When I was a little girl I loved to hear the stories my Scottish granny, Alice Gordon, would share of her parents swapping the civilized life of gentry in Glasgow for the pioneering life of the wilds of northern Alberta.
My great grandfather, William Alexander Gordon, had served as a member of the Black Watch for many years, and when he retired was eligible to take advantage of the Canadian Soldier Settlement Act which provided returned WWI veterans who wished to farm with loans to purchase land, stock and equipment. And so, in the early 1920s, this man of middle age with his wife, Jane, and seven of their 13 children (six had died in childhood) abandoned everything they knew of their life in Glasgow and traveled by boat and train into a great new adventure.
Little did they know what that entailed. Their 200-acre parcel was situated about 100 miles north of Edmonton, Alberta, near a sparsely populated hamlet named Pibroch. The mists and rains of a Scottish city winter hadn’t prepared them for the long, bitterly cold months of the open prairies. Nor were they accustomed to the bombardment of large, angry mosquitoes in the depths of a hot summer. It was a rude awakening. Of the seven children, five were girls between the ages of three and 18. Of the boys, one was an early teenager, the other was five years old. So, this retired soldier was left to clear the land of tree stumps and boulders by himself with nothing but an axe, a rope and a horse. Meanwhile, Jane focused on turning an abandoned pioneer log cabin into a comfortable home for their large, confused family. The whole experience was such a shock that had they the means they’d have returned to the old country after the first year.
Still, they prevailed and granny was proud to tell of their sacrifices, hardships, and the ultimate satisfaction of taming a hostile environment that provided a foundation for future generations to grow and prosper. She was also proud to call herself a Canadian.
In defense of freedom and to serve their new country both boys, Frank and the youngest Archie, joined the war effort of WWII. The latter, at 21, paid the ultimate price. Frank lived with survivor’s guilt the rest of his life.
I am reminded that nothing of value comes without a price.
Here, in my late granny’s own words from a memoir I discovered and typed up a couple of years ago, is a short account of Flight Engineer, Archibald Don Gordon RCAF, Squadron 405 Bomber Command, and the family’s experience of his loss. Though her thoughts are personal it feels appropriate to share, especially in these times when we appear to need to be reminded of the value of a life. May her words be a poignant reminder to us all.
Lest we forget …
Archibald Don Gordon was born December 15, 1919, in Dundee, Scotland ~ the 12th of 13 children (seven made it to adulthood) and the first after dad’s (William Alexander Gordon) return from the war. He was named for a superior officer who was killed. The officer’s name was Archibald Don. Dad wrote to the family in England and asked permission to do so. Archie came from a proud family of soldiers. Indeed, our father was a member of the Black Watch and served out his time in WWI as a Sergeant Major.
He was a chubby, sturdy little boy with hazel eyes and red hair who grew into a good looking young man with a ready grin. He had a sunny disposition and was popular with everyone who knew him. Archie was always ready for a prank. Always willing to go along with his friends in all of their various and, sometimes, daring activities. When he was angry it never lasted for long. However, he had lots of grit and his temper, when roused, was something to see. As he grew up he was very well liked by the girls. He was wonderful dancer and very sociable.
When he joined the RCAF he had been training as an electric and acetylene welder in Edmonton. Frank, his older brother, and he enlisted as volunteers at the same time. Before doing so they set aside a few weeks at home and travelled with dad and sort of did the town. Then they went their separate ways into the services. One Army; one Air Force. Frank tried later to get a transfer to the Air Force, but was unsuccessful.
The war got very grim as history books will tell. Archie started out as ground crew, but studied to become air crew. He was very happy when he made it. He flew in a Halifax Bomber as a Flight Engineer. Those bombers were big and awkward and had very little maneuverability. They were really sitting ducks for enemy planes.
Of course, it happened. He and his crew were shot down over the Bay of Biscay while on a mine laying expedition. Six fellows in the crew. Some bodies were washed up on islands in the Bay. He was reported as missing in action for six months, then he was officially presumed dead. The bodies that washed up, including Archie’s, were buried by the French civilians in a cemetery in La Rochelle. Later, after the war was over, they were gathered up from their various burying places and laid to rest in a big military cemetery. Archie’s body, along with those of his crew companions, was reburied at Pornic cemetery in France.
The correspondence regarding these events were thrusts of sorrow and pain to my mother and father, and to the rest of us. So many tears. Archie had met a girl in Brandon, Manitoba, who was in training as a nurse and became engaged to her. Her name was Dot Hurle.
Who can write sorrow? Those who feel sorrow can hardly tell it. It is a leaden weight ever present in the heart. The night Archie was killed, April 6th, 1943, I dreamt I was a way high up in the sky. It was very dark. Then I felt a great crushing on my chest, and I woke up. I felt very strange, but went back to sleep. I then dreamed I was in a great field of very beautiful white lilies. I was desperately searching for a coloured lily, but I searched and searched and didn’t find one. Word came the next day that Archie was missing in action.
Can you imagine my mother’s sorrow; my dad’s sorrow?
My mother was alone when the telegram arrived. She ran to a neighbour who got to my dad at his work. Such a dark day. My mother couldn’t eat or drink fearing that Archie was a war prisoner, or that he had no food or water. I cannot tell all details here of the agony of it. My mother had been listening to the news on the radio the night before. The results of raids and which planes had not come back to England were broadcasted. She heard that the Bomber “P for Peter” had not returned, and said she sort of knew that Archie had been on it. He was 23. My mother didn’t sleep for nights on end. The darkness that descended on us when the dreaded telegram came never did leave. Words cannot express the very depth of our sorrow. Hearts were broken never to heal. Our big, tough dad wept until the tears rolled down his cheeks when his face, he thought, was hidden behind his newspaper. But I saw those tears. We all did, and turned away and wept. I don’t believe (and some others feel the same) that Frank ever got over the loss and the grief.
Trips were made to the Red Cross headquarters in Edmonton every day to find out if anything had been heard. My family were not the only ones who made these sad trips. There were many families hoping against hope.
Anyway, after six months they were all presumed dead. Archie’s clothes came home in a box. Not many. No uniforms. All the shirts and socks needed washing. He’d had some of his pay sent home each month and deposited in my mother’s name in a bank. She didn’t spend a cent of it for many years, until my dad urged her to.
I never forget them, the hosts of the great volunteers. They unselfishly and bravely and willingly offered their all. Their all was taken, but the spirit is beyond harm and death, so triumphantly they live. I know they live. I know Archie lives.
These boys were great. They gave their lives for a great cause. Read about Hitler and concentration camps and the Holocaust of that time and realize that these boys knew why they were fighting and they didn’t die in vain. Read of their joking and laughing as they boarded their bombers for the raids knowing that the big thing was to do the job, and knowing they were facing almost certain death. Archie and his great host of fighting heroes are forever alive and forever with Almighty God in a safe place. Because God loves the ones who give their lives for a good cause. And did not God’s own Son set them an example? Believe me I know that they are all ok and safely home, and we shall all meet again as sure as the sun rises each day. I look forward to seeing Archie. I long to see him. And I will see him. I’ll also see all my loved ones who have gone on before me. Each of us are spiritual and alive and better off than ever, and I know that Christ was with the men fighting for right and that He gave them all a welcome home to their new and spiritual life. He was on the shore at La Rochelle and He guided them in to a safe harbour.
Time goes on and time does heal.
Dear reader never forget these boys and men who paid the full price for the freedom of Europe and for us, too, as had Hitler not been stopped he would have been in England (he already had France and Holland and Belgium and many other countries). These boys had a saying. If crews didn’t return after a raid they said that the crew had “bought it,” or so and so had “bought it,” and so on. So Archie and his crew “bought it,” too. The “it” being our freedom. They considered they were buying our freedom, and that they certainly did. And Jesus also “bought it.” You see? They paid the price. Out of my family of seven raised, one paid for the freedom for the rest of us. And for many others.
To conclude, Granny penned this beautiful poem tribute to the lads who lost their lives in defence of freedom. It appeared in the Edmonton Journal some time in the 1950s during a Remembrance Day feature. Sadly, I don’t know the specifics, still her words live on.
A Lad and a Lark
Alice Gordon McDonall
Upon the death of Flight Sergeant Archibald Don Gordon, RCAF,
405 Squadron, killed in action April 6, 1943, over the Bay of Biscay.
Buried in Plot 1, Row AB, Grave 5 Pornic War Cemetery, France
From far off shores they wrote and said,
“Your boy lies here among the dead
With softest care and gentle hands
We laid him with Canadians.”
See how the grain is bending low.
See how the rivers cease their flow.
The wild flowers drop their saucy heads
The winds hide in their mountain beds.
Silent and sighing the whole land
Grieving my lost Canadian
Bowed in sorrow and despair
Broken my heart beyond compare.
The land, the sky so very dark,
But, what is this? A meadowlark?
Hear it! Hear it! Through the haze?
“I love dear Canada,” it says.
“He is not dead!” he bravely tells,
“He’s here! He’s walking in the dells.
He wanders by the river wide
He’s here! He’s here! He has not died.”
His little voice, so sweetly true
I must believe! Oh, wouldn’t you?
The meadowlark my laddie loved
And deathless Life to me was proved.
Oh, leap you rivers, run you fast.
You flowers lift up your heads at last.
Blow, blow you winds and toss the grain
I know my lad is back again.
I raise my head and bow no more
Lift up my heart and am quite sure
He is not dead. He walks the land.
For is he not Canadian?
Oh, meadowlark you little bird
Who in my darkest night was heard.
Love you my Canadian lad?
“I love all Canada,” he said.
My grandmother’s generation is gone now, and with them the terrible burden of memories they carried of a most brutal time in our world’s history. I pray, for all our sakes, that the price paid by those who gave their lives in pursuit of freedom, and the sacrifices and sorrows of those who loved and lost them and had their lives forever changed because of it, shall not be in vain.
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