The Fort Langley Cenotaph

A century after the end of the First World War, it is difficult to appreciate the magnitude of its impact on the lives of communities like Langley.  The war lasted for slightly over four years, turning the lives of virtually every family upside down.  Over four hundred local men and boys served in uniform, a number equaling about half the adult male population.  Of these, one in ten did not return, the vast majority of them lying buried in the fields of France and Flanders.  Like cities, towns, and villages throughout the British Commonwealth, Langley was quick to honor its fallen: commissioning plaques, renaming streets, constructing community halls, and planting memorial trees.  Perhaps most importantly, two stone war memorials (now generally referred to as cenotaphs), each in the form of a Celtic cross, were erected in the municipally-owned cemeteries in Fort Langley and Murrayville. 

The construction of the two memorials was inspired by the erection of monuments elsewhere, most notably in Britain.  Although we commonly think of 11 November 1918 as the day that the First World War ended, it was not until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919 that the conflict was officially over.  A grand victory parade and peace celebration was held in London a month later.  Following the French example, a temporary cenotaph (the word is Greek in origin and refers to an empty tomb) had been quickly erected as a focal point in the day’s observances.  Thousands of troops from throughout the Commonwealth (including several from Langley) marched past the structure, saluting their fallen comrades as they went.  Unable to visit the overseas graves of their fallen loved ones, Britons swarmed to the cenotaph in the days that followed, laying wreaths and flowers as they remembered the husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons they would never see again.  According to the Times of London, “no feature of the victory march in London made a deeper impression than the Cenotaph”.  Within weeks of its construction, the British cabinet resolved to replace it with a permanent structure. 

Communities throughout the Commonwealth were quick to follow the British example, returned soldiers Archie Payne and Benjamin Marr spearheading the construction of Langley’s first two war monuments.  Such was the community’s enthusiasm for the project that sufficient funds were raised for the two memorials within a week of the campaign being initiated.  Taking the form of a Celtic cross, Langley’s monuments were rushed to completion and unveiled on 12 September 1920, Murrayville’s by a younger brother of deceased airmen Ed and Bill Berry, Fort Langley’s by the two young sons of Private Alfred Trattle, who had been killed in action at Vimy Ridge. 

Led by several of the province’s leading clergy and military men, the ceremonies that day were solemn events.  Members of the 47th Battalion’s band reunited to supply the music.  Residents sang hymns, joined in prayer, and paused to remember the three-dozen young men who had died in uniform and whose names were inscribed on the monuments.  Subsequent services were held annually in the spring on what was commonly known as Memorial Day.  The practice continued until 1931, when federal legislation established 11 November as a day of national remembrance.  Hope remained strong that what had come to be known as the Great War had been the war to end all wars. 

It was not to be.  In September 1939 Canada was at war again.  Over 650 young men and women enlisted from the still sparsely-populated community, not just in the nation’s army and navy, but also in the more recently formed Royal Canadian Air Force.  During the previous war, women had served mainly as nurses.  By 1942, their opportunities in the military had increased, each branch of the service having developed a female branch incorporating activities ranging from drafting and driving to cooking and code-breaking.  Many young women served in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, where they were popularly known as CWACs.  Some enlisted in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service as “Wrens”; others joined the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (CWAAF).  Men too old for active service “did their bit” by enlisting in the Air Raid Precaution (ARP), an organization charged with enforcing the nation’s blackout regulations.  Still others joined the 63rd Company of the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, a unit entrusted with protecting the province in the event of a Japanese invasion. 

By the time the war in Europe ended on 7 May 1945, some forty-one men from Langley had made the supreme sacrifice, their names later being added to the existing war memorials.  Some families had suffered multiple losses; Fort Langley’s Haddens, Walnut Grove’s Davies, and Coghlan’s Houghs mourned the deaths of two sons each, while Milner’s Kimmels lamented the loss of three, none aged more than thirty.  One can only try to imagine the grief these families suffered.  The Kimmels’ sufferings were immense, their sons Richard and Gordon having been killed in Normandy just ten days apart. 

The 1945 Remembrance Day services must have been especially sombre.  Langley residents now gathered to honour the dead of not one, but two world wars.  An “iron curtain” had descended across the very continent that Canadians had fought to make free.  A new “cold war” had already begun.  Seventy-five years later world peace seems as elusive as ever.  Canadians have lost their lives to conflicts in Korea and Afghanistan and while serving as peacekeepers elsewhere.  Langley’s two original war memorials and the more recently built cenotaphs in Aldergrove and the City of Langley thus continue to be the focus of Remembrance Day observances.  Initially held solely to remember the fallen, these services also honour all those who have served in uniform while offering hope that someday war and sacrifice will become relics of the past. 

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