Remembering New Westminster’s heroes

The Armouries, an important building in the history of New Westminster (from The Royal Westminster Regiment)
The Armouries, an important building in the history of New Westminster (from The Royal Westminster Regiment)

New Westminster’s annual Remembrance Day Ceremony will be Thursday, November 11, 2010 at the Royal Westminster Regiment Armoury. People are asked to assemble by 9:30 a.m. at the Armoury, and the ceremony will begin at 10 a.m. Overflow seating is available at nearby Queen’s Avenue United Church. Following the ceremony, there will be a procession to the Cenotaph in front of City Hall, where two minutes of silence will be observed at 11am.

For many younger people, it can be harder to understand the importance of Remembrance Day because fewer Veterans are left surviving from times of war. Over the past 50 years, New Westminster’s residents have not had as many friends and relatives who have gone to war for our country and brought those experiences home to share, and knew people who have been lost in war.

Throughout my life I have met many Veterans, been touched deeply by their stories, as well as learning of the long and diverse history of The Royal Westminster Regiment (the oldest Unit in B.C.) and our Armouries, so this week I will share the stories of a few special heroes and look briefly at the story of a very special place on Queen’s Avenue.

Over the past 150 years, thousands of people have protected New Westminster, and fought, served and died elsewhere around the world during several times of war, since the time Queen Victoria sent the Royal Engineers here to protect the Fraser River. After they finished their duty in 1863, about 55 of the soldiers who remained here came together with some civilians to establish the New Westminster Volunteer Rifles. They protected the city and built the Armouries building on Queen’s Avenue in the 1890s. It survived the 1898 fire and served as a hospice for people whose homes were lost while the city was rebuilt. In 1910, the Rifles became the 104th Fusiliers of Canada and trained people from around the area during the First World War with 2 Battalions. They became the Westminster Regiment in 1924 and served throughout World War II and shortly after served an important part in securing the city during the floods of 1948. They became the Royal Westminster Regiment in 1967 and been maintained as a reserve Battalion since that time.

Corporal Filip Konowal, World War I Victoria Cross winner (official portrait by Arthur Ambrose McEvoy)
Corporal Filip Konowal, World War I Victoria Cross winner (official portrait by Arthur Ambrose McEvoy)

The Victoria Cross is the highest award granted to a very small number of Commonwealth soldiers (about 1350 since 1856) for very special courage in duty. Three people serving New Westminster have been granted the Victoria Cross during World War I and World War II. The first person serving New Westminster to win was Corporal Filip Konowal, for his bravery in France in 1917. He was a Ukranian-born soldier, who emigrated here just before World War I. He was trained in New Westminster as part of the 47th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces and was one of 6500 men from around New Westminster deployed to serve in Europe between 1916-1918. Cpl. Konowal was leading a section of soldiers near Flanders on August 22, 1917 during a very difficult time mopping cellars and houses to provide protection for others. Cpl. Konowal was an expert in quickly dealing with difficult situations underground, and on 3 different occasions in 24 hours he stormed forward into dangerous situations and killed at least 16 enemy soldiers continuously to gain protected land until he was severely wounded. For this amazing work he was awarded the Victoria Cross later that year. Unfortunately, Filip Konowal’s injuries took several years to recover from and he eventually moved to Hull, Quebec where he died in 1959.

Major Jack Mahoney, who stood strong for the Westminster Regiment
Major Jack Mahoney, who stood strong for the Westminster Regiment

During the Second World War, two people born and raised in New Westminster were awarded the Victoria Cross. The first one was Major John Keefer Mahony, a company commander with the Westminster Regiment at the River Melta in Italy in the spring of 1944. Commanded to secure a line across the river on May 24, Maj. Mahony led his company across and survived assaults from German guns on 3 sides throughout the day and into the evening. He held strong with injuries and maintained his company as it weakened. They finally drove back the German guns and secured the river for other Commonwealth soldiers to cross. For his incredible fortitude and disregard of his own condition, Maj. Mahony was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George VI in July of 1944. When he arrived home to New Westminster, Maj. Mahony was proudly welcomed and honoured. He continued in the Army to become a Lt. Col, working across the country with youth.  He died in 1990 in London, Ontario.

Pte. Earnest A. “Smokey” Smith, a proud and humorous New Westminsterite (IHP0846)
Pte. Earnest A. “Smokey” Smith, a proud and humorous New Westminsterite (IHP0846)

Perhaps the most well-known New Westminster Winner of the Victoria Cross is Private Ernest “Smokey” Smith. Born in New Westminster in 1914, he joined the Seaforth Highlanders in 1942 and was deployed to Italy. On the night of October 21, 1944,  Pte. Smith was part of an infantry force spearheading an attck over the Savio River during bad rains. Pte. Smith fought hard to wreck a Nazi tank, then moved out to drive the German soldiers in it away, helped a fallen comrade and protected the river courageously all night. For this work, he was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George VI at Buckingham Palace. After he returned, “Smokey” Smith’s great sense of humor lent well to him becoming a figurehead for Veterans and Remembrance Day in New Westminster, British Columbia and across the country for nearly 60 years. He told his story well, remembered his fallen friends and laughed with everyone. He was later awarded the Order of B.C., The Order of Canada and upon his death 5 years ago “Smokey” Smith was celebrated for his many years of work. His last words to Colin Stevens in July, 2005 were “You’re all invited to my Funeral”.

Hopefully hearing the stories of great courage and service by these people through the years will help some of you understand Remembrance Day better. I know I will think of the people  I’ve met and learned about over the years. I will also think of the soldiers from the Royal Westminster Regiment who continue to serve in the war in Afghanistan. In my research for this article I learned  Master Corporal Colin Basin, a soldier from Abbotsford serving the Royal Westminster Regiment , died in service in 2007.  I will think of him this Thursday.

Ken Wilkinson is a founding member of the Friends of New Westminster Museum & Archives Society, which aims to help more people learn about the unique and vibrant history of our community and region.

Changing of the Guard (well, at least the C.O.)

Regiment taking the parade grounds
Regiment taking the parade grounds

I was in the Queen’s Ave Armories the other day talking with Captain Vernon, an officer in the Royal Westminster Regiment. We had Farmer’s Market business to discuss as the armories are neighbours of the market and I was gauging their interest in joining the RCFM on a project. Captain Vernon was very gracious with his time and during our discussion he reminded me that the public was invited to a ceremony that Sunday, September 13th, in the Queen’s Park Arena for the Change of Command Ceremony.

Wow, that was an event I could not turn down. My father and grandfather were both in the regiment. My Dad was a Lieutenant, specializing in french horn and my grand-dad was Staff Sergeant. Near the end of his career he kept the books. The upcoming event reminded me that the position of the Regiment in the city. Annual soirees like the Officer’s Ball or the NCO’s ball were marquee events in the city’s social calendar and anyone (who was anyone) would be there. The rest of us would be left to clean up. I heard of one less formal gathering in the armories in the mid 1960’s that featured in an indoor car race, the object of which was to see who could stop their sports car closest to the 6th street wall of the armories (from the inside) with out touching it. The race ended with one car passing through the 6th st gate and down onto the street. The driver, no doubt, felt no pain until morning.

But for better or for worse, that was then and this is now. The army is a much less public institution than it used to be and the armories is no longer the kind of building the average citizen sees the inside of. While our regiment is tied to our city in a way few regiments are, it is now a world apart and the number of people who would know the name of the Commanding Officer are few.  His name is Lieutenant Colonel Doug M. Poitras, Canadian Dragoons. He is an able speaker, looks pretty snappy, is a veteran of Afghanistan and many other postings. He has a Psychology Degree and he was raised in the lower mainland. He is around 51 years old but he doesn’t look it.

The transfer of command ceremony consisted primarily of two uniformed guard elements and one cadet element marching to The Maple Leaf Forever and Colonel Bogey’s March.

Commanding Officer Returns Regimental Colours to Honour Guard.
Commanding Officer Returns Regimental Colours to Honour Guard.

Within one of the regimental guards was a group of 12 or so soldiers in desert fatigues. These men were destined to serve in Afghanistan. The regiment has sent 40 members there already (since the conflict began) and another 30ish troops are due to depart.

The pomp and ceremony was fascinating, like a window into some lost time. Many of the rituals and traditions seem to be almost sacraments, such as the transfer of the possession of the Regimental Colours. The departing commander marches the colours from the Honour Guard to an Honorary Officer with all of the deference you would expect. The incoming commander then takes possession of the colours and returns it to the Honour Guard. As the colours are the single most important regimental artifact, with all of the battle honors displayed on the flag, the affair is as solemn as the blood of fallen comrades demands.  When two officers salute on the parade grounds, both with swords drawn, the inferior officer makes an elaborate swoop down of his weapon in deference to he ranking officer. The Commanding Officer barely whispers the marching orders to the junior officer, the officer then calls for the Regimental Sergeant Major and quietly explains the orders again. After all of the officers depart, the Regimental Sergeant Major then assembles the sergeants of each guard and belts out the orders to the assembled troopers.  It is a visible and visceral display of the chain of command at work.

For the time being I have this collection of photographs from the event. I plan to post some video somewhere in short order.

One of the afternoon’s speeches that I will remember was a reference by Colonel G.W.J. Richmond (I think) to the Regiment’s relationship with the city.

I want to remind the community how fine a regiment this is…one of the few in Canada to have its regimental colours fly at City Hall. Most regiments never get that opportunity but this is your regiment…(and that is)a great testament to the connection this regiment has with your community.

Photo slideshow from the Change of Command Ceremony on September 13, 2009