War and Remembrance

Betty Ward of Orangeville knows the responsibility of generational memory. Her father Charles Thomas, who survived the First World War, had kept a regular diary during his service.

September 16, 2016 | | Departments

My daughter’s grandmother, Rita Ball, died in July. She was 99. On September 2, the family gathered to celebrate her 100th birthday, as we had promised her we would. Rita had wanted to be there, but she had broken her hip, and all but blind and deaf and now immobilized, this woman who loved to read and socialize and dance decided it wasn’t worth the wait. She gathered the family and announced her decision to die with the same courage and calm determination that had distinguished her entire life. And in those final weeks, still fully alert of mind, she told her stories.

We had heard many of them before, but with time growing short we listened with more intensity and urgency than ever. Hers was a spirit molded by war. Rita was born in 1916, in the midst of the Great War. And in 1939, on the day after her 23rd birthday, Britain once again declared war on Germany.

Rita spent most of the war in her family home on the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England, working for the Air Transport Auxiliary. She recounted many tales of dodging explosions as German warplanes jettisoned the last of their payload on their way home from the Blitz raids.

One of her most vivid recollections was her astonishment one early June day at seeing a vast flotilla of naval boats clustered in the sea “as far as the eye could see.” The next day, June 6, they were gone, and she learned they had been on their way to Normandy for the D-Day invasion.

In 1943 Rita married Len Ball, who served in the RAF. When, like so many young British men after the war, he heard the siren call of opportunity in Canada, she left her beloved England and followed him here in 1955, their two young sons in tow.

Like most of her generation, Rita’s voice is now stilled. During her 80s and 90s she wrote down many of her memories, and while the deep connection of first-person storytelling is lost, the duty is now ours to repeat and pass on her story.

Betty Ward of Orangeville knows the responsibility of generational memory. Her father Charles Thomas, who survived the First World War, had kept a regular diary during his service. Betty, now in her 80s, spent two years meticulously transcribing the faded ink from the frail, century-old pages, so that each of Charles’ 10 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren could be keepers of his story. In this issue, Ken Weber has excerpted those diaries – and they make compelling reading. In honor of these centenary years of the Great War, Ken has also devoted his Historic Hills column to the outbreak of that war, and the sad and excited goodbyes that took place in our hills in August 1914.

Lest we forget.

About the Author More by Signe Ball

Signe Ball is publisher/editor of In The Hills.

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