Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Bugle's Echo

It is the soldier, not the reporter who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who gives us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag. -- Father Dennis Edward O'Brien, USMC

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.


  1. That's really cool-i love hearing service stories!

  2. What a great post! Thanks for sharing!

  3. I come from a long line of service members too. I am so proud to have family that has fought for the freedoms of this great country. Thanks for sharing the wonderful story of your grandfather. I know it's so important to remember the sacrifices he, and others, have given to us, our country, and our freedoms. I wish more people would be grateful and build this great country back to something worth fighting for again.

  4. What a great post! The first paragraph is very powerful. My grandfather is a veteran too!

  5. I always get nostalgic on this day remembering our soldiers. It's nice to read your story.

  6. Both of my grandfathers (WWII) , dad and step dad (both in Vietnam) all served. My grandfathers are both gone, and my dad and step dad don't really talk about their time overseas either. It is really nice that you were able to find out so much about your grandfather.