Finding Great-Uncle Dave

Ottawa, ON - November 9, 2017

On Remembrance Day we stop to remember the men and women who sacrificed so much in service of this great country.  For many of us it is quite personal for it is our families and friends who have served.  For some it is more abstract as the service and sacrifice has been dimmed by the passage of time.

World War One happened a long time ago. One hundred years ago, in fact. It’s difficult for us in 2017 to conjure up in what it must have been like to live in the trench labyrinth of the frontline, to survive the gas attacks at Ypres, to battle up to the top of Vimy Ridge or to fight in the muds of Passchendaele.  But out of hardship came victories and a Canadian resilience that has stood the test of time.

Most left Canada for the Great War’s battlefields in their teens and early twenties, often with little training, but a great sense of duty and a deep yearning for adventure. Out of a population of 8 million, 650,000 men and women from Canada and Newfoundland served, 66,000 gave their lives and more than 172,000 were wounded. Many more returned home broken in mind and body. 

A century makes it difficult for us today to connect with family members of the generation who fought in World War One, until recently.  Let me tell you how can get a very personal glimpse into the lives of those who served in that conflict.

A member of my OVO team told me about how she used to stare intently at her Great-Uncle Dave’s portrait and wonder what his days were like in the trenches of Europe with the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force, 100 years ago. He was a handsome man, all dressed up in his uniform with a twinkle in his eye. His early life was full of engaging details from family members. He was an Irish farmer and lumberjack in Quebec and a bridge carpenter in Victoria, BC until the call of war. But after enlisting he became one-dimensional. Other than his March 18, 1915 enlistment paper, the trail was dry. Nothing was known of his life as a soldier until he died on November 3, 1916 and years later his name appeared in the Book of Remembrance.

But recently, while working on family genealogy, she revisited the Library and Archives Canada’s Personnel Records of the First World War and was more than pleasantly surprised to find not just Grand-Uncle Dave’s enlistment paper, but his complete military service records in a downloadable format.  She discovered that all of the Canadian Expeditionary Force service files are being digitized, and a substantial number are already done with new files added every two weeks. This massive undertaking is to be completed by the end of 2018, and until then a progress report is published every month.

That along with information gleaned from the War Diaries of the First World War made Great-Uncle Dave come alive to her. He was no longer a one-dimensional figure in her mind, he took shape and became defined as she journeyed with him from his 1915 enlistment onwards. There were good days and amusing incidents in hindsight, like the time he got fined $2.00 for being drunk the night before shipping out to France. But there were also terrible days with many killed and injured. Above all, she told me that there was a determination and comradery that shines through the written record right up to that fateful day in 1916 when he was serving in a front line trench, took a bullet in the head and died instantly.

 I looked at those records and it is very sobering to see in a clerk’s neat hand writing “shot in head, killed in action”.  How many times did that clerk write “killed in action”?  How many families received the letters that followed?  How many lives changed because of that sacrifice? How many lives are being changed because of the sacrifices being made today?

Let this Remembrance Day be the beginning of your journey to connect the strands of history in your life. The resources are there waiting for you. If you don’t have a serving member in your family, adopt one. You will learn much about what makes this country great by journeying with them.

Lest we forget.

Guy Parent

Veterans Ombudsman


Debi Davis said:

I am looking for my fathers' information . He was SGT James Cosgrove. I am looking for my fathers's Place of birth  Please Help.

January 1, 2018 4:58 PM

Office of the Veterans Ombudsman replied:

Hi Debi,

We don't have access to that information; however, you might find what you're looking for by visiting Libraries and Archives Canada

Best of luck to you!

January 3, 2018 12:21 PM

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