WWI Remembrance – A Century of Service
(Blackstock Recreation Complex)
Over the weekend the world began to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War (WWI). Just two weeks ago I joined a large group at the Blackstock Community Centre for the grand re-opening of this historic building. The fact that these two events are connected shows the tremendous history of service from the citizens of our area and some of our unique historical connections to The Great War. (Blackstock Recreation Complex to Swing Open Its Doors Again)
Rather than being a short European conflict as some leaders of the era expected, the Great War consumed the western world and brought sacrifice and destruction of epic proportions. Canada came of age during the war. One hundred years ago, when the conflict began, the Dominion of Canada was at war the moment Great Britain declared war. By the end of the war, Canada had earned its own voice at discussions leading to the Treaty of Versailles. The war saw Canada gain some independence and recognition for the incredible mobilization of a small country. For a country with a population of only 8 million people in 1914 Canada responded in a major way. 620,000 Canadians served directly in the war effort and most families were directly impacted in some way. By the end of the war 67,000 Canadians paid the ultimate sacrifice and 250,000 returned to Canada wounded.
Our ancestors in Durham were a key part of this massive Canadian mobilization and a deeper examination of our history shows that it was the small villages and towns of Canada that stepped forward to forge the country and values we enjoy today. This brings me to the grand re-opening of the Blackstock Community Centre a week ago. This lovely building continues to serve as a focal point for the community, but it was first built as a local armoury. The Blackstock Armoury was opened in 1913 and became a recruiting and training hub for local militia members. In fact, it only had a year of training before some of these young men became the first members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force for WWI.
The original opening of the Blackstock Armoury also reveals interesting local connections. It was constructed by the federal government and opened by LCol Garnet Hughes, a senior military officer in Ontario at the time. Garnet Hughes also happened to be the son of Canada’s Minister of Militia, the controversial Sir Sam Hughes. Sam Hughes was the MP for the nearby Victoria riding (Lindsay), but was actually born just south of Blackstock in the community of Solina. Hughes later worked briefly as a teacher in Bowmanville and his brother also lived and worked there as well. Hughes would have sent his son to open the Blackstock Armoury because he knew the area and many of its figures and because as an ambitious politician of the era he would have wanted to show that he had delivered a federal government project to the area and having his son open the facility helped underline this point.
Finally, nothing shows the unique patriotism of our area more than the fact that the Member of Parliament for much of our area was Sam Sharpe. Sharpe was the solicitor for the town of Uxbridge and a local militia officer. He was elected to Parliament in 1908 and likely would have had a direct role in the Blackstock Armoury being constructed, but I cannot verify this point. When war broke out Sharpe would volunteer to serve overseas while still sitting as an MP. Like Hughes, Sharpe was a long-serving Conservative MP who joined Prime Minister Robert Borden in the creation of a Union Government during the war. In fact, Sharpe holds the unique distinction of being the only sitting MP re-elected in 1917 while serving in France. (Samuel Simpson Sharpe)
Another important connection to our local story is the fact that Durham’s famous Ontario Regiment was in many ways founded by Sam Sharpe. Sharpe lobbied his parliamentary colleague and local native, Sam Hughes for authority to recruit men for what became the 116th Battalion for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The 116th was from Ontario County and by the 1930s became known as the Ontario Regiment. The Regiment views Sharpe as their first Commanding Officer as he both personally recruited many of the 1100 soldiers and ensured the unit was not split up when it arrived in France. The 116th fought with distinction at Ypres, Vimy and Avion and helped earn Canada’s reputation as a young nation willing to serve an ocean away for our values and alliances. The Ontario Regiment continues this proud tradition for Durham to this day. Many Ontario Regiment soldiers served in Afghanistan during Canada’s twelve year mission in that country.
As the commemorations marking the centennial of WWI continue over the months and years ahead, take the opportunity to also learn about our local and family histories from the Great War. The Uxbridge at War exhibit currently running at the Uxbridge Museum is a great place to start. The Clarington Museum and Scugog Shores Museum will no doubt also have exhibits from this period as well, so hold the torch high by getting to know our history.