GLACE BAY — It has become an accepted axiom that old soldiers don't like to talk about the war, but perhaps it's more accurate to say that some of the things they saw were just too terrible to revisit, even in conversation.
Pte. Ralph Turner of Glace Bay served with a horse-drawn artillery unit during the First World War. His descendants have long since forgotten what unit he served with and which battles he took part in, but the little he did tell them about his experiences in France have become part of family history.
"He never talked about what he saw in the war, but Dad did tell us that he was upset with how the German prisoners were treated when they were taken through the lines," said Edna Nearing, 76, of Glace Bay. "They would strip the buttons off their coats, and that would really upset my dad."
A couple of light-hearted — and food-related — recollections have also been passed down over the years.
"My father used to talk about how the (Canadian) soldiers would eat corn, but the French would only feed corn to their animals," said Nearing. "And the first time my father ever saw black bread was was when he was a soldier overseas — the flour wasn't refined like it was here."
Turner came home from the war in 1920 and soon after married Nearing's mother, Ellen, and built a house on Wallace Road where together they raised a family of three girls and two boys: Ellen, Edna, Janet, Frank and Ralph Jr.
Nearing can remember seeing her father's wartime spurs hanging in the basement of the house for many years, but says they are long gone now.
Ralph and Ellen lived happily together for more than 50 years, with Ellen passing on first in 1975 and Ralph following her less than a year later at 81 years of age. But even in happy marriages there are the occasional rough patches. Like many soldiers who saw action in the "war to end all wars," Turner very likely came home with some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder, which in those days was called shell-shock.
Nearing can recall nights when her father would wake up in a rage and her mother would have to settle him down before things got out of hand.
"My sister and I always thought that he may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder," she said. "He very well might have, but my mother could control him when he was agitated."
A hard-working coal miner who preferred the army and navy club to the local legion, Turner could sometimes be "hard to handle" when he had too much to drink, which can also be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to Nearing, Ralph enlisted with his two brothers, Fred and Frank Turner, and all three survived the war. While Ralph and Frank came home to Glace Bay and raised families there, Fred went to Ontario after the war and never returned to Cape Breton.
"They were all in France together, but when we were young it never really came up in conversation that they had served together. But we knew they were all lucky to have come back alive."
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LOUISBOURG — How Harvey Garfield Lewis got his name takes on special meaning when the calendar rolls around to November.
"When I was young, it was just a story," said the 91-year-old Louisbourg resident. "But in later years I'd go every year to the Remembrance Day ceremonies here in town. My mind would be full of him then."
Lewis, a retired businessman and former mayor of the town, is referring to his uncle on his mother's side, Harvey Garfield McLeod, an artillery officer who didn't come home from the First World War.
"He was long gone before I came along," said Lewis, "but he was my mother's brother and she missed him, so the last son that came along, she named him after her brother."
But it wasn't only a grieving sister keeping a dead brother's name alive; McLeod's widow also named her only child, a son conceived just a few months before his father fell in battle, Harvey. And when it came time for him to name his own son, Harvey seemed like the right choice then as well.
"So (my uncle) had a son named Harvey, and that son had a son named Harvey. As well, another guy who served in the regiment with (my uncle) also had a boy that he named Harvey, in his memory."
Harvey Garfield McLeod came from a close-knit family of 11 children, which helped spread his compelling story far and wide over the years.
The McLeod family ran a hardware business in Sydney and, at the outbreak of war in August of 1914, Harvey McLeod was an officer with the 17th Field Battery in Sydney. He soon found himself training in Valcartier, Que., then moving on to England for further training before heading to France in February of 1915, where he took part in the long and bloody battles around Ypres.
But it was the short time he spent in England that is at the heart of the family's memories of the man.
Margaret Irwin from the Guysborough area, was a schoolteacher in Sydney who had become engaged to Harvey McLeod before the war. After he was called to active service, she followed him to Valcartier, where they were married before the troops went overseas.
This is where a less resourceful woman would have headed for home to wait for her husband's eventual return. This newlywed was resourceful in the extreme.
"Margaret disguised herself as a nursing sister and came to England to be with her husband," said Lewis. "They has a wonderful time — it was like their honeymoon — and she was pregnant before she came home."
In July of 1915, Margaret returned to her mother's home in Wine Harbour, Guysborough County, where Harvey Jr. was born on Sept. 22, 1915. Tragically, Harvey Sr. died in France in December of 1915, never having seen his only son. He is buried in the Maple Leaf Cemetery, on the border of France and Belgium.
"It was very dark that night and he was returning to his company's gun position in the field from battalion headquarters and he fell into a flooded shell hole and drowned," said Lewis.
Over the years, Lewis's mother kept in touch with her brother's widow and family and eventually he met Harvey McLeod Jr. when the family would come to Cape Breton for summer visits.
"For my 90th birthday, four grandchildren of Harvey McLeod from the war came to see me. I was really happy to see them."
And, yes, one of them was named Harvey.