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The Museum Of The Attic: Presenting The Winners Of Legion Magazine’s Historymakers’ Contest


Canada’s history is alive. All across the country—in living room corners, in the attic and spare bedrooms—there are artifacts from this country’s long and sometimes tough history.


This history lives in family stories and it lives in the keepsakes and mementos large and small that are kept—sometimes proudly in the open, sometimes hidden away—in virtually every Canadian household. “The museum of the attic,” is what Andrew Burtch, the Canadian War Museum’s acting director of Research, Exhibition and Interpretation, eloquently calls it.

Legion Magazine’s Historymakers’ Contest, which ran from late 2013 to early 2014, was our attempt to bring some of these treasures out into the open. Our judges had a tough time selecting three winners from more than 60 qualifying submissions received from across the country. With these winners you’ll glimpse almost the full range of Canada’s military past, from the War of 1812 through the Boer War and First World War up until the fight against the Nazis in the Second World War.

However, the winners represent just the tip of the historical iceberg. Our contest attracted everything from a dented bugle that may well have been present at the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War (was it blown to signal the charge?) to an album of rare original photos documenting the exploits of the Rocky Mountain Rangers at Sitka during the Second World War.

To determine our top three entries of “historical significance,” Legion Magazine turned to the best in the business—the experts at the Canadian War Museum.

The war museum’s specialists are well-accustomed to telling stories via historical artifacts, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the winners all reveal something interesting about Canada’s history. “Beyond the artifacts themselves, what adds to their significance in terms of their history is the stories,” said Eric Fernberg, Historymakers’ judge and collections manager at the museum. “These three stories are unique. And when you start to combine the story with the artifact then, for us, those are the winners.”

Chris Graham with a photograph of his grandfather Charles Heathcote Graham and some of his artifacts. [PHOTO: WAYNE SIMPSON PHOTOGRAPHY]

Chris Graham with a photograph of his grandfather Charles Heathcote Graham and some of his artifacts.

First Place, $1,500: The Artifacts of Charles Heathcote Graham

Submitted by grandson Chris Graham

“He was one of the youngest, if not the youngest, Canadian to serve in the Boer War as a bugler with the Lord Strathcona Horse.”


Charles Heathcote Graham is a Canadian veteran with an exceptionally unusual story. Graham first went overseas with the Lord Strathcona’s Horse as a 14-year-old bugler to serve in South Africa during the Boer War. He then returned overseas for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902 and, again, to fight in the First World War as a lieutenant with the 24th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery.

Just as astounding as Heathcote’s record of service is the series of artifacts he collected during that service. From a Mauser rifle taken off the enemy during the Boer War to pictures from the coronation to a multitude of significant First World War souvenirs, the artifacts, as pictured, are impressive. “The young fellow going off as a musician to South Africa, bringing back as a souvenir a Boer rifle, but still taking part in the service, the coronation, but then continuing to serve in the First World War because he was young enough. This is a nice submission,” said Fernberg.

A story is nothing without artifacts and artifacts are nothing without a story. This was a comprehensive submission; which is why the judges chose it for victory. “It speaks so much historically,” added Fernberg, “the length of service, the continued commitment to Canada as a citizen soldier.”

Chris Graham, a retired teacher from Owen Sound, Ont., submitted the artifacts. He was only eight years old when his grandfather died, but he can remember sitting on his knee listening to him singing war ditties. ‘Come to the cookhouse door, boys, come to the cookhouse door.’

“I can remember him telling my dad stories about the Boer war,” said Graham. “When the cannonballs flew in it would be nothing to see someone lose a leg or a head as the cannonballs tore through the area.”

All the artifacts were on display in Graham’s grandfather’s home before they were moved to his father’s home. Notably, his father also served in South Africa, but during the Second World War. For the past decade, the artifacts have been on display in Graham’s house.

“He framed everything and his name was on everything,” said Graham. “One of the big concerns during World War I was that you’d get blown away and they’d only find parts of you. So he had his name on everything. Charles Heathcote Graham.

“He probably suffered from PTSD,” added Graham of his grandfather. “One of the ways the veterans back then handled the stress was through drink. He was a heavy drinker and he would disappear for days at a time from Goderich [Ontario]. And he was a gambler. I know at one point he lost a cottage he owned on the Rideau Canal.”

Heathcote Graham was an architect and a draftsman when he came home, and despite being a devoted collector and organizer of artifacts—Graham said the collection includes German belt buckles from the First World War that still have blood on them—he didn’t talk much about the war or his service. “That was all just a distant memory that he kept to himself.”

“This does leap out,” explained the war museum’s Andrew Burtch. “There is a clear argument for putting this in first place: the breadth of material that’s available, the level of documentation, the connection not only with the individual but his hometown, the material from his service in different theatres, the pictures, the artifacts. This is comprehensive.”

Second World War veteran  Charles Roberts and the flag that saved his life. [PHOTO: HELEN TRACZYNSKI PHOTOGRAPHY]

Second World War veteran Charles Roberts and the flag that saved his life.

Second Place, $1,000: Nazi Flag from Stalag 8b

Submitted by Charles Roberts

“Nearly seventy years later, I still have the flag. To me, the flag is not a trophy of the war or spoils of war, but rather a reminder of the many good souls who did not survive the march of 1945.”


“This is a story of someone who went through hell,” said Burtch after reading the submission from Charles Roberts, a Canadian Second World War veteran who was shot down, taken prisoner and then used a stolen Nazi flag to survive a death march across Europe in winter.

“It was the 21st day of January in 1945, and we had orders that all prisoners would be moved to Berlin to form a human wall against the Americans and Russians,” Roberts, now 93, told me on the phone from his home in London, Ont. “It was quite an exciting thing because some of the prisoners had been there from the beginning.”

This was the beginning of the infamous death march, when tens of thousands of Allied prisoners were forced to walk toward Berlin in winter, given little food and less shelter.

Little did Roberts realize at the time that his actions—while the prisoners were getting ready to leave the camp—would save his life. “There was a German guard taking down the camp flag and he was having a hard time,” he recalled. “I smiled at him and asked ‘could I help you?’ He was pretty flustered, so he told me to take the flag over to the truck. So I walk off with the flag and just shoved it in my jacket. I walked out to the road with the rest of the people and never looked back.”

The flag that helped keep Roberts warm that winter was no small piece; it measures 2.5 metres wide and 1.5 metres high and is made of heavy material. “It was pretty cold,” he said. “It was January and we had quite a march from Poland across to Berlin. It was about April by the time we arrived. We lost a lot of people. A lot of them didn’t make it. We just had old clothes, whatever we could gather up. They were pretty cold, walking 25 or 30 kilometres a day, all wet, and then dumped in a barn somewhere. Just a matter of one foot against the other. It was pretty hectic as we moved along. A lot of them got tired out. The Germans wanted you to move and they weren’t taking no for an answer.”

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the number of marchers who didn’t make it is very high, staggering.

“It was nothing too exciting at the time. We spent most of our time upsetting the German guards; had to do something in the spare time you see. It was quite amusing to think the fella just handed the flag to me and I got away with it.”

For the judges, the flag was significant, but Roberts’ story of survival is what sealed his victory.

“A lot of times we get offered flags and we can’t go with them because the stories are so vague, the provenance is limited. But this, with an eyewitness and personal account, using it as a garment to protect himself against the weather, the symbolism is quite good,” said Fernberg. “He’s a tough fella.”

“It works on a number of levels. It’s got the personal connection, taking it for survival, but it’s a small act of rebellion, a small victory where victories are a little harder to come by. And that he’s still alive?” said Burtch, slightly shaking his head. “I’d like for the Legion to buy him dinner.”

As for coming second in the Legion Magazine contest and getting that free dinner? “Exciting,” said Roberts. “The most exciting thing that’s happened to me, except getting married.”

Timothy Popp with Clark’s medal. [PHOTO: WARNE PHOTOGRAPHY]

Timothy Popp with Clark’s medal.


Third Place, $500: The Medal of a Canadian Scout in the War of 1812

Submitted by Timothy Popp

“Alexander Clark was a scout interpreter between the First Nations and the British troops. He was very young at the time, barely 13 years old and was a member of the Wyandot Tribe.”


This British Military General Service medal was given to Alexander Clark, a scout interpreter in the War of 1812 who was working as a liaison between troops and First Nations’ warriors.

Clark grew up as a First Nations’ person, with the Wyandot tribe, though his father was white. He began serving as an interpreter between British troops and First Nations fighters when he was just 13 years old.

“There’s a heck of a difference between a fellow identified as a scout on his medal versus someone who was in the 49th Regiment of Foot. This is given to Canadian militia, and it is given to a scout. That makes it even rarer. That makes it even more special,” said Fernberg.

Clark was involved in many of the largest, most significant battles during the war, including the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. He was also at Fort Detroit with Isaac Brock and Chiefs Tecumseh and Split Log.

“This transcends both worlds—it’s British military operations and first peoples. It speaks to the partnerships. And of course we’re in the 200th anniversary circuit of the war,” added Fernberg.

“One interesting thing about this medal is that the head is upside down,” said submitter Timothy Popp of Battleford, Sask. “The medal was placed in a vice to engrave it and he had it upside down, just wasn’t paying attention.”

Clark was born in 1800 and died in 1876. The medal was awarded in 1865 after Clark wrote a letter seeking compensation for his part in the war.

Popp found a copy of the letter in the Canadian archives. “Dear Sir.,” it read, “I, Alex Clark, Wyandot Indian chief, do hereby make application for any gratuity or other help the Dominion can give to Indian survivors of the war of 1812.”

Records indicate that Clark was given $20. After his death in 1876, Clark was buried in a First Nations’ cemetery in Essex County, Ont.

“That’s a nice medal,” said Fernberg. “This young fellow would have been working alongside Caldwell’s rangers. It’s a neat story.”

While certainly a rare medal, one drawback for the judges was the lack of family history or provenance. “This young fellow is fascinating, but his story isn’t as clear. It’s a great story and I don’t doubt anything in this, but there’s no family connection,” said Fernberg.

Despite this, the uniqueness of the medal and the story it tells about Canada’s early history was too important to overlook.



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