Elora cenotaph unveiled for Remembrance Day in 1929

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

It was a dull, overcast afternoon on Sunday, Nov. 10, 1929, when local residents and visitors gathered in front of Elora’s old town hall for a solemn and dignified ceremony dedicating the village’s war memorial.

The observance culminated almost a year of volunteer effort. The monument displayed the names of 20 men killed overseas between 1915 and 1918. Few in the village were untouched by the death of a relative or close friend in the war.

Eleven years had elapsed from the end of the war until the dedication of the war memorial. The war had affected Elora profoundly, but initially there was no consensus on how or even whether it should be commemorated in a public way.

Military monuments had been erected before, but these were normally at battle sites or for a war, not for particular individuals. This attitude changed after the First World War. Elora’s monument was one of hundreds put up during the 1920s, all bearing the names of those from the local community who died overseas.

The First World War had been a wrenching experience for Canada, and for small towns like Elora. The war claimed the lives of 60,000 Canadians. Many more brought back physical and psychological injuries. These numbers are more striking because Canada’s population was less than a third of what it is now.

For the first few years after the war, a piece of captured German artillery served as a monument to the war. Most of the attention was given to living war veterans. Many had returned disillusioned and despondent.

A few were resentful that others had taken all the good jobs during the war, and had become well off at their expense. Post-war inflation and a business depression aggravated the unsettled economy. Integration of returned soldiers back into the routine of work preoccupied towns such as Elora and Fergus.

One of the first community efforts was to establish some sort of social or drop-in centre. Several Elora residents thought that the basement of Chalmers Church, which the village owned, would be the ideal location. This would be a place for local veterans to gather, play cards and drink coffee. This suggestion was in part an effort to undermine the business of local bootleggers by providing an alternative meeting place.

As it turned out, the majority of Elora’s veterans reintegrated quickly into their former lives and roles. Indeed, many of them wanted no part of a servicemen’s drop-in centre. They wanted to put the horrors of the war behind them, and get on with their lives.

The drop-in centre concept was revived in 1925, after laying dormant for a couple of years. This is when a monument to the dead first was discussed. The initial suggestion was that a plaque bearing the names of the dead be placed on a wall of the old church.

A serious effort for a war memorial did not get under way until the fall of 1928. By this time, cenotaphs and war memorials had been built or were planned in many surrounding towns. The Elora War Veterans Association took the leading role in the proposal. A delegation of Jim Quinn, Gord Duncan and Fred Magnus took the idea to council and asked for a $2,500 debenture issue to pay for the project.

Opposition to a war memorial recognizing individual deceased soldiers had largely dissipated by 1928, although there were still a few who were uncomfortable about the proposal. They believed that such monuments were undignified, and that grief should be a private matter for relatives and friends. No one, though, was prepared to speak against the idea, and the debenture issue sailed through a public meeting and council without a dissenting word.

The Elora War Memorial Committee got down to work early in 1929, under the leadership of grocer E.C. Grimes, who had been a captain in the army. The first item to be decided was the site. The committee canvassed public opinion, and a location in front of the town hall was favoured by over 70% of residents.

The committee considered design proposals during April and May 1929. Initially there were five designs, but, by June, the list had been shortened to two: Killington Bros. at $3,460; and the Hunter Granite Works at $3,200.

Both the committee and a ratepayers’ meeting favoured the Hunter proposal. Their design was the work of Capt. George Hunter, of Simcoe. His plan called for a column about 16 feet high, on a base 9 feet by 10 feet, all made of granite from southern Quebec. After some minor changes, his plan was adopted.

Hunter’s design included the names of the Elora men who died, and the major battles in which they took part. The engraving included symbolic elements as well: two Crusaders’ swords, symbolizing the fight for a just cause; a cross, symbolizing the sacrifice of those who died; and a wreath of maple leaves, to identify the men with the Dominion of Canada.

The cost exceeded the amount of the debenture money provided by the village. The balance was raised by various means. The Rebekah Lodge held a tag day, but most of the money came from donations. There were a few large anonymous donations, but most came in the form of $1 and $2 amounts. A special appeal went out to those who would not contribute through their taxes, and to Elora oldtimers who had moved away.

In August and September, the committee worked to put together a list of the men who should be inscribed on the memorial. When the Sept. 27 deadline arrived they had 20 names: Charles Card, Dan Card, Bob Carter, Keith Clark, Dick Clarke, Lew Clegg, Bill Cuthbert, Garfield Cutting, Stan Dickinson, Jim Fisher, Harry Halls, Harry Harpin, John Kerr, Fred MacDonald, John MacDonald, Archie Miller, Ed Morfee, Jim Moynihan, Charlie McGowan, Gord Mclntosh, Harold Riley and Alf Vincent.

Work on the monument continued until the end of October. At the same time, the committee scrambled to collect the balance of the money needed. They wanted it to be debt-free for the unveiling. Remembrance Day (most people at the time called it Armistice Day) fell on a Monday in 1929, so the War Memorial Committee decided to advance the ceremony one day to Sunday afternoon so that more people could attend.

A temporary platform, draped with Union Jacks, was put up in front of the town hall for the dignitaries. The front of the town hall was covered with red, white, and blue bunting. Smaller flags were strung on lines in front of the building, and the monument itself was covered with a large Union Jack.

The parade assembled in what is now O’Brien Park, at the rear of the liquor store. The Mount Forest brass band led, followed by village dignitaries, active militia men, war veterans and the schools. The Wellington Rifles provided the honour guard, under the command of Capt. J.K. MacDonald of Elora.

After the Mount Forest band led the singing of O Canada, reeve Udney Richardson presided over the ceremony, setting the tone of dignity and solemnity for the afternoon. There were brief speeches by MP Hugh Guthrie and MLA Lincoln Goldie. Elora’s religious leadership was represented by Father Sullivan, Rev. Henry Dickie, Rev. E.A. Thompson and Rev. T.N. Lowe. There were also several military representatives. All spoke briefly.

Margaret Fisher, the first Elora mother to lose a son, performed the unveiling. Families of the deceased then placed wreaths in front of the monument.

Proponents of the monument had argued that it not only honoured the dead, but made the lessons of the war part of everyday experience for the village. It thus became a symbol for both peace and military preparedness. Hugh Guthrie picked up this theme in his remarks, hoping the monument would last forever as a monument “of what had been done in the Great War by the men of Elora.”

Guthrie concluded by saying, “Nations are striving in the direction of peace, and if the League of Nations can accomplish world peace it will usher in the greatest day since Christ was born in Bethlehem.

“But till that day comes we must see to it that we are prepared for whatever comes.”

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Nov. 8, 1994.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015