McGill remembers its war vets

by Patrick Lejtenyi, BA'97
(Photo: McGill University Archives)

Of the 5,000-plus McGill students and staff who served in the Second World War, fewer than 100 are alive today. McGill Remembers is trying to ensure that, though mostly gone, those who served in the armed forces during the great conflicts of the 20th century aren’t forgotten.

The project was started in 2005, Canada’s Year of the Veteran, by Christopher Milligan, a now-retired education professor, and Wes Cross, who works in the Dean of Students Office. Disappointed by the University’s lack of any official commemoration of McGill vets that year, the pair took it upon themselves to come up with ways of honouring them. An obvious and seemingly straightforward idea was a website. What they hadn’t planned on was the enormous wealth of information that would eventually come to light.

“When we looked into the McGill Archives, we hit the bonanza,” says Cross. The bonanza was what he estimates as at least 30 boxes containing the files of over 5,500 members of the McGill community in uniform during the war, including newspaper clippings, letters and photographs, collected by the McGill University War Records Office, headed by then-McGill News editor Robert Fetherstonhaugh. Each serviceman and woman was represented by a handwritten index card attached to a file. Those who had died—298 of them—had their date, manner and location of their deaths written in red.

That McGill had the records is not unusual. Cross says it was standard practice for big institutions across the British Empire at the time to keep records of associated individuals during war time. But when Fetherstonhaugh died in 1947, “everything collapsed, it was hermetically sealed. People didn’t know it existed.”

The sea change in the political atmosphere of the following decades didn’t help. As the war receded in memory, interest in it receded as well. But as the ranks of veterans grow ever thinner, the accomplishments and hardships—and the everyday stories—of the war generation are the objects of renewed appraisal, Cross believes. He says he hopes that McGill Remembers will “inspire, or embarrass, other universities across the country to do something similar.”

The project’s ultimate goal, says Cross, is to add every name and their digitized records to the site. “There are over 5,000 stories, and all of them are interesting. Some of them are unbelievably interesting.” The revamped site was launched just prior to this year’s Remembrance Day ceremonies.

The project, done in collaboration with McGill Archives, has received funding from former Royal Bank CEO John Cleghorn, BCom’62, LLD’04, and his wife Patti Cleghorn, CertEd’62. It also received crucial support from the Principal's Office and the Royal Canadian Legion. The digitization of the McGill war records was largely done by graduate students from McGill’s School of Information Studies.

It has been a long slog to get the McGill Remembers project completed -- and not just because both Cross and Milligan had day jobs. There were also legal and funding issues to sort out, and the sheer volume of data to go through was daunting.

The work won’t end with the Second World War archives, however. The intention is to expand the site to include veterans of Korea, Canadian peacekeeping missions and Afghanistan, as well as those who fought in the First World War, the Boer War and perhaps even the Crimean War. “I thought this would be a one-year project,” Cross says with a laugh. “But it’s taken longer than it did to fight the Second World War.”