Annie Hutchinson Drysdale to her daughter, Hettie
Stanley Knowlton to his brother, Melvin
Former rumrunner Harry Walker, to Stanley Knowlton
'Understanding the history is what makes the drama so compelling. ... It is all there. That is what I think is brilliant about Lethbridge.'
Canadian history has never been taught effectively in this country. Our children have grown up more enamoured with Star Wars than our own stories. Over the years, I’ve spent countless hours trying to get my children to understand that Hollywood movies are roughly based on themes of human struggle, yet in such a dumbed-down way it is embarrassing.
The beauty of Lethbridge: A Story of Love in a Time of War is that it is real.
It is a complex, rich and compelling story, delivering the blood and horror of Vimy Ridge and other historic battles of the First World War, and the fallout on the lives of its survivors, in ways the reader can easily grasp.
Lethbridge should be the first reading requirement for all Canadian high school students. It humanizes the what, when and where of First World War history without dumbing it down or over-dramatizing it. Understanding the history is what makes the drama so compelling. History does not need to be adjusted to create drama. It is all there. That is what I think is brilliant about Lethbridge.
From Gone With The Wind onward, American history has been successfully sold to the public. The Battle of Vimy Ridge doesn’t need to be sold. It needs to be told, in a manner that grabs students by the heart first and the brain, second. Lethbridge does just that.
— Walter O’Rourke, Fergus, Ontario
“I’ve been to see Dr. Barnardo.”
Laura starts crying. Elizabeth brings the napkin to her face. She, too, is in tears. Syd looks down, his hands clasped together on the table. Harry, however, continues to stare intently at his father.
The mere mention of Dr. Barnardo’s name is reason enough to stir anxious feelings in London’s children. He’s known for the orphanages he runs; they take in not only the kids who are without parents, but those whose parents cannot care for them. These Barnardo orphans, commonly referred to as Home Boys, are shipped overseas to work on farms as free labour. That part of it, however, is kept from families who agree in desperation to give Dr. Barnardo their children. They believe they’re giving their kids the path to a better life.
“He has agreed to take you both,” William says. There is an audible gasp in the room, as if the oxygen has been sucked out. “You’ll be going to Canada. Dr. Barnardo has assured me he will keep you two together.”
Laura begins to sob. Tears run down Syd’s face. Harry strives harder to quell his roiling emotions.
“Please,” Syd says. “Father don’t do this. We’ll get jobs here, too, like Laura. You’ll see. We’ll get it sorted.”
“No. My mind is made up.”
Syd crumbles in tears. Laura is now wailing. Elizabeth sobs. Harry … Harry just stares.
Harry (left) and Sydney Walker
From Barnardo Homes files, 1904
Harry is back in his favourite retreat, the hut at Regina Trench. He is sitting with his friends around a small table next to a wood stove. They are playing euchre and smoking cigarettes. Blackie is asleep next to the stove.
The door to the hut opens. Lou comes in from the cold. Blackie looks up, then puts his head down again. All the men offer a “Lou!” greeting as he takes off his coat. He walks over to the stove and begins to warm his hands over it.
“Did you hear the news, boys?”
Mac looks up. “News? There’s news?”
“We’re moving out.”
The game stops. They all put down their cards and turn to look at Lou. Even Blackie lifts his head. Lou lights a cigarette.
“Are you making this up?” asks Harry.
“Heard it from the cap. He said to spread the word.”
“No, you dumbass,” said Doug. When are we moving out?”
“Thursday. First light.”
“Where are we going?” Mike asks.
Mac, who takes his card-playing as seriously as a heart attack, interrupts. “Are we here to play cards or discuss military strategy?”
Harry turns to look at Mac, then back to Lou. “Yeah, where?”
“Vimy Ridge. The First Division is already there.”
“I had a feelin’.”
“Cap says the generals are bringing all four Canadian divisions together to fight under our own flag.”
“We have a flag?” Mac asks. They ignore him.
“It will be the first time that’s ever happened,” Lou points out. They all look at each other with a nod of approval.
“Good,” says Harry. “About bloody time.”
The doctor leans forward to look at Stanley’s ear.
“When did this happen?”
“At Regina Trench, last October.”
“Huh. So, wounded twice in six months. I’ve seen worse, I suppose, boys who look like jigsaw puzzles with pieces missing. Still, you’d think one would be enough to send you home, let alone two. Unfortunately for you, I don’t get to make that call.”
Stanley takes his eye off the leg wound and looks up at the doctor. “Well, I kinda gave up on that idea after the first time. I was genuinely surprised they sent me back to the front.” He figures his cynicism is well-earned. “This time, I didn’t even bother to leave the battlefield. A medic came along, wrapped a tourniquet around my thigh, pulled out the stake, and gave me a shot for the pain. He offered to send a field ambulance for me, but I couldn’t see the point. Figured I’d just stick around and look after my boys.”
Stanley pauses, remembering the moment. “It had been a long day.”
“All the same, must have hurt like hell.”
“Oh, to tell you the truth I don’t remember much after I got the painkiller, but I slept great that night. Odd dreams though.”
The doctor, who is scribbling in a notebook, stops on hearing that. “What sort of dreams?”
“I don’t remember much now. I do remember my dad yelling at me for coming home with a stake sticking out of my leg.”
Stanley Knowlton, CEF, 1916
Annie comforts Hettie while Stanley is overseas; Stanley & Harry discuss what brought them to this point in their lives aboard the RMS Olympic