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A look at some of the names on Elora, Fergus cenotaphs

Engraved names represent people whose hopes and dreams cut short by war

On Remembrance Day, people in Elora and Fergus, like Canadians across the country, gather in front of their community’s cenotaph to honour those who gave their lives in war.

A cenotaph is not a grave marker. The word is Greek for empty tomb. It bears only the names of the dead. Their remains lie in foreign lands and in the sea. Some have no known graves.

When we look at the names on a cenotaph, and think of the words immortalized by Rudyard Kipling, “Lest we forget,” we must especially not forget that every one of those names represents a real person who lived in our community, who had hopes and dreams, and who, to paraphrase Guelph poet John McCrae, loved and was loved; only to have it all cut short by war.

The following are just a few of the people who made the supreme sacrifice whose names are on the Elora and Fergus cenotaphs:

Island Bellwood Fish, the son of Sarah and Edwin Fish, was born in Orangeville in 1891 and grew up in Fergus. By the time the First World War broke out, he had moved to Saskatchewan where he farmed. Fish enlisted in Saskatoon on Oct. 2 , 1915.

He sailed from Halifax aboard the Empress of Britain as a private in the Saskatchewan Regiment of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) on March
27, 1916. He wasn’t in the trenches of the Western Front for long. On Oct. 10, 1916, his family in Fergus received a telegram informing them that Island had been killed in action on Sept. 15.

Robert G. Carter was nicknamed “Nick Carter” after the tough detective of popular fiction. He was born in 1883 to Alexander and Jane Carter of Elora. “Nick” was a clerk by trade and did three years of militia service with the Wellington Rifles. He was best known as a star lacrosse player who played on
teams in Elora, Toronto, Vancouver and New Westminster.

Carter was thirty-one when the First World War began, much older than most of the boys who volunteered for the CEF. Nonetheless, he was among the first to enlist. He never made it to France. England’s Salisbury Plain, where the Canadians were camped in poor accommodations during a cold, wet winter, was a breeding ground for disease. Carter died from spinal meningitis on March 26, 1915, and was buried in a local churchyard.

Rex Thurston Perry of Fergus was born in 1889. He served in the Wellington Rifles and was employed as a machinist at the Bissell Company factory in Elora when he volunteered for the CEF in October of 1915. It was his third attempt at enlisting. He’d been turned down twice for a medical reason and was accepted only after having surgery. He’d told a friend, “I will get to the front if I have to walk there.”

In mid-December, 1916, Rex’s father, Peter Perry, principal of the Fergus High School, received a letter from Rex’s commanding officer telling him that his son, “as gallant a man as Canada has produced,” was killed in action on Nov. 18. “He was dressing a wounded man and got shot by a sniper.”

On the same day Rex Perry died, Frank Keith Clark of Elora was killed in action. Frank was born in 1897. He attended the Elora High School and was an officer in the Cadet Corps. He was employed as a clerk.

Frank enlisted as soon as he was of age. He was described as a “keen, intelligent and brave soldier, always anxious to be on duty.” Frank was slightly wounded on the lip by shrapnel in the autumn of 1916, but soon returned to the front lines.

After his death, his parents received a letter from Captain G.G. Moffatt, the same officer who wrote to Rex Perry’s family. “(Frank’s) death occurred during an advance and taking of some German trenches, during which your son conducted himself in a very gallant manner.”

During the Second World War, Canada was a training ground for the bomber and fighter pilots and other air crew who were essential to the Allied war effort. However, the casualty rate among airmen in the skies over Britain and Nazi-occupied territory was high, and there was an urgent need to replace the losses.

Therefore, training for airmen was rushed, resulting in numerous accidents, many of them fatal.

Gordon Charles Bricker was born in Saskatchewan in 1923, but grew up in Elora where he attended the Elora High School. When war broke out, he joined the RCAF. He became an air navigator in a bomber, with the rank of Leading Aircraftman (LAC).

In January of 1943, Bricker – not yet 20 years old – was killed along with three other crewmen when their plane crashed in the Ontario countryside during a training exercise. The Elora Express reported that the news “has cast a gloom over the whole town.”

Russell Boyd Beirnes of Elora was born in 1920, one of six children of Hazel and Norman Beirnes. He attended the Elora High School and was an employee of Mundell’s Furniture Company when the war started. Beirnes enlisted in the army in 1939 and was sent overseas with the Queen’s Own Regiment in 1942.

He was with the Canadians at Juno Beach on D Day. Nineteen days later he was wounded in the hip. He wrote to his mother that he was anxious to return to action so he could “lick the hell out of Hitler for what he gave me.” Russell got back into the fight, and on July 18 he was killed in action.

Cyril Alvin Campbell of Fergus was born in 1921. He worked in construction, and when he enlisted in the army he became a “sapper” (today called a combat engineer) in the Royal Canadian Engineers. On Aug. 8, 1944, Cyril was driving a bulldozer as part of a crew repairing a road in France so it could be used for the transportation of troops and supplies. He was killed when his crew was attacked by enemy bombers.

These are just a few of the stories behind the names on Fergus and Elora’s empty tombs. They can all be found at the website of the Wellington County Museum and Archives.