Posts Tagged ‘historical research’

The Lives of Fallen Soldiers: Writing the Biographies for Going Down of the Sun

by Philip G. Winkelaar



“I made an appointment with the niece I’d been told about, and was rewarded with tea and some family stories. It turned out that she had documentary evidence in the form of letters — from the deceased and his brothers, who had also served. In that moment I realized I could — in fact should — dig deeper.”


For years I hardly noticed the brass plaques on the walls of my church that list the people who volunteered and those who died in the two world wars. Except, that is, on Remembrance Sunday, when we have a special ceremony at which the names of the dead are read out and a minute of silence observed. The sounding of the Last Post or the piper playing a lament always moves me.

One year, after that solemn service, as I contemplated the nine names on the World War I plaque, a woman pointed to one and said, “That man’s niece lives across the lane from me.” I looked at her, and at the plaque, and recalled a recent newspaper article about the volunteer refurbishment of that soldier’s grave in England, nearly a century after his death.

In my career as a family doctor, I was continually reminded that one person’s illness affects many others — the family and friends, employers and co-workers. So, of course, must the deaths of these soldiers have affected those around them — why else would the members of the Knox Presbyterian Church congregation have spent effort and funds to place these memorials? That led me to ask other questions: What were the people like — were they destined to be heroes, or were they ordinary people? What kind of family did they have? How did they grow up? Since they were all members of the church, should I assume that they were all paragons of virtue? I had served briefly in the armed forces, and knew how unlikely that scenario was!

I had visited military cemeteries in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and knew that during both world wars soldiers were buried in the land where they were killed. Their bodies were not brought back to Canada, as they are now. So I asked myself, where are their graves? And how did they die? Were they all killed in action? Were some of the deaths due to so-called “friendly fire”? Did some die in accidents? Throughout history, deaths in time of war have as often been due to disease as to wounds. Was that true of some of these men?

I decided to delve into these questions first by reviewing the newspaper article about the grave rehabilitation. I made an appointment with the soldier’s niece I’d been told about, and was rewarded with tea and some family stories. It turned out that she had documentary evidence in the form of letters — from the deceased and his brothers, who had also served. In that moment I realized I could — in fact should — dig deeper.

My research started with church records. Some were held at the church itself and others in the City of Ottawa Archives. The soldiers’ service records are held by Library and Archives Canada. Many of them have now been digitized and are online.

With so many records available, I realized that I didn’t need to restrict my investigations. I could expand these to include all the soldiers on the plaque. City directories revealed the neighbourhoods where they grew up, and the occupations they (or in most cases their parents) pursued. was another source of information, as were birth, marriage, and death records, all of these giving insight into family backgrounds.

School records from a century ago have largely disappeared, but if you don’t shoot you can’t score, so I tried all the sources I could think of and was rewarded with data that allowed me to visualize not only the young men as students but also their school environments, which were quite different from that I was familiar with and even more changed today.

Regimental histories, written years or decades later, can paint a picture of the events of battle and the conditions the men faced. Regimental war diaries were written within hours or days of events, and although sadly clinical and short, they also illuminate the actions.

Veterans Affairs Canada maintains a website devoted to remembrance, called the Virtual War Memorial. This site has additional information, and some photos, provided by interested parties.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible for maintaining all overseas war graves (an exception was the one being refurbished) and gives basic information about the location of cemeteries and details of the location of individual graves. Photos of the graveyards reveal the serenity in which the fallen now lie.

Admittedly the mass of information was intimidating. I stumbled on contradictions between sources, which had to be resolved, and I had to sort out the relevant from the merely interesting. The latter created rabbit holes into which one could dive, emerging hours later with anecdotes entirely unrelated to the matter at hand.

I began by writing brief outlines of each of the men on the plaque. I then refined these. On the basis of some good editorial advice and criticism, I realized that the backstory I found fascinating had to wait until I had presented the individual, and that some of what I found interesting was likely to be boring to a reader.

A major challenge cropped up – I knew not every soldier was without failings, some failings, though, might be more sensitive than others. Should I reveal those? Then I had to ask myself, was this to be a hagiography or a true story? Ultimately I opted for the latter; though I knew I risked being accused of blackening someone’s memory, I declined to whitewash it.

Next, since I was dealing with nine individuals, I had to decide the sequence in which to present them. Age? Date of enlistment into the army? Date of death? Alphabetically? Or something else? I finally decided to order them as they appear on the plaque. The church members must have put some thought into the order. Who am I to gainsay their decision?

Two brothers were among those who died — should their stories be told together, or separately? Because a single event can affect individuals differently, it seemed to me it would be unfair to one or the other to combine them, so I had to decide how much needed to be repeated in both stories.

The same question came up when dealing with men in the service who had experienced the same events – they were individuals, each seeing the event from their own point of view, so there was bound to be a certain amount of repetition. The same was true of school events. Ottawa was a small city, and many of the volunteers went to the same schools at the same time. And, of course, many of them attended the church and Sunday school together. Did they have other common threads?

I belong to a writers’ group, and I presented my stories there. Based on others’ response and advice, I revised each of the profiles. Again. And again. I sought advice at a writers’ retreat — and revised everything again. I sought affirmation from my spouse — and revised some more.

I chose a title. Going Down of the Sun is a phrase from the “Ode of Remembrance,” taken from Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen,” first published in The Times of London in September 1914.

Perfection will always elude a writer. But the centenary of the 1918 armistice takes place this year, and I had researched and written the stories for all those who died in the Great War, 1914 to 1918. What could be a more appropriate time to make their lives known once again? So I went ahead and published my little book, finding my own printer and paying for it myself. I was so immersed in the writing and rewriting that I gave no thought to finding a sponsor, nor even to the issues of marketing. I did send the manuscript to an eminent military historian, Tim Cook, for comments. I was gratified that he had the time to read it and in fact reward the work that had gone into the book with genuine praise.

I finished it. I am proud of what I did. I am happy, and my wife now sees me again. But I find myself looking forward to 2020, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, knowing that the men commemorated on another plaque also deserve to have their lives chronicled.

That will keep me out of trouble.

♦     ♦     ♦


PHILIP G. WINKELAAR’s career as a family doctor spanned nearly forty years. For fifteen of those he served in the Canadian Armed Forces, regular and reserve. He has always been interested in learning about people and hearing their life stories. Retirement gave him the opportunity to delve more deeply into those experiences. A lifelong Presbyterian, he is also an elder at Knox Presbyterian Church in Ottawa, where he lives with his wife Linda.

♦     ♦     ♦

The Launch!

The launch for Going Down of the Sun will take place at Knox Presbyterian Church, 227 Elgin Street, Ottawa, 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 4, the beginning of Remembrance Week, in honour of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

To purchase a copy ($22.95 plus mailing), please contact the author at

Friday, November 2nd, 2018

Facebook for Writers: Connections, community, and meaningful coincidence, guest post by Elinor Florence


Social media is a term that can conjure up images of faceless spam artists, and creepy Big Brother spying on one’s personal life. And it’s confusing too: it seems the virtual world abounds with options, from Twitter to YouTube to Instagram, and others that rise up and disappear again without a ripple.

For writers of memoir, fiction, and nonfiction, however, social media can be a powerful force. I maintain my own website, and I write a weekly blog. I’ve made useful connections on LinkedIn, and I love both Pinterest and Goodreads.

But my favourite research tool, one that has helped me countless ways in my writing career, is Facebook.

First of all, I wouldn’t be here today, writing on Allyson Latta’s blog, if it weren’t for Facebook.

I belong to a Facebook group called the RCAF Association, composed of people who post memories and photographs of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Someone in that group shared a link to a lovely post by Allison Howard called “Vanishing Letters of War: What We Stand to Lose” (one of Allyson’s blog’s best-read posts to date).

That link led me here, where I had the pleasure of learning about Allyson — her editing, writing, and teaching — and delving into the wealth of information on this excellent website. (I particularly enjoy her contributions to the photography series Wordless Wednesday.)

I know not everyone uses Facebook, and many who avoid it do so because of concerns about the following:

1. Privacy

You can get around this, however. You can create a Facebook profile by giving yourself a fake name. Then set your privacy settings on maximum, and avoid posting personal photos. That way you have access to everything on Facebook while revealing very little about yourself.

You do need a valid email address, but once again, you can set one up through Hotmail or another free service and use it for nothing else.

(If you need help with this, ask a younger person. My 30-year-old daughter, who writes her own homemaking blog called Miss Tweedle, is my personal “techie” and she is very patient with me.)

2. Time-wastage

My friends post some interesting items on Facebook, but also some pointless fluff, and yes, I do find myself chuckling at jokes and admiring pretty photographs of sunsets when I should be working.

Recently I discovered this solution: I downloaded an app called Anti-Social, which allows me to block any website I don’t want to see, for a period of up to eight hours.

Every morning after I have finished drinking my coffee and answering messages, I tell it to block Facebook for the next eight hours. So far it’s working well. You could, of course, use willpower — something I apparently don’t have.


At its best, though, Facebook helps me — as it can help you — with writing and research.

stereoscopeMy soon-to-be-published novel, Bird’s Eye View, is about a young Canadian who joins the British air force in the Second World War and becomes an interpreter of aerial photographs, spying on the enemy from the sky using a three-dimensional instrument called a stereoscope (see photo at top of post).

Because my focus is the Second World War, and specifically women, I have joined about a dozen Facebook groups ranging from the RCAF group to another more general group called Friends of the Forties, to another called Canadian War Brides, to another called Women of World War Two.

Not only do these groups attract members who are interested in the wartime era, but also they include experts: librarians, historians, and authors. These people point me to books I haven’t read, and websites I haven’t seen, and even other specialized Facebook groups.

Facebook allows you to connect, for free, with hundreds, even thousands, of people who have the same interests. In fact, one billion people are now on Facebook: one-sixth of the world’s population. So through it there is an untapped source of knowledge out there that can be accessed pretty easily. You can ask questions too, either by posting on the group site or by sending another group member a message.

When proofreading my novel, for example, I needed to find out in a hurry whether in conversation the No. 6 Bomber Group in Yorkshire would have been called “Group Six.” I messaged one of my Facebook group contacts, an air force historian, and the answer came back straightaway — “Don’t call it Group Six! Everyone calls it Six Group!” (This may seem a minor point, but thank goodness I checked, as I know from bitter experience that military buffs are my harshest critics).

When researching your family’s history, you can seek out Facebook groups devoted to particular towns, schools, or places of business. I belong to a group called You Know You Grew Up in North Battleford If You Remember . . . People are on there day and night, posting old photographs and reminiscences. I venture to say almost every community in Canada now has such a group.

Maxwell Cassidy

Maxwell Cassidy

A woman from Australia named Janet Mears posted on this group site, asking if anybody remembered her great-uncle Maxwell Cassidy who was killed in an air crash in 1944 while stationed at North Battleford, Saskatchewan.

I was able to contact Janet Mears and tell her that my mother, who is still living, was once Max’s girlfriend! We exchanged emails and photographs — including a picture of my mother that had been in Max’s possession.

This wonderful experience provided material for my blog post called “Memories of Maxwell Cassidy.” Janet was particularly touched to learn that I had immortalized Max in my wartime novel, and even given my character the same name.

Facebook is also a great way to promote your own writing, whether you are published or hoping to be published. After I completed writing my novel last fall, I still had many interesting stories that hadn’t made it into the book. So as a way of sharing them I created a weekly blog called Wartime Wednesdays.

Each Wednesday, I post a link on my Facebook groups, where I receive useful feedback as well as readership. Through a free program called Google Analytics I’m able to see where my Wartime Wednesdays readers are coming from. So far, a whopping 44 percent find my blog through Facebook.

Facebook even led to another small publishing success. When I wrote a blog post called “My Dad’s Best Christmas: 1945,” I posted the link on Facebook, and another writer emailed to ask if he could include it in an upcoming book that he is editing about air force servicemen.

My personal page is for family and friends, but because I want readers to find me, I also have a Facebook Author Page where I post items visible to the public. If you are already a Facebook member, you can “Like” my public page called Elinor Florence – Author to receive updates on my publishing journey. I post there once or twice a week.

You may be thinking: “But Facebook is mostly for young people.” No longer. We baby boomers are taking over. A recent Facebook Demographic Report shows that teenaged users declined by 25 percent over the past three years, while the number of users over 55 exploded, with 80 percent growth. (I suspect that’s why the teens are leaving.)

Finally, much of my moral support on this writing journey comes from Facebook. I live in Invermere, British Columbia. It’s a small mountain resort town without writing groups or courses (although the beauty and the peace make for an ideal writing environment in other ways).

Recently I posted on my Facebook Author Page that I had completed the final proofread of my novel, and that I was terrified about having missed some egregious error. (Remember all those military historians, just waiting to hold my feet to the fire.)

I received heartwarming messages from many people congratulating me on passing this important milestone and sharing their own related experiences.

And that was awfully reassuring.

♦     ♦     ♦

Elinor Florence

Elinor Florence

ELINOR FLORENCE grew up on a Saskatchewan grain farm, a former Second World War training airfield. Her journalism career took her from Carleton University in Ottawa, to writing for her hometown newspaper in North Battleford, then the Western Producer in Saskatoon, the Red Deer Advocate, the Winnipeg Sun and the Vancouver Province.

Weary of city life, Elinor and her husband moved their young family to the mountain resort of Invermere, British Columbia. For the next eight years, she worked from home as a regular contributor to Reader’s Digest where she specialized in the “heart” stories. But she returned to her newspaper roots when she purchased her own weekly paper, the Columbia Valley Pioneer, and turned it into an award-winning community staple. Four years ago, she sold her newspaper to fulfill her long-held dream of writing fiction. Married with three grown daughters, Elinor loves village life, historical research, old houses, and flea markets. Her first historical novel Bird’s Eye View will be published by Dundurn Press in October 2014. It is available for pre-order from

Read more about Elinor and check out her blog, Wartime Wednesdays, by visiting her website: Elinor Florence.

Or send her a message on Facebook!



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Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014