Passing the torch

Remembrance Day

In the First World War, 619,636 Canadian women and men served. Of that number, 170,000 were wounded and 66,000 Canadians made the ultimate sacrifice. I want to share the stories of two young men and the sacrifices they made.

Peter “Pete” O’Gorman and Wilbert “Will” Drynan grew up on the Cobden to Eganville road in the Ottawa Valley. Pete and Will were farmers, neighbours, and best friends since childhood. In the spring of 1918, Pete arrived at his unit, the 38th Ottawa Overseas Battalion stationed near Arras, in Northern France. He had arrived to the war green, but he was not alone. He joined Will, who had already served two years in the war, a tough veteran soldier.

Will had enlisted in 1916 and he had been in action since the Battle of Vimy Ridge where he was wounded by a bullet from a sniper rifle. Many months in the trenches had transformed this young Renfrew County farmer into a first-rate fighting soldier.

When Pete joined the 38th, the battalion was out of the line “on rest.” With Will’s guidance, Pete would learn the ropes as an infantryman-and in 1918 there were arguably no better soldiers on the Western Front than the Canadian Corps.

The German Army, desperately attempted victory, strengthened by a million soldiers released from the Eastern Front. One out of five Canadian casualties in the first world war would be suffered in these 100 days of bloodshed.

On the eighth of August, the Battle of Amiens commenced. The 38th Battalion, part of the 4th Canadian Division advanced into barbed wire, poison gas and machine gun barrages, but they moved 15 kilometres in three days. In the midst of battle, Will Drynan distinguished himself in the advance-not only fighting towards the objective but looking out for his comrades as well. He was observed moving through a hail of bullets applying medical aid to the wounded friend and foe alike, dragging men to the cover of shell craters and ditches. He was recommended for the Military Medal for bravery under fire, his award would be announced in February of 1919.

After Amiens, Will, Pete and the other Canadians returned to the Arras sector to prepare for an assault against the main German defensive positions on the Western Front, the Hindenburg Line. The Germans had retreated into the strongest defensive position in Europe: the Drocourt-Queant Line and the Canadians were ordered to drive them out.

The Drocourt-Queant Line was formidable: six lines of trenches heavily reinforced by deep belts of barbed wire each over a kilometre in depth. Wall after wall of interlocking machine gun posts all supported by hundreds of heavy guns.

On the 26th of August, 1918 the Canadian Corps began its attack facing ferocious fire. After four days of heavy fighting, the Corps prepared to attack the final position atop Dury Ridge, a wire protected defense complex distinguished by a battered red brick windmill. It seemed that the 38th had been given an impossible task, and yet, it succeeded. Relentlessly, heroically, steadily leaning into a rainstorm of bullets, the men of the 38th advanced. By 4 p.m. they had secured the ridge, suffering what the battalion war diary recorded as “…heavy casualties due to sustained machine gun fire.”

Moving across the hilltop that afternoon was Pete O’Gorman, and it was he who found Will. Will had been applying a field dressing to a wounded German soldier when a burst of gunfire struck his chest and he fell, face first across the German. That is how Pete found his best friend, lying lifeless across the body of an enemy he was trying to save. “Whilst dressing the wounds of a comrade, during the advance on Drocourt-Queant Line, on the morning of September 2, 1918, he was instantly killed by an enemy machine gun bullet.”

For Pete, his war had not yet ended. Pete was wounded in the head and face by fragments from a high explosive shell. Pete was blinded in one eye as a result of his wounds.

On a November morning one hundred years ago, the guns finally fell silent. Sixteen kilometres southeast of Arras along the D939 highway on the north side of the road is situated a simple cube shaped memorial to the victory of the Drocourt-Queant Line. It is a largely forgotten battle of the 100 Days. Uphill from the memorial across an open wheat field is Dury Mill War cemetery. In Plot 1, Row C, Grave 18 you will find the resting place of Will Drynan, farmer and soldier.

Pete returned from the wars to his farm on the Cobden road. He lived a long and productive life. He raised children and grandchildren. In 1968, he helped to construct Opeongo High School as Chair of the Vocational Committee. Pete was a farmer and a citizen soldier. He was a survivor of the 100 Days from Amiens to Mons, but he left behind his best friend.

How do I know the story of Will and Pete? On November 9, 2018, I had the honour and privilege to be invited by teacher John Pierce to attend the Remembrance Day Ceremony at Opeongo High School.

John Pierce, a long-time history teacher at Opeongo, set the tone for the assembly recognizing all of the sacrifices that have been made in the many wars and highlighting that this was the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. To help connect the audience to Remembrance Day, Pierce wove a narrative focused on two young Ottawa Valley farm boys, Will Drynan and Pete O’Gorman who fought in some the most pivotal and costly battles of the “Great War.” I am certain Mr. Pierce wanted the story of Will and Pete to resonate with the audience; listening to him speak, it was clear that Pierce himself struggled to recount the tale.

We often hear the reasons that young men and women went to serve in the wars. Noble reasons: For King and Country! To fight tyranny and oppression! For Freedom! For the love of their country! I expect that those are the reasons for many that went, but I often wonder if many served for other reasons: for adventure, a sense of duty, or just to earn a living to help support their family. I do not know why Pete went to war, but I do know that when he returned, he clearly valued public education.

I believe that the sacrifices that Will, Pete and others made helped shape Canada to be the incredible country it is today. Part of what makes this such a great country is our public education system and its educational professionals. It is the embodiment of what makes a great society, and public education helps keep tyranny at bay. Educational professionals, like John Pierce, who are committed to creating authentic learning opportunities, in a safe learning environment, are ensuring our country remains a world leader. We continue to need an education system that is free for all, where all are welcome and can feel safe and supported, an education system that ranks amongst the top countries in the world and prepares students for their futures, an education system that helps us to remember.

John Pierce shared a story at that assembly; I have shared it with you. How will you pass this torch so incredibly purchased by the selfless valour of Will and Pete?

About Jeff Barber
Jeff Barber is the Director of Pension and Economic Affairs at the Ontario Teachers’ Federation.

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