tidings of Comfort & joy

 

December 16, 2020

The Vernon Museum’s artifact collection has a lot of is Christmas cards. But this is certainly not a complaint! They don’t take up much space, are pleasantly festive, and provide firsthand insight into Christmases past.

These paper sentiments of peace and joy actually have quite a complex history that is, paradoxically, heavily intertwined with that of global military conflicts. 

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1871, a French stationer, Leon Besnardeaux (1829-1914) provided camped soldiers with stiff pieces of cardboard printed with lithographic designs so they could send messages home without the need for envelopes.

 

An example of a Christmas Greeting preserved in the GVMA’s collection

Some of these cards arrived just in time for Christmas. While Christmas cards themselves had been around since the 1840s, Besnardeaux’s good deed represented the origins of the picture postcard.

Christmas cards were hugely popular with soldiers during the First World War. Many were decorated with romantic images and local landmarks to bring joy to distant loved ones. Some of the most remarkable among these are the silk postcards. The silk embroidery was thought to have been produced by out-of-work civilians in France and Belgium, who then sent their creations to factories to be mounted on cardboard backings. The Vernon Museum has several silk postcards in their collection, and they are spectacular.

During World War Two, sending Christmas cards remained a popular tradition. Although the separation from family must have been keenly felt by the soldiers, most of the cards were cheerful and sometimes even goofy, likely to keep morale high on both ends, while those sent during the First World War tended to be a bit more somber and traditional in their motifs.

In 1917, a young Kitty Fitzmaurice received a Christmas card to her home in Vernon that showed a soldier peering out through a crumbled hole in a brick wall. Inside the card is a Christmas and New Year’s greeting, signed with the simple but emotive words “Love, Daddy.” Kitty’s father was Col. R Fitzmaurice, who went on to return safely home from the war and become Vernon’s mayor in 1920.

While the current global pandemic cannot and should not be compared to the World Wars, there is a certain parallel between the past and present absence of loved ones, and the ability of a simple folded paper to bring sentiments of joy to those from whom we are separated.

Gwyn Evans

An Okanagan Hero

 

November 6, 2020

 

In a damp, dark trench crawling with rats, George McLean sat silently alongside his fellow members of the Fifty-Fourth (Kootenay) Battalion. The year was 1917, and in a few hours the silence that had descended over no-man’s land would be broken by the sounds of screams, explosions, and machine gun fire. It was the first morning of the Battle for Vimy Ridge, which many historians consider a defining moment, and one of the greatest victories, for the Canadian Army.

George McLean, from the Nk’maplqs (Head of the Lake) Band, was not new to the world of soldiering by the time of the Battle for Vimy Ridge. During the Boer War, when he was 25-years-old, McLean had served with the Canadian Mounted Rifles. When World War One broke out, McLean, alongside every other male member of the Head of the Lake Band between the ages of 20 and 35, enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Almost immediately, he was sent overseas to France.

It was the start of the third day of the Battle for Vimy Ridge, but for the soldiers who were participating, it undoubtedly felt much longer. One member of the 2nd Divisions’ 6th Brigade described “wounded men sprawled everywhere in the slime, in the shell holes, in the mine craters, some screaming to the skies, some lying silently, some begging for help, some struggling to keep from drowning in craters, the field swarming with stretcher-bearers trying to keep up with the casualties.”

Just after pulling a wounded officer to safety, McLean and another soldier discovered a dugout hiding several German troops. Before either of the men could respond, McLean’s fellow soldier was struck. Alone in a vulnerable position, McLean responded quickly, raining small “pineapple” bombs down on the German troops. This did not result in any German casualties, but certainly startled the cowering men. A German Sergeant called to McLean to stop the onslaught, and asked how many troops he had with him. McLean replied that he stood with 150 men. Immediately, the German officer gave over his weapon and ordered his troops to stand down. McLean then single-handedly captured 19 prisoners and marched them back to his own lines. As they walked, McLean was shot twice in the arm, and five of the prisoners attempted to disarm him, but he did not falter.

Due to his wound, McLean was evacuated from the front lines and sent to London to recover. Later, he was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Metal for his outstanding bravery. When he died in 1934 of unknown causes, the Royal Canadian Legion offered his family a war hero’s burial, but they declined, preferring instead to bury him near Douglas Lake Ranch. George McLean’s grave was marked with a simple wooden cross, as modest and steadfast as the man himself.

We will remember them.

 

Private George McLean

 

George McLean (standing, far right)

 

Sunday, November 8, 2020 is Indigenous Veterans Day. To see all of the veterans from the Nk’maplqs (Head of the Lake) Band (Okanagan Indian Band), click here.

 

sinking of Llandcovery Castle

 

November 3, 2020

 

“Canadian Hospital Ship Sunk by German Submarine Off the Irish Coast—Many Nurses and Doctors Missing” read the headline of the July 1, 1918, edition of the Vernon News. The event was one of the most controversial during the Great War, since attacking a hospital ship was against international law as well as the orders of the German navy. The sinking also brought the war home to the citizens of Vernon, since among the hundreds who died from the attack were two former nurses of the Vernon Jubilee Hospital, Margaret Marjory Fraser and Minnie Katherine Gallaher.

On June 27, 1918, The Llandovery Castle was on its way back to England after bringing about 600 Canadian casualties to recover in Halifax. The crew consisted of one hundred and sixty-four men, eighty officers and men of the Canadian Medical Corps, and fourteen nurses, a total of two hundred and fifty-eight people. Special lighting illuminated the ship’s four Red Crosses as she traveled across blackened waters.

Somewhere off the coast of Ireland, around 9:00 PM, the ship was torpedoed by the German submarine U-86. A first-hand account of the sinking was provided by officer Leslie Chapman, who described the horrors of being trapped on a sinking ship: “I found myself blown out of my bunk and landed on the floor of my cabin. On my rude awakening I did not grasp what had happened until a brother officer came running off the bridge, and said we had been torpedoed. The vessel commenced sinking by the stern quickly and the Captain gave the order to abandon ship, and send an SOS on the wireless. This was not possible, because the apparatus had been smashed by the explosion.”

It only took ten minutes for the Llandovery Castle to sink. Many of the nurses had been asleep at the time the boat was struck, but they managed to get into a lifeboat with Sergeant Arthur Knight; tragically, suction from the sinking ship pulled the lifeboat under and all of the fourteen nurses drowned. Knight struggled through the chilling water and was pulled aboard another lifeboat. Only 24 people survived the attack.

Margaret Marjory Fraser was born on the March 20, 1885, to Duncan Cameron Fraser and Bessie Grant. Margaret worked as head nurse at the Vernon Jubilee Hospital, alongside Matron Minnie Katherine Gallaher. She enlisted in the Canadian Army Medical Corps in September of 1914. Before being appointed Matron of the Llandovery Castle, Margaret served as a nurse on the front lines in France. Many of her patients were wounded German soldiers, and she was often one of the first to offer their parched lips a drink of water. She was known for writing down the dying words of German officers and soldiers, and transmitting them to their families through the channels of the Red Cross. Three months after her brother James was killed in action in FranceMargaret would board the Llandovery Castle in Halifax for the last time.

Both Margaret and Minnie are immortalized in the Halifax Memorial erected in Point Pleasant Park as a reminder of all the men and women who died at sea.

We will remember them.

 

 Postcard of the Llandovery Castle

 

Matron Margaret Marjory “Pearl” Fraser (Credit: FWW Veterans of Guysborough County) 

Minnie Katherine Gallaher

an explosive history

April 17, 2020

In the Okanagan we are blessed with so many great trails that are easy to access, but rural enough to allow you to maintain an appropriate social distance. Even so, walking around our valley can come with hazards, and no, we’re not talking about rattle snakes. Almost a century of military training in the Greater Vernon area has left our range land littered with unexploded ordnances (UXOs), despite the best efforts of cleanup crews.

The Okanagan Indian Band has paid a particularly high price for this reality; portions of reserve land were used during the World Wars for live-fire training exercises. Take a jaunt up to Goose Lake, at the top of Blue Jay Subdivision to Vernon’s North, to have the situation made all too real. Signs warning you not to trespass on the OKIB rangeland are dwarfed by those  cautioning you to stay out for you own safety; in 2015,  a three-inch mortar from the First or Second-World War was discovered on the range, which is only one of several found in the area over the years. Because of this danger, band members have to request special access from the Public Works and Housing Department to access this portion of their land. In total, about 2,800 hectares of band land hide powerful explosives amongst the rocks and shrubs.

 

 

 

 

Cleaning up UXOs is long, tedious, and costly work. In 2015, a highly-trained team scanned a 12-hectare section of the Goose Lake Range with powerful metal detectors, which resulted in about 10,000 hits. Each hit had to carefully excavated, although most turned up no more than horseshoes, barbed wire, and the occasional spent shell.

Despite the seemingly small risk of turning up a UXO, Vernon has experienced a number of tragedies from their discovery over the years. Three men died in 1948 while loading top soil into a truck, and two scouts were killed and one injured in 1963 after stumbling across a live mortar.  In April 1973, another two children were killed by a UXO, which launched renewed cleanup efforts. In the above photo, divers from Camp Vernon exit the water at Cosens Bay where they were searching for explosions in the summer of ’73.

In 2014, in the Monashee Mountains outside of Lumby, a Tolko staff member discovered a balloon bomb embedded in the ground of a forest service road. Interestingly, this particular UXO was of Japanese origin; during World War Two, the country attached incendiary bombs to balloons and sent them across the Pacific to start fires in North America. This one had made it all the way to the Okanagan.

Hopefully with time and the concerted efforts of trained professionals, the risk from UXOs will greatly decrease. In the meantime, if you are out exploring the Okanagan’s rangeland, obey any posted warning signs, and if you come across something that you suspect might be a bomb, make a note of the location (with coordinates, photographs, and as much information as your able to provided) before returning the way you came and calling 911.

Gwyn Evans

what this site has seen

January 10, 2020

The site of Vernon’s W.L. Seaton Secondary and MacDonald Park is fraught with memories. Not only was it the former location of a World War One internment camp, but also less commonly known, a Hospital for the Insane. An article from the Vernon News of 1946 indicates that even then it was hard to find people who knew, or were willing to talk, about the Hospital that once occupied a turn-of-the-century brick building, lined by an avenue of trees. 

 

Seaton Secondary

 

Photo of “The Asylum”, Vernon, BC, 1902

Today, the hospital’s history is virtually unknown, buried, perhaps accidentally, perhaps intentionally, beneath the location’s current uses.

The building was built in the spring of 1902, and was originally used as a jail until 1904, when the Provincial Insane Asylum in News Westminster was overcrowded. Two carloads of inmates were sent from the Coast to Vernon, while prisoners of the former jail were sent to Kamloops; by the end of the year, there were forty-eight inmates in total.

In the 1946 Vernon News article, well-known Vernonite Fred Hardwood recalled visiting the hospital as a grocery delivery boy; he said that the order was collected by a Chinese cook who was an inmate, as well as a talented chef and master of mental calculation.

The building was surrounded by beautiful flower and vegetable gardens, but an underperforming hot water system, and a worn out furnace and boiler, made life on the inside rather bleak.

The hospital closed in 1912, and the sixty-nine patients were transferred back to New Westminster. The site stood vacant until 1914, when it became an internment camp for so-called enemy aliens. The building was destroyed some time before 1943, and with it the memories of the men and women who had been locked behind its doors.

We are lucky that this past is behind us, and the location has been put to much more positive uses; however, the Hospital for the Insane remains an important, if unfortunate, aspect of our city’s history, and one that must be uncovered if we are to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Gwyn Evans

the roaring twenties

January 3, 2020

It’s hard to believe, but the ‘20s have rolled around again. Very few of us experienced the 1920s, but it is arguably one of the most celebrated decades in popular culture, immortalized, almost to the point of cliché, as an age of modernity, jazz, and flappers. But what was really going on in Vernon one hundred years ago, in 1920?

1920 began with a cautious optimism that the year ahead would bring “the zest to aspire, to struggle and, if it may be to attain.” The Vernon News of January 1 reported that the previous year had been somewhat of a disappointment; it began with so much enthusiasm and gratitude for the end of the Great War, but this elation quickly faded as the reality of what the world had experienced for the last four years began to sink in. 

 

 

Photo of Vernon, taken from East Hill, in 1920

The newspaper cautioned against too much of the “shoddy sense of optimism that throws a base of unreality over the future,” adding that “the period which opens up before us will demand a good deal of grim determination … comfortable platitudes will have to be discarded, and a realization reached that though the war is over, it still remains to be paid for.” It would take several months for the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties to overshadow the darkness of World War One.

The prosperity that came to mark the decade was felt even in the Okanagan Valley, where an exceptional crop year in 1919 produced more than six million dollars, nearly two million more than was accumulated in 1918. This figure accounted for more than 80% of the fruit grown in B.C. that year. The valley had cemented its place in food-production, and the ‘20s was a period of agricultural boom.

On a darker note, it was also during this time that the Vernon Internment Camp finally closed, nearly two years after the war had ended. Hundreds of men, women, and children were kept behind barbed wire fences in an age where fear and suspicion reigned supreme, until they were released in February of 1920. Among the freed were eight to ten children under the age of five who had never experienced life outside of the camp.

The 1920s was the age of women’s suffrage. In June, Nellie McClung, Canadian author, politician, and suffragette, presented at Vernon’s Empress Theatre. Her theme was “The Building of a New World.” She discussed the importance of uniting with those one views as different or foreign from themselves in the wake of a broken post-war world. The Vernon News states that “none who heard this gifted author and speaker for the first time failed to have their most sanguine expectations more than realized.” Groups like the National Council of Women were very active in Vernon, its members inspired by suffragettes like McClung and the group’s founder and Vernonite Lady Aberdeen.   

Over this period, Vernon boasted both the biggest Chinese community in B.C.’s interior (500 individuals), and experienced the largest increase in Masonic Lodge membership in the history of the province. A training school for nurses was started up again at the Vernon Jubilee Hospital in November of that year. Clubs that were disbanded during the War were reformed, factories were opened, and new roads were built.

Vernon and the Okanagan Valley experienced a significant number of changes during the 1920s, as the district crawled from the wreckage of the First World War and experienced a period of (unfortunately short-lived) prosperity. Reflecting on the events of a century ago makes you wonder what this round of the ‘20s holds for our city of Vernon.

Gwyn Evans