Every Remembrance Day, I think about my family and the freedoms we enjoy as Canadians. The Second World War greatly affected both sides of my family. And although their circumstances were different, they faced the same difficult choices and made sacrifices for their families and their futures.
An early memory of my Acadian grandfather—I called him Pépère Légère—was noticing his popeye-like arms which were inked with several tattoos. Since his time in the war, the ink had started to bleed together and the tattoos were hard to distinguish. There was at least one recognizable anchor. “Got those in the war” was his curt explanation.
My grandfather’s riddles, practical jokes, and impressive sleight-of-hand card tricks fascinated me. Mémère would quip, “He picked that up in the war too.” He would frequently challenge me to an arm-wrestling match and would almost always let me win, after making me sweat a bit.
Adolphe Légère, my mother’s father, was a hardy lumberjack from Northeastern New Brunswick. At 29 he voluntarily enlisted in the army to serve his country and to provide a steady income for his young family of three. Pépère was physically fit, ready, willing, and able to serve.
He did infantry training in Trois-Rivières, Québec in March 1941. His prior experience as a lumberman, bridge, road, and railway construction worker led to his enlistment with the Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC), a unique unit that played an important role in both world wars.
The CFC cleared land, constructed airfields and runways, prepared railway ties, and provided lumber for building barracks, ammunition crates, barges, trenches, road surfaces, and more. CFC’s apt motto was “Work Conquers All.” After his military training, Pte. Legere went to Scotland in October 1941.
He travelled via Halifax, leaving Canadian soil at Pier 21 (like some 495,000 other Canadian soldiers). This gutsy decision would take him far away from his family for the next four years, for what must have felt like an eternity.
His primary role was as an axeman and a sawyer working in the rugged forests near Aberdeen and Inverness in Scotland’s Northern Highlands. He suffered numerous injuries doing this arduous job and on various occasions he was assigned to serve as a military escort.
On my father’s side of the family, the roots run to the Netherlands, which Germany attacked and occupied in 1940. War engulfed the Herijgers family in the southern Dutch town of Zundert, near the Belgian border. My grandparents Josephus and Maria Herijgers were raising a young family and operating a fruit orchard. An early war memory of my Uncle Pete, barely school-aged at the time, is of airplanes flying overhead while he hid in a makeshift bomb shelter my grandfather dug on the property.
The region was on the flightpath of German V-1 bombs destined to cause destruction in the nearby port city of Antwerp. Pete recalls spotting the winged V-1 bombs: “The engines would sometimes stop or run out of fuel before reaching their target and would then come down.” Also, “the Allied forces were shooting at them, so when they connected… shrapnel and metal would come raining down, that was a pretty scary thing.” Records say the Germans launched some 2,448 V-1 bombs towards Antwerp between October 1944–March 1945.
Pete remembers walking to school one morning. “I could see the Germans chasing a soldier in and out of the fields, not that far from us,” he says. “They took a shot at him and I think they got him in the leg. It didn’t kill him but you could hear him hollering.”
Having biked countless times through the pastoral countryside of Zundert, I can picture the event he describes so vividly. During the final months of the war, the Herijgers homestead was subject to visits by Nazi forces. Uncle Pete remembers an elder German soldier who once confided to them “I don’t want to fight but I have to. I have a family and I would rather be at home with them, but I have to fight.”
On Oct. 27, 1944, after a grueling battle in the cold, damp, and muddy countryside, the Allies liberated Zundert. But war’s devastation left a difficult life for many Dutch families. Maria and Josephus decided to immigrate and find a better and more stable future for their children.
The Netherlands Farm-Families Movement encouraged Dutch farmers to relocate to Canada where there was an abundance of farmland and a need for outside agricultural expertise. In 1952 (the peak year of Dutch immigration to Canada), Maria, Joseph, and their 11 children left the Netherlands for a country they knew very little about but would now call home. In Canada, four more daughters were born. The family thrived in Middleton, N.S., operating a dairy and vegetable farm for many years.
Back in New Brunswick, my grandmother, Mémère Légère, would tell me how my Uncle Ernest, a young child at the time, would run to the edge of the nearby hill to gaze out towards the harbour in search of a ship he hoped would bring his father back home. And my Uncle Roger, born on May 15, 1942, when my grandfather was first stationed in Scotland, asked her “What is a father?”
Pte. Légère returned safely home in June 1945 and began a civilian job at the local pulp and paper mill. It was an emotional homecoming when he first met his new infant son and saw his wife and growing children again. The birth of three daughters would later round out the family to seven. He was awarded a Good Conduct Badge, Defence Medal, Canadian Volunteer Service Medal, and the Second World War Victory Medal. He was a kind and reserved man and I always sensed that the war had profoundly affected him; he was content to be at his home, in his favourite chair, enjoying his peace.