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Look Back at the Past

Dundas County’s Connection to “In Flanders Fields”

Every November 11th, Canadians gather to honour and remember those who gave their lives in service to the nation. Remembrance Day conjures up memories of military parades, wreath-covered cenotaphs, and the mournful tunes of the ‘Last Post’, but for many, nothing recalls Remembrance Day more than the recitation of “In Flanders Fields”. Perhaps the most prolific war poem ever penned, the words of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae continue to resonate with those who have suffered through conflict and war, and those who have lost loved ones to such strife. 

While the poem is deeply ingrained in Canadian culture, it has an even deeper connection with Dundas County, a connection that most never knew existed. Lt-Col. McCrae wrote the poem on May 3rd, 1915, after presiding over the funeral for his friend and fellow soldier, Lt. Alexis Helmer who was killed in action during the Second Battle of Ypres the day before.  McCrae was struck by how quickly poppies were growing on the graves of the soldiers, and inspired by the death of his friend, created one of Canada’s best known literary pieces. 

Lt. Alexis Helmer was born near Ottawa to Richard A. Helmer, a Brigadier General from Russell, who was a member of the Helmer family of Dundas. Alexis’s grandfather, Nathaniel Helmer, was born in Williamsburg Township, Dundas County, and raised just over the county line in Russell. The Helmers were early Loyalist settlers to Dundas, and like Alexis were called to serve in defense of their homeland. Richard Helmer, great grandfather of Alexis, served in the “1st Dundas Militia” at Prescott during the Rebellion of 1838, and Johannes Pillar, great-great grandfather of Alexis, served with the Dundas Militia at Crysler’s Farm in 1813. Alexis Helmer volunteered to defend Canada overseas, as his ancestors had defended their Dundas homes one hundred years before, and sacrificed his life in service to our nation, inspiring one of the most beloved and poignant poems in Canadian history. 

Black and white picture of soldier

Lt. Helmer is not the only Dundas connection to John McCrae however, as before he was a Lieutenant Colonel serving in Flanders, he was a Lieutenant serving in South Africa. During the Boer War, McCrae was an officer in ‘D’ Battery of the Canadian Field Artillery, and one of his Gunners was Duncan Macdonell, from Iroquois. Macdonell had served in the local 56th Grenville Rifles, and had volunteered with the Canadian Artillery, serving in South Africa in 1900. 

Undoubtably, he knew Lt. John McCrae, and due to his conduct during the war there is a strong possibility that McCrae knew him as well. Macdonell was commissioned as an officer in the British Army’s “Royal Berkshire Regiment” in 1901 as a result of his gallant service with ‘D’ Battery, and he remained in South Africa until the end of the war in 1902. Like McCrae’s father, Duncan Macdonell’s father had raised a militia artillery company during the Fenian Raids of 1866-70, serving as the commanding officer of the Iroquois Garrison Artillery.

“In Flanders Fields” has become one of the most well-known war poems in history and is read aloud at ceremonies across the world every year on Remembrance Day. The feelings evoked by the words of John McCrae are timeless, and the pain caused by the death of his friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer, is a pain that was all too commonplace during the Great War. While few remember the story of Lt. Helmer and how he inspired those hallowed verses, fewer know the connection to Dundas County through the Helmer family, and the service of Dundas men in the Boer War and WW1. Indeed, one of the county’s first casualties of the Great War, Charles B. Forward of Chesterville, was killed in action during the Second Battle of Ypres, just two weeks after Helmer fell. Private Forward has no known grave, but his memory, and the memory of hundred of thousands of other soldiers will be honored each year with the wearing of the poppy and the ceremony of remembrance. 

Soldier in black and white photo
Soldier with mustache

 Today, the Helmer name is still found across Dundas County, and though more than 100 years have passed since his death, Lt. Alexis Helmer and the poem he inspired continue to live on across the world, ensuring that, for all time, we will remember them.

Authored by: Axel Ravera 


Van Camp Cenotaph Rededication Ceremony

As presented on October 22, 2023 at Van Camp ceremony

Today, we gather to honour the five men named on the Van Camp Cenotaph.  They were so much more than a name. They were sons, brothers and friends. They had dreams and aspirations. They all answered the call to serve, and they lost their lives due to their service. They should be remembered and honoured for their service.
It is noteworthy that of the five men named, two were British Home Children. Between the years of 1869 and 1948 over 100,000 British children were sent to Canada to be placed as farmhands, domestic servants and general labour. They ranged in age from 4 to 16 years old when they were sent to Canada. Not all were orphans. They were all living in a state of poverty at a time when the British government felt that they would be best served to be separated from family and taught skills and trades. While there were several different sending agencies in England and Scotland both men serving from Van Camp were sent through Barnardo’s Homes. Of the two men who served from Van Camp, both were given up by their mothers after their fathers died and they were impoverished. This does not appear to be an unusual situation with the British Home Children. It is estimated that about 12 per cent of our population descends from a British Home child. 
Private Arthur Sidney Hollands (1894 – 1916) was one such British Home Child.  I was able to ascertain that he was born on June 14, 1894, in Kingston Upon Thames England. His father died in a Mill accident around 1899.  His mother had surrendered him and his brother Leonard when he was 12 years old and his brother 10. The boys spent some time in a children’s home before Arthur was sent to Canada in 1907.  According to Barnardo, he was sent to several different placements in Ontario before settling in South Mountain in 1911.  It is not known where he was placed, but we do know that he was still in South Mountain when he enlisted in 1915. He obviously made connections while in the area as his military. Will states that his medals and pay were to go to Miss Kate Bellinger of South Mountain.  Arthur served in the 87th Battalion of the Canadian Grenadier Guards.  He died of his wounds on November 23, 1916.  He is buried in the British War Cemetery at Contay, Departement de la Somme, Picardie, France. He was named on the Book of Remembrance page 104 and remembered on the Van Camp Cenotaph
Private Frederick Thomas Baulch (1899 – 1918) was also a British Home Child born on December 30, 1898, in Hampshire England.  His parents were John Thomas and Edith Baulch. His father died around 1908, according to Barnardo’s.  His mother surrendered both Frederick and his younger brother Percy not long after while keeping several of her other children. Frederick was transported to Canada in March of 1913, shortly after his brother Percy had died. He was first placed on a farm near Kingston with another British Home child. He was later sent to Mountain, where he was based when he enlisted on February 25th, 1916. He served with the 38th Battalion of the Royal Ottawa Eastern Ontario Regiment and arrived in England on October 25, 1916.  He was able to connect with his family there before being sent to the Front. His family shared his Trench diary with me and some reminiscences including photos of his grave. He was only 18 when he died in action at Bourlon Village in France in September 1918.  Note that the Van Camp cenotaph incorrectly lists his death as December 4, 1918. He is buried at Quarry Wood Cemetery at Sains les Marquion Nord, Pas de Calais France. He is remembered on the Book of Remembrance page 365. The descendants of his brother who communicated with me knew that he served from Canada but had no idea how he ended up there. 
Private Clifford Shaver (1896 – 1917) was born in either Cornwall or Mountain on January 30, 1896, to William and Jessie Shaver. We do know that they settled in Mountain where he was raised. He enlisted in South Mountain on February 10, 1916, and entered the 38th Battalion.  We have a series of letters which he had sent from to his sister, which share an interesting view of life in the camps and illustrate the connection between family members. According to his obituary, he was killed on October 30, 1917, during the battle of Passchendaele in Belgium. His body was lost in the battle, but he is remembered at the Menin gate in Ypres Belgium. He is also named in the Book of Remembrance. His Victory Medal and British War Medals are in the Canadian War Museum.
Private Frank David Valentine (1891 – 1917) was born in Aberdeen Scotland, the son of William and Eliza Valentine. He arrived in Canada aboard the “Corinthian” on December 13, 1910. He was 20 years old with his destination listed as Smiths Falls. Little is known of his family background.  It is not known how he ended up in South Mountain, but when he enlisted there in 1916, he identified as a farmer. He was a member of the Eastern Ontario Regiment 38th Battalion. After training in England, he was sent to the Front. He was killed in Action on July 17, 1917, or June 26 near Rouen. His military file has some discrepancies. He is named on the Vimy Memorial. He is remembered on page 317 of the Book of Remembrance.
Private Donald McKenzie Hope (1891 – 1918) was born around Van Camp to Alfred and Mary Ann Hope and spent his early years in the region. They appeared in the 1901 census in the area but by 1906 were found in the Assiniboia Region of Saskatchewan. When he enlisted on June 24, 1916, he was in LaFlesh Saskatchewan.  His military file identifies his next of kin as his parents living in Wilmer British Columbia, so they were somewhat mobile.  Donald served with the 27th Battalion of the Manitoba Regiment. He was later transferred to the 200th Battalion.  After being injured in Arras he was transferred to a hospital in Scotland where he died on December 29, 1918.  He was listed as having died of pneumonia post-influenza.  He is buried in the Glasgow Western Necropolis and is named on the Book of Remembrance page 431 for 1918. 

Susan Peters
Dundas County Archives

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