Bygone Treasures - Military Memories

By Michael Rice


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Charlie was a soldier for a short time in all too brief a life. For me, Charlie's story started while I browsed one evening on eBay Ireland, and found a listing for a World War One Canadian military medal. It was the Canadian Memorial Cross, presented to wives, sweethearts and other next of kin of Canadian soldiers, sailors and airmen who died in active service.

When I purchased the medal, I asked the seller if there were any other items connected with the cross, and was told he had no idea where it came from and that he'd found it in a box of "bits and bobs."

The medal arrived with its faded ribbon, engraved on the back to "C.H. Preston 69779." A quick visit to the website for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission confirmed the soldier died on July 6, 1916, was interred in Belgium, and that his next of kin were unknown.

Wanting to know more, I researched World War One attestation (enlistment) papers on file at the Archives of Canada. Charles Henry Preston was born on August 5, 1896 in Birmingham, England. When he enlisted, he was a labourer, signing up on November 24, 1914, some three months after the war started. Interestingly, there was a next of kin shown, but with a different surname, and his mailing address was shown as a small farming community, showing he'd enlisted once the harvest was in.

I thought, "different surname, farming community. I wonder if this is *Anne of Green Gables* stuff. Perhaps he was an immigrant boy?" Computers and websites with 24-hour access are a wonderful addiction. Searching "home child" sites, I found that Charlie (as I was now calling him) had been sent to the Colonies, at 10, aboard the Allen Line steamship SS *Carthaginian* from Liverpool on May 11, 1907, arriving in Halifax. He had come from the Middlemore Waifs and Strays Society Home in Birmingham, with all he owned in a cloth bag and a cardboard suitcase, along with 19 other children, all destined for new lives in Canada. And, as we know now, Charlie, aged 19, gave up his life for King and Country on the battlefield at Ypres. There were 9,900 Commonwealth soldiers buried at Lijssenthoek Cemetery, and Charlie became number 9,901.

Charlie's story leads me into the area of collecting military memorabilia. If you have items handed down from older generations or items you've acquired from your own service, you may wish to pass them on to future generations. Take time to write down these items' history. Keep medal groups together – don't split them among various relatives, as this diminishes the story behind them. While medals from the Great War and earlier are named, those from the Second World War are not, and separating a group may result in not knowing where a soldier served. Also, keep any paper items related to the soldier such as a paybook, enlistment or discharge papers, logbooks or diaries.

Within the medals category, there are valour awards (such as the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal), campaign medals (for taking part, such as the War Medal), for serving in a particular theatre of war, (such as the Africa Star), and for long service and good conduct. While valour awards are the most valuable and the most sought after, many collectors seek out awards to particular military units like Scottish battalions, Machine Gun Corps or Mounted Rifles.

Beyond medals and badges lies a vast range of other interesting items, from swagger sticks to officers' swords, from gas masks to little booklets cautioning the soldier on how to behave in foreign countries, from censored letters from Prisoners of War to old photos of aircrews and shipmates long forgotten. All of these have value, and there are collectors who love to acquire and research them.

Often times, sadly, there is no one left in a family who has the knowledge or interest in retaining any of these. A contractor friend at a recent house call spotted a mounted set of medals thrown in a dumpster. Upon enquiry, he was told, "That's just dirty old war stuff. Take it!" Be assured they have now found a new home where they are respected and admired.

I continue to research Charlie's story, and now have a photo of the orphanage where he spent much of his boyhood. My goal is to locate a snapshot of Charlie to mount alongside his medal, in honour of a brave young lad who never came home.

If readers would like assistance in identifying medals, badges or other military memorabilia from Canada or elsewhere in the British Empire, please e-mail me.

Next time: Christmas Collectibles

Comments and suggestions for future columns can be sent to Michael Rice at Box 86, Saanichton B.C. V8M 2C3 or fenian@shaw.ca

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