Cadets salute at the grave of a Cowichan veteran at St. Francis Xavier Church in Cobble Hill as locals, in what has become a tradition, place white crosses on the graves of veterans for Remembrance Day. Cowichan had the highest per capita enlistment anywhere in Canada for the First World War. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

Remembrance Day: Cowichan went to war with a will

Who in their right minds, one might ask, would welcome a war, any war?

By T.W. Paterson

Who in their right minds, one might ask, would welcome a war, any war?

Twenty-four seven, the news is filled with reports of armed conflict around the globe, with its unavoidable baggage of death, injury, ruined cities and broken lives. It usually happens elsewhere, far away, and Canada’s active involvement, if any, is restricted to peacekeeping efforts, which makes it somewhat easier for Canadians to feel disengaged.

Again I ask: Who in their right minds would welcome war?

Well, 113 years ago, we Canadians did, wholesale and wholeheartedly, for the second time in a decade since the South African conflict. By all indications (the Cowichan Valley had the highest enlistment per capita for all of Canada) we didn’t just accept that what would become a world war was upon us, we embraced it.

We cheered, we rejoiced! The arrogant Kaiser and his army and navy, long thorns in Mother Britain’s side, were finally about to be put down. Flags were unfurled, bands played, men young and not so young, raced to hastily organized recruiting stations. Boys drilled and paraded as cadets while contemplating lying about their ages to join the army, and God save the King!

Am I exaggerating? Hardly, as reams of newspaper coverage of the day attest. To prove my point, albeit on a minor scale, I’m going to dip again into the fascinating memoir penned by the late Charles Cogger.

Three weeks ago, I introduced Charlie who wrote almost a lifetime later of his family’s brief tenure at Hill Farm, Cobble Hill. He was just seven years old but the experience branded him for life. He told how his father had been hired by the rich Sam Matson to manage his herd of purebred Jersey milk cows, how the senior Cogger brought his wife and four children to Cobble Hill for that purpose.

This was to be the family’s new life in the colony. But they’d hardly settled in, their furniture just been delivered — they had, in fact, been here for only a few months, when everything changed overnight. It had begun, five weeks earlier on June 28, 1914, in a little-known country called Serbia. There, the assassination of an arch-duke and his wife proved to be the spark that set off years of growing political tension between Great Britain, its world-wide empire and allies, and Germany and its allies. Not even distant and diminutive Cobble Hill was immune and Charlie tells us of that dramatic day that was to change his family’s lives:

“We children were all at school when the news reached our back-water. The train arrived at the depot with continuous clanging [of its bell] which normally would have stopped as soon as it had made its regular announcement of the train’s arrival. The clangour continued feverishly, until it was clear that something was up. Shouts rang out which penetrated the school log-house and the teacher being as curious as we were, closed school abruptly, gathered together her belongings without bothering to clean off the blackboard, and hurried off to find out. We beat her to it.

“At the depot the train was still hissing importantly, and the fireman was still hauling vigorously on the bell rope. Union Jacks had been tied on to the front of the engine, the driver was leaning out of his cab and talking to the people below who lifted their faces and listened. Late arrivals joined the back of the small crowd and asked others what it was all about, and some were retailing to the newcomers what they had just heard, and some were asking the driver afresh for the news they had not quite understood. Then there was a general cheer, and we finally understood the excitement: “Britain is at war with Germany!

“We [children] didn’t see what this meant or how it could affect us, but the citizens were enthusiastic, and proud that Britain was once again about to assert her authority. Most of them were immigrants from Britain, or descendants of such.

“We took the news home and Dad was hard to convince. Then he thought that this was so far outside our experience that we could not have made it up. He got out the buggy and drove into town to find out for himself, and a long time later, came back looking grave and thoughtful. We were sent to bed early that night and when Mother came to say goodnight her eyes were shining.

“Next day we didn’t go to school. Dad said soberly that he would have to give up the job, and we would all have to go back to the Old Country to help fight her enemies. The patriotic fervour of the South African War had permeated his being when he was young, a substantial residue remained and emotions overpowered reason.

“He arranged the sale of the furniture which had only arrived three weeks earlier, including the piano that Mother prized because her father had given it to her. But settlers locally had little money. Bidding sagged because it was clear that the stuff would go anyway, without reserve. The piano went for five dollars, and this cheapening of her childhood’s darling saddened her more than its loss. Years afterwards, I heard her regret that she had not left it in England in the care of her sister, Mary.

“Dad gave in his notice, without weighing the sacrifice, jettisoning our hopes for a bright future in Canada. Mr. Matson both regretted and admired [his] decision. Everything seemed to happen in an undignified scramble [but] the war excused unusual behaviour.

“We found ourselves once more homeless, took [the] train to Victoria, thence by ferry to Vancouver, then endless waiting while Dad disappeared into offices, hurried meals in restaurants and a pervading sense of uncertainty…”

For all his willingness to serve, James Cogger didn’t make it into the army, developing pancreatic cancer and dying in 1920.

The outbreak of war shattered the Coggers’ colonial sojourn. Cobble Hill, Hill Farm and Sam Matson would become little more than distant and fleeting memories but for the impressionable Charlie who, with the help of his sister Elsie, would recount his childhood adventures for future generations of the family.

So, we can assume, it went for thousands of other patriotic families who were eager to answer the call to arms for King and Country, their paramount loyalty.

Do you still wonder who would welcome war?

(I’m indebted to Robin Garratt who, with his wife Carol, stayed at the Sahtlam Lodge B&B in 2010 while retracing the footsteps of his maternal grandfather James Cogger and family. He has graciously shared his Uncle Charlie’s extremely eloquent memoir with me to use as I will.)

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