Alberta In The Great War

Although I learned about The First World War in secondary school, I don’t remember much about it beyond the Schlieffen Plan and trench warfare. Somehow it never captured my imagination in the same way as The Second World War.

However, I’ve recently been soaking up all the recent TV programmes and documentaries which have been made to mark the 100th anniversary since the The Great War’s outbreak. And the more I learn, the more I want to learn. So when I discovered the Military Museum here in Calgary was offering a lecture to introduce their temporary exhibition, Albertans in The Great War, I was in there like a dirty shirt.

Here are a few tidbits I learned.

alberta map for blogIn 1914, Alberta, as a province in Canadian Confederation, was only 9 years old with a population of 470,000. (Canada’s total population was 7.9million.) During the war, Alberta sent 49,000 men, between the ages of 18-34, to serve overseas. Only Ontario and Manitoba sent more in sheer numbers, but the proportion of men Alberta sent was the highest in Canada.

The majority of Albertan men served in the infantry on The Western Front, but a few joined the navy or the RFC serving at sea (obviously!) or in Palestine, Siberia and at Gallipoli. Supporting units included Artillery Batteries, Cyclist(!), Tunnelling and Railways companies. Medical, engineering, veterinary, supply, forestry and machine gun personnel. (The aim of the bicycle units had been to get the infantry up to the front fast, but were essentially useless in the chewed up battlefields of The Western Front. They did come into their own at the end of 1918 when the front line moved to areas where the roads remained intact.)

During the war, Alberta became the largest exporter of wheat and timber, the 3rd largest exporter of beef, and sent over ½ million horses overseas. The province also raised $42million ($1 billion in 2014 dollars) to war relief efforts such as The Red Cross, The Canadian Patriotic Fund, The Belgium Relief Fund and the YMCA amongst others.

Sam Steele, a hero of The March West, The Riel Rebellion and The Boer War, volunteered to serve, but was officially too old for the armed forces.  However he received special dispensation to help train the men here in Alberta and accompany them to Britain. Once there, the men received further training under Steele, but Steele then had to relinquish command when the troops were sent to the Western Front. His forage cap is part of the current exhibition.

The lecturer told a great story of pilots in the RFC who, after they had destroyed a target (eg ammunition dump/ train) would then land their planes beside the target, collect a souvenir (eg empty shell casing/letter from the engine) then take off again. Apparently one pilot returned with a sack full of mementoes.

And what do you do if you’re caught in a chlorine gas attack and have no gas mask to hand? Urinate into your handkerchief and hold it against your face.

These are just a fraction of the stories told during the current exhibition. It’s on until December 15th.  If you live in Alberta and have an interest in our province’s role during the conflict, I highly recommend you check it out.


Union Cemetery – Calgary: Part Four

I know, I know.  I can just imagine you looking at the blog post title, throwing up your arms in despair and saying, “She’s talking about graves. Again!’  But this is the last time, I promise. At least from Union Cemetery. (I still have to take the tours of Burnsland and St Mary’s cemeteries.)

VIEWAlthough not all of the people buried in Union Cemetery have grave markers, they all have a story. As a writer, here are a few of the stories I learned on the cemetery tour which – while not about the great and the good – really piqued my interest.

The first I found really touching – because I pass by this place every day when I walk my dog – was the story of a young engaged couple who were killed on the corner of Prospect Ave and 10th Street SW. Apparently he went to pick up his fiancée, who lived in a rooming house on Prospect Ave, to go for a walk one day. Mount Royal is – not surprisingly given its name – on a hill. When they were caught in a thunderstorm, a bolt of lightning ended their lives. Their grave is unmarked and their story leaves me with so many unanswered questions. What were their names? Where did they come from? What ages were they? What were their dreams? How soon did they plan to marry? What were their occupations? Such a tragic loss.

SMITHI love the story of Jimmy Smith who emigrated to Calgary from China. Determined to become ‘Canadian’, he dressed in western clothes and was known only by his ‘English’ name. A cook at the Grand Hotel in Calgary, he died of TB but left $1,500 to go towards the building of Calgary’s first hospital, the Calgary General Hospital. His marker was provided by both the Nurses Union of Alberta and the Chinese Community of Calgary. What was his ‘real Chinese name?’ someone on the tour asked. A couple who spoke Chinese looked at the  Chinese characters and smiled.  ‘Jimmy Smith,’ they  replied.

I’ve talked about Peter Prince – a lumber merchant from Quebec – before in my blog. His house can be found at Heritage Park and his office still serves as a restaurant – 1886 Cafe – in Eau Claire. After Prince’s first wife Marguerite died of diabetes (he is buried alongside her in St Mary’s Cemetery) he married three more times. Hmmm, I can hear you thinking. Sounds a bit dodgy. But remember, those were different times. You could not have a single woman in your home unless you were married to her. He married Emma – who had been a invalid for some time – who died in 1902. His third wife, Rosa, died of cancer in 1907. Emily, his fourth wife, outlived him by 19 years. Her grave is unmarked, but she is buried with Rosa and Emily in Union Cemetery.

There are so many other graves and so many stories: Sam Livingstone who brought fruit trees to Alberta and fed the NWMP through their first hard winter in Calgary; Maude Riley, who made a pact with God after she almost died in childbirth, brought in laws to protect children and is commemorated by Riley Park; Fred Collings, a runner for the telegraph office, who died when he and another boy were cleaning their revolvers. Thinking the chambers empty, they fought a ‘duel’.

What a rich and colourful tapestry.

TREEI learned other things about the symbols to be found in graveyards. We know that children are often represented by lambs or little shoes, but a grave marked by a tree stump also represents a life cut short.

What about an anchor? – The symbol of faith.

Or what about this grave? Given the name and lack of dates… what story does it conceal?


Union Cemetery – Calgary: Part Three

I first moved to Calgary when the city was little more than one hundred years old. Coming from a country where a ‘new’ bridge built to replace an ‘old’ one could still be 500 years old, it didn’t seem to me that a place like Calgary could have much history.

What an arrogant attitude!

In the first place, the peoples of the First Nations had lived here for thousands of years with a history and traditions as old – if not older – than that of my home country.

Secondly.. we might think of history as being the realm of kings and queens, dukes and earls, generals and admirals, after all, they’re the ones who get their names in the history books. But REAL history is made by ordinary people doing extraordinary things. And when you see a city transformed from a simple wooden fort to a shining metropolis in less than four generations… well that’s purely down to the ambition, hard work and vision of those ‘ordinary’ people.

Here are two of those people whose graves can be found in Union Cemetery.

MACLOEDCOLONEL JAMES FARQUHARSON MACLEOD: Born in Scotland in 1836, he trained in Ontario as a lawyer, before joining the NWMP. Macleod was part of the famous March West in 1874, its remit being to establish law and order, stop the illegal whiskey trade, protect Canada’s border from encroachment by the Americans, and open up preliminary negotiations with the First Nations. He founded the fort, named in his honour – Fort Macleod – in what is now Alberta on the US/Canada border.

In 1875, he ordered Inspector Brisbois and 50 men from ‘F’ tropp to establish a post on the Bow River. Initially called Fort Brisbois, the name was changed to Calgary (after a village in Scotland) on the suggestion of Colonel Macleod.

Trusted by the First Nations as an honourable man, he was one of the signatories to Treaty Number 7 with the mainly Blackfoot First Nations.

Despite being Commissioner of the NWMP and working as a magistrate and judge, he died in 1894 a poor man, leaving a wife, five children and just $8.

WAREJOHN WARE: Born into slavery in South Carolina in 1845, he moved west at the end of the American Civil War, finding work on a ranch in Texas where he became a skilled horseman. In 1882 he came to Canada on one of the great cattle drives north. He worked on various ranches (including the famous Bar U) before buying his own homestead in 1890 and then creating a ranch east of Brooks. Over time, he owned 1,000 head of cattle and 100 horses under his 9999 (The Four Nine) brand.

Tragically, for a man of whom it was said, “The horse is not running on the prairie that John Ware can’t ride,” he died on September 12th, 1905 when his horse stumbled on a gopher hole and fell on him. He was killed instantly.

John Ware‘s name is remembered in Calgary by John Ware Junior High School and the John Ware Building at the Southern Alberta Insititute of Technology. He is also commemorated in Mount Ware and Ware Creek.






Union Cemetery – Calgary: Part Two

With 50,000 people buried in Union Cemetery (not all in marked graves) there are literally thousands of stories to be told. Continuing on from my previous post on Monday, I’m going to look at a couple of memorials which are related to two famous nautical disasters.

STEENROBERT ALEXANDER STEEN.  Forty-seven years of age, a private in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, Steen was one of the 234 personnel murdered by the Germans on the Hospital Ship Llandovery Castle in World War One. The ship was returning to England from Halifax NS, carrying 164 men, 14 nurses, and 80 officers and men of the Canadian Army Medical Corps.

Under the Hague Convention, hospital ships are prohibited from carrying arms, must be clearly marked with the Red Cross, and sail with all lights burning. The enemy are allowed to stop and search the ships, but must not fire on them. However, on June 27th, 1918, a German submarine fired on the Llandovery Castle.

It sank within 10 minutes. Three lifeboats got away. The German captain – Patzig – interrogated those on the boats to find ‘proof’ of misuse of the ship (ie that it was carrying arms). Unable to find any, he then ordered his crew to prepare to dive. With only himself and a few other sailors on board, they attempted to hide their war crime by ramming and machine gunning the boats and survivors in the water. Twenty-four men in one of the lifeboats survived and were rescued 36 hours later. All 14 nurses were murdered. The sinking became a rallying cry for the Canadian forces in the last few months of the war. Captain Patzig was never found or prosecuted for war crimes.

Please click HERE to find a link to a brief report of the tragedy on the front page of The Calgary Daily Herald on July 2nd, 1918.

dickALBERT and VERA DICK were two of the 795 survivors of the sinking of the Titanic on April 10th, 1912 which killed more than 1,500 men, women and children.  Albert, who made his early fortune in Calgary’s land boom,  married his seventeen year-old wife Vera in the fall of 1911. They travelled to Italy, Palestine,  Egypt and France on an extended honeymoon, picking up the Titanic in Cherbourg. Their first-class tickets cost 57 GBP each. They both escaped in lifeboat #3.

In an era when the custom was, ‘Women and children first,’ Albert’s survival caused controversy. He claimed that, while trying to calm his hysterical wife who was clinging to him, he was pushed into the lifeboat. Some speculated that he dressed himself as a woman (not true) to escape. However, it must be remembered that men were needed to row the lifeboats far enough away from the ship to prevent them being drawn down into the vortex  as the ship went down. Whatever the reason, Albert’s survival meant that he carried a stigma for the rest of his life. In some places he was even considered not ‘socially respectable’ for having survived.






Union Cemetery – Calgary. Part 1

ENTRANCEIf you ever find yourself at a loss for something to do on a Sunday afternoon (May-October) and fancy learning more about Calgary’s history, pull on a pair of walking shoes, grab a bottle of water and a can of bug spray, and head down to Union Cemetery, established in 1891 (just off Macleod Trail and Spiller Road SE) to enjoy a volunteer-led tour of the cemetery.

Here you’ll learn about the great, the good, the characters, philanthropists, mounties, soldiers, ex-slave, politicians, ex-husband of a mistress of The Prince of Wales, survivors of the Titanic disaster – and many more – who have added to the richness of this beautiful city.

CAPPYFirst up is JAMES ‘CAPPY’ SMITH, a Scot who arrived in Calgary on October 19th, 1883 to a city of ‘nothing but a village of tents’. He worked in a sawmill before signing up with Calgary’s young fire department. He was appointed chief in 1898 and remained in that position until 1933. He was a blunt spoken man who led by example and should the crowds get too close to a fire and refuse to listen to his orders to get back, he would simply turn that fire hose on them! He led the Stampede Parade for many years, owned 3 bears, an alligator, a monkey and a parrot!

DENNYNext is SIR CECIL EDWARD DENNY. Born in England, Denny emigrated to the US when he was nineteen, before moving north to Canada. He joined the North West Mounted Police for the famous March West in 1874, traveling north from Fort Macleod in the fall of 1875 to build Fort Calgary. He was one of the signatories at Treaty Number 7 but forced to resign from the NWMP when he had an affair with a colleague’s wife. Denny then became an Indian Agent and archivist and can truly be called one of Calgary’s founding fathers.

Now comes my personal favourite. WILLIAM DUDLEY WARD. If you’re a Downton Abbey fan and watched the 2013 Christmas Special, or if you know anything of the goings-on of the Prince of Wales at the beginning of the 20th century, you should recognize the name, because his wife Freda Dudley-Ward was the long-time mistress of Edward Prince of Wales before Wallis Simpson came into the picture.


WARD3 I have to admit, finding his grave raised more questions than answers. Why did a man, born into great wealth and privilege, educated at Eton and Cambridge, a possible spy and British MP who divorced his wife in 1931, end up in Calgary where he died at aged 69 following an operation? Hmmmm.  I’m going to be down at the library this week checking that out!

BETNLEYBut perhaps one of the most moving memorials in the cemetery is that of the Bentley family. An ordinary young couple, it is a sobering reminder that life is fragile and to be treasured. On May 7, 1918, Orlie Bentley gave birth to a daughter, Helena. Four days later, the infant died of exhaustion due to an inability to ‘latch on’ and feed. Within three weeks, Orlie herself was dead from ‘childbed fever’, all-too-common amongst women before the mid-20th century. Tragically, only six months later, James died from the Spanish flu which struck Calgary in October 1918.  He was only twenty-eight.

I’ll continue with more stories from Union Cemetery in my Wednesday post.


Walking the Labyrinth – Calgary

A labyrinth? Here in Calgary?

Who knew!

I had always assumed (incorrectly, as it turns out) that labyrinth was just another word for a maze – a maze offers you choices, while a labyrinth has only one track leading in and out – and was intrigued to discover there are several to be found here in Calgary.

Labyrinths have been around for thousands of years, featuring in ancient tales and legends as well as being a spiritual tool used in many religions.

When it comes to stories, perhaps the most famous labyrinth was that in Crete where Theseus killed the Minotaur. Briefly, every nine years, King Minos of Crete demanded that the city of Athens send seven young boys and seven young maidens to Crete to be devoured by the Minotaur – a half man, half bull creature – in recompense for a previous war. The third time this happened, Theseus volunteered to take the place of one of the youths and vowed to kill the Minotaur. (If something about this tale sounds familiar, I found an interview with Suzanne Collins, the author of the highly successful Hunger Games trilogy, where she acknowledges the Minotaur myth as one of the inspirations for her book.)

Perhaps the most famous religious labyrinth is to be found in Chartres Cathedral in France. Apparently, about one thousand years ago, when it became to unsafe for Christians to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, pilgrims began visiting the big cathedrals in Europe; Chartres, Canterbury and Santiago de Compostello. Somewhere between 1200-1240 a labyrinth was laid in the floor of Chartres which became known as The Road to Jerusalem. Not a maze, but a single track, it provided an opportunity for the faithful to replicate a pilgrimage to the Holy Land by following the path on their knees while praying.

But what has this to do with Calgary?


Knox United Church, Calgary

The labyrinth in Knox United Church, in the heart of Calgary’s downtown, is open to all – Christian or not – from Monday-Friday, 9am-7pm, and is based on the Chartres labyrinth.

When I visited the labyrinth yesterday, I walked it twice. The first time was from sheer curiosity: Was there really only one way in and out?  Did I cover every section of the intricate design?



The Labyrinth, Knox United Church, Calgary

The second time I decided to take it a little more seriously. According to the pamphlet provided by the church, the labyrinth is a unique spiritual tool that can be used to:
deepen self-knowledge
relieve stress and clear the mind
empower creativity
calm people in life transitions
awaken the spirit within
bring forth spiritual healing
open a path to action

I’m not religious, but I turned on the CD that is provided and tried to quiet my mind. There is no right or wrong way to walk the labyrinth, but I found that by just taking my time and concentrating, at the end of 20 minutes I returned once more to the entrance of the labyrinth feeling calm and relaxed.


The centre of the labyrinth, Knox United Church, Calgary.

The labyrinth in Knox United Church is not the only one in Calgary; there are several more, including an outdoor one in Sarcee Park. If you’re interested in finding one near you, please check out this worldwide labyrinth locator.


Calgary Pathways – Elbow River Pathway

Staying with the urban parks theme from last week’s posting…with over 900 km of bike/walking paths in Calgary, it’s very easy to get out and enjoy the fresh air and some lovely scenery. Today my daughter and I took an hour to explore just a fraction of the Elbow River Pathway, which is only a mile or so from the city centre. Although it was a warm day, 23C, there was a lot of cloud cover which is unusual in Calgary which is famous for its big blue skies.

Map   view 1

We started from the south end of River Park and headed towards the Glenmore Reservoir. If you’re not familiar with Calgary, you might not know that the city experienced a devastating flood in June 2013. Although this year the river is at a very low-level, if you look towards the left hand side of the photo above, you can get an idea of how much erosion the flooding caused.

woods   take a seat

We made our way past woodland to our right and the river valley to our left, stopping for a while for a bite of lunch.

Corrsing the dam dam 2

Then it was out across the Glenmore Dam. The first photo is taken from the dam itself. In the second you can see the dam in the distance as we crossed over Glenmore Trail, one of Calgary’s main thoroughfares. Fortunately the roar of the traffic didn’t last long as within minutes we were back in the peace and quiet of the pathway.

rowan path  from rocky

We ended our walk just outside the Rockyview Hospital which has the most wonderful views across the reservoir. (On a clear day you can see the peaks of the Rockies in the distance.) Had we walked a little farther, we could have reached Heritage Park which I’ve talked about in a previous post, but we were short of time, so we headed back towards River Park again.

In total, our walk took us just over an hour  – including stopping for lunch –  and there were times it was hard to believe we were so close to downtown.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Calgary’s pathways, please click on this link. Calgary is a gorgeous city and we’re so fortunate to have so much open green space within the city boundaries. Whether you’re a local or a visitor, consider taking an hour to pull on a pair of walking shoes and explore some of our amazing trails.