset him to remember. The one story he would tell me was a poem that he recited at bedtime to lull me to sleep:
It was a grey stormy night on the coast,
The brigands great and brigands small,
We gathered around our campfire.
"Alfonso," said our captain, "tell us a story."
And Alfonso began.
It was a grey stormy night on the coast... repeat.
Military memorabilia of all kinds was visible in his house, from a large portrait of him wearing his uniform that hung in the great room, to a collection of ribbons and patches in an unobtrusive brass box. Just about every item had a story attached to it. For example, a stiff piece of cloth embroidered with a crown set above a crossed sword and baton was his rank insignia. Or a table lamp created from a mortar shell casing was a gift from one of the regiments he had served with.
Over time I learned that many members of his family had also served, including two of his brothers. There is a display in the military museum in Fredericton that commemorates his grandfather, and the war memorial in his hometown of Stanley shows the names of several relatives. The family military tradition continues: my brother was active in the militia, and his youngest son has been following in his footsteps.
Today his medals, dress sword, and certificates of achievement are on display at my parents' house - proud examples as well as sad reminders of the courage and sacrifice that many people made for this country.
To most people around him, he was "the General". But to me he was just "Granddad".
As a point of pride I made myself memorize Granddad's medals as a testament to him and all those who served. From left:
1. Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath
2. Distinguished Service Order
3. Knight of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem
4. British War Service Medal 1914-1920
5. British Victory Medal with Oak Leaf for Mention-in-Despatches
6. 1939-1945 Star
7. Defence Medal
8. Canada Volunteer Service Medal World War II
9. British War Service Medal 1939-1945
10. George V Silver Jubilee Medal 1935
11. George VI Coronation Medal 1937
12. Canadian Forces Decoration with service bars.