Cobourg leads the nation in Armistice commemorations


by Cecilia Naismith

Actor Cynthia Dale and retired CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge are among the celebrities expected to hit Cobourg this fall for what is anticipated to be the nation's largest commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War, with Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell and Minister of Veterans Affairs Seamus O'Regan also invited.

“We are confident this is Canada's largest commemoration of the Armistice centennial,” playwright Hugh Brewster agreed in addressing Cobourg council this week.

“We have been told this by the War Museum in Ottawa and other people, that no other community is doing anything quite as outstanding.”

Why this should happen in Cobourg is due to a unique connection that Sir Arthur Currie had with the town, and the story that led up to that connection proved to be a fascinating history lesson Brewster shared with council.

Cobourg, of course, was among many communities that sent its men and women to war, gathering at railroad stations to see them off proudly. The train would have taken them to Quebec and, from there, to England's Salisbury Plains (home of Stonehenge).

But being the first overseas troops to defend King and Country did not at first count for much among British troops. For one thing, not all of the Canadians could handle British beer that was much stronger than they were used to. They were dismissed as untrained, ill-disciplined colonial rabble.

Then the terrible fighting began. By 1916, Prime Minister Lloyd George was singing their praises and calling upon them to lead the assault in one great battle after another. It is said the enemy would see Canadians coming and prepare for the worst.

Foremost among Canadian leaders was General Arthur Currie, known especially for his strategic skills. He would not accept the convention that soldiers must be ordered over the top only to be mowed down by machine guns, and sought out new means of attack. Their valour at Dieppe sufficiently impressed King George V that he travelled to the front to knight the Canadian.

Ordered to Passchendaele, Currie's own view was that the fighting was not worth one drop of Canadian blood. But through his own strategic planning, they carried the day in spite of losses that approached the 17,000 lives that he feared it would cost.

In 1918, Canadians were chosen to break through the most fiercely defended German line remaining, which accounted for the final 100 days of the war. They took the line, reached Cambrai and chased the Germans into Mons. Currie received word they were already there when he learned that, at 6:45 a.m. Nov. 11, that firing would cease.

Canadian were relieved but not thrilled. Brewster quoted the words of one soldier: “It took days before it penetrated our benumbed minds that the war was over and we survived.”

They came home to parades and hugs, but also to a war-weary citizenry. After all, 66,000 had been killed and 172,000 had been wounded. The 38 sons of Cobourg who never came home are memorialized on the cenotaph at Victoria Park.

Many returning soldiers, suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder (then called shell shock) became inmates at the elegant former Victoria College building that became the Cobourg Convalescent Hospital. Cobourg residents soon became accustomed to the sight of the suffering veterans.

But that's not what accounts for Currie's connection with Cobourg. It was a trial in Victoria Hall's Old Bailey Courtroom which resulted from a front-page Port Hope Evening Guide article that characterized his Mons campaign as butchery. Currie asked for an apology, failed to get it, and sued the newspaper for $500,000 in a trial that attracted reporters from all over North America. CBC set up a radio-broadcast facility on the third floor to provide coverage.

Fascinated with the story, Brewster researched this history and wrote a play called Last Day, Last Hour. He was thrilled that Michael Khashmanian of Beech Street Theatre Company agreed to do it, and they wanted to stage it in Victoria Hall. While arranging the venue, they met with town staff and the big Armistice 18 observances began and grew.

Director of recreation and culture Dean Hustwick said a very dedicated group of staff and community volunteers have been working since last summer to organize it, and the resulting program (celebrating the centennial in music, art, speakers, film, exhibits and theatre) is believed to be the largest such observance in Canada to mark this milestone.

“It's an opportunity to celebrate the cultural offerings of this community and to bring visitors into town to recognize the many wonderful assets of this community,” Hustwick said.

Northumberland Players will provide the Last Day, Last Hour cast for the Old Bailey production, which runs from Oct. 17 through Nov. 11. They will also mount two other plays by Stephen Massicotte that are set during the First World War – Mary's Wedding, a drama (which will include a speaker to provide an educational element) and The Stars On Her Shoulders about the role of women in the war. The latter play will be having its premiere in Cobourg, and a speaker will discuss Nellie McClung and other significant women of the era.

It all kicks off with an Sept. 29 gala at Trinity United Church, with an opening concert by Canada's renowned Elora Singers and narration by Brewster and Dale (who will be bringing along her husband Peter Mansbridge).

Mansbridge will play a role the next day at the official opening of the festival at Victoria Hall at noon. This event includes the opening of the exhibition The Great War In Colour in the Concert Hall, featuring colourized historic photography sponsored by the Vimy Foundation. A film will be shown, and a photo book called They Fought In Colour (with text by Brewster and author Margaret Atwood, among others) will be sold.

During this time, the Art Gallery of Northumberland on Victoria Hall's third floor will feature an outstanding artist named Charlie Pachter and his paintings based on the war.

A speaker's series is also planned – author and renowed military historian Jack Granatstein on Oct. 14, author and historian Tim Cook on Oct. 21, and author and historian Charlotte Gray on Oct. 28.

Brewster also wants to arrange a public art installation that involves kids, families and members of the community, perhaps a poppy trail along the waterfront with banners that honour individual veterans.

Nov. 11 brings the traditional cenotaph ceremony, to which the Lt.-Gov. is invited, followed by the final performance of Last Day, Last Hour.

Deputy Mayor John Henderson said he'd just heard Councillor Brian Darling whisper, “I'm overwhelmed.”

“All this doesn't happen with one group or one person. It takes a team effort to pull this off,” Henderson acknowledged.