The early years of the Chatham cenotaph

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The Chatham cenotaph, circa 1925 (Contributed image).
The Chatham cenotaph, circa 1925 (Contributed image).

By Jerry Hind, Special to The Voice

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three part series on the history of the Chatham cenotaph.

There has been much written in the local press since Mayor Randy Hope suggested at a C-K council meeting on 8 June, 2015 that the cenotaph on 6th Street should be moved to the Veteran’s Tribute Garden on the north side of the Thames river between 3rd and 5th street bridges.

Perhaps a better understanding of why the “Soldiers Memorial”, as it was first known, is still important to many as a tribute to the 697 men and women who gave their lives in the conflicts of the 20th and 21st century’s.

The commemoration of the Great War 1914-18 was not what we have come to expect today. The modern world had never seen such a conflict that consumed empires and soldiers, sailors, and airmen, not to mention civil populations caught between enemy forces. Canada alone had some 600,000 men and women in uniform serving overseas, with 62,000 fatalities. Of the 3,698 enlistments from C-K 356 became fatalities.

When the survivors of the 1st Great War returned they received a sincere welcome home. For those who had served there was a need to get back to a civilian life at the same time a strong poll to remember those friend and comrades that would never return.

The politicians thought of setting aside 19 July as a commemoration of signing of the Paris Peace Treaty. They did not see the importance of 11 November, “Armistice Day”, when the killing stopped, so it was that 19 July 1919 became Peace Day, observed in England and the Commonwealth. However that day in 1920 England turned out to be a day of riots by ex-servicemen who had not yet received their back pay and allowances. In 1921 the veterans in Chatham & Kent continued to meet at the mausoleum at Maple Leaf cemetery for their service of remembrance.

About the same time in Chatham, “an insignificant few” citizens had already begun planning for a “Soldiers Memorial” to be a fitting remembrance to those who fought in “the war to end all wars”. J. D. Ellwood had suggested that, “some sort of memorial to the city and county boys” be erected in Chatham. There was also a movement to acquire some German war memorabilia, which happened in 1925.

The 24th Kent Regiment Chapter of the I.O.D.E. met in the Armory on 6 October, 1922, to pledge $1,000 for a “Memorial Monument”. By 5 February, 1923 a motion for a debenture of $15,000 was put before the City Council which led to By-law 1866 dated 23 Feb. 1923. A subsequent vote of the rate-payers 2 April failed to pass 706 to 847. On the very next evening at First Presbyterian Church in Chatham and that evening $4,503 dollars were raised with the object of raising the whole amount requested in the defeated debenture. “The memorial fund will be representative of the entire county and not confined to Chatham alone.”

By 28 June A. Skirving, secretary of the War Memorial Committee announced that the contract had been let and material was ordered and notice had been sent to the council to “carry out its part regarding the completion of the 14 x14x8 foot deep foundation.” McIntosh Granite Co. would supply the stone and F. G. Tickle & Sons the figure. The City of Chatham would give the land at the north-end of 6th Street for the purpose of a “Memorial Square” to the War memorial Committee. The whole structure when completed would cost $15,000 and weigh 190 tons. Excavation began on the 9th of October, 1923 with C. H. Colby the contractor to move the materials for the monument.

The memorial was completed on 8 November, just in time for the unveiling by Lieut.- Gov. Harry Cockshutt. The center of ‘Memorial Square’ was reserved for the Lieut.-Governor and his official party, a soldiers firing party and the mothers and widows of the fallen. The left side was reserved for the military units and the Salvation Army Band and a “specially erected platform” for 500 school children’s choir. The public were afforded the area along King Street and across McGregor’s Creek.

This would be the beginning of a tradition of gathering on 11 November, “Armistice Day” later referred to as Remembrance Day. In 1923 many in the crowd were moved to tears. After the carnage of the Great War no one could contemplate a repeat just sixteen years later with the start of WWII.

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