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Whistler's Brothers in Arms

From a picturesque ski-town to the frozen Arctic, these young men find purpose and reward in the Canadian Armed Forces

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Belgium

April 22, 2015

A farmer's field, close to an area once known as the 'Ypres Salient.'

It's impossible not to remember.

In the clear cool spring night, thousands of kilometres from home, Frazer McGaw can feel his dark tartan kilt swaying in the breeze. Up above, the Big Dipper patterns the dark sky, giving pause for a moment of solitary reflection. Alone... and yet all around him, McGaw can sense the brotherhood of the Canadian Scottish Regiment, past and present, standing by his side. He is in a farmer's field, a site once pockmarked with deep trenches, just one little corner in the main theatre of war during the First World War.

McGaw is here to mark the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Kitcheners' Wood. Quietness descends.

He hears the calls to attention, ringing out clearly down the line in quick succession.

His commanding officer issues the order and the platoon snaps to. Ready. The bagpipes begin their drone, filling the darkness with their lonesome, aching call.

It many ways, it was just as the Officer's Dispatch had described it 100 years ago — the Big Dipper, the breeze, the Canadian Scottish Regiment standing side by side.

Only this night, there is no enemy in the darkness just beyond; no threat of the unknown yellow gas, a deadly new weapon of war; no virulent fear coursing through their bodies, up and down the line, tamped down by honour and courage and duty.

All that remains at Kitcheners' Wood now is 100-year-old memories. And profound sorrow.

"We stood right on their line of departure," says McGaw of one of the bravest Canadian battles waged in the First World War. "We stood on the ground, 100 years to the minute, of where my regiment charged from during the battle."

It was a defining moment for him, solidifying his decision to enlist.

"I don't plan on ever leaving the military, certainly not the reserves," says McGaw, who joined in 2012. "It means a lot to me to be in the Canadian Scottish."

While numbers in the Canadian Armed Forces continue to drop due to attrition and recruitment obstacles, others are carving out a life path in the forces, even those with the unlikeliest of beginnings, growing up in a carefree ski-resort town on the western edge of Canada.

 

The Army — The Canadian Scottish

McGaw calls it a "happy accident" that the reserves regiment based in Victoria — where he was studying history at the University of Victoria — was the Canadian Scottish. McGaw's father immigrated to Canada from Scotland. It seemed almost fateful for the young man who always wanted to be in the army to find a place with the Scottish.

"I joined the reserves so I could get my foot in the military without committing to a full-time army career," says McGaw.

The Canadian Scottish Regiment is a primary reserve infantry regiment of the Canadian Army.

McGaw joined in 2012.

Since then, the job has taken him to the old battlefields of Europe, to the desolate and unforgiving far north of Canada, and provided the chance to "rub shoulders" with five members of the Royal Family.

During the recent Royal Tour of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge — Will and Kate in Canada — McGaw was in charge of baggage handlers and managing the bags of the 40-person royal entourage in Whitehorse.

"Not too glamourous," he jokes. "But important nonetheless."

Important, too, to travel to Europe last year to mark the 100-year anniversary of some strategic battles during the First World War.

Members of the Canadian Scottish marched down The Mall in London through Canada Gate to the site of the Canadian War Memorial. They were inspected by Princess Alexandra, their Colonel and Chief, and then marched back to Canada House for a reception with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.

McGaw is now a storesman for the Joint Task Force North (JTF North). Canada's North is an area that is becoming increasingly important in the world.

With vast reserves of fossil fuels and minerals such as gold and diamonds, the Arctic is attracting more and more global attention. Add climate change to the mix and the melting icecap means the waters of the Arctic archipelago are more navigable every year with more ships entering.

Consider: In 2003, there were fewer than 1,000 flights on polar routes in Canadian airspace. Less than a decade later, that number had grown to almost 10,000.

According to JTF North website: "The increase in traffic at sea and in the air, and the escalating exploitation of natural resources in the North, boost the risk of sovereignty challenges, environmental problems, accidents giving rise to search-and-rescue requirements, and criminal activity, especially illicit entry of people and goods."

McGaw is in charge of stores — anything you need to live outdoors and survive, and support the military any time it's operating in the Arctic. He has been involved in various operations including Operation NANOOK — a training exercise involving a simulated earthquake and an Arctic security scenario.

He also gets to do things like visit Beechey Island, Nunavut. This is where British explorer Sir John Franklin spent his first winter encamped during his ill-fated search for the Northwest Passage in 1845. A cairn sits on the island, marking the gravesite of members of some of Franklin's crew.

In recent years Franklin's ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, were found at the bottom of the ocean and the search was part of Canada's strategy to assert sovereignty over the Northwest Passage.

 

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) — A Family Affair

When it comes to those missions forever seared in your mind, the truly memorable ones always start out the same way, says Tarrant Vernon-Jarvis.

"The classic search-and-rescue pilot line is that all the stories start out with 'It was a dark and stormy night...'"

Clichéd, he admits, but true enough.

"That's when people get in trouble and no one else can get to them."

From there however, Vernon-Jarvis's stories change, with a cast of revolving characters and circumstances, like two years ago when a 10-year-old girl was missing for 18 hours before she was found by Vernon-Jarvis's crew. That's just part of the job as Captain in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), flying helicopters for 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron. The squadron is a domestic transport and search-and-rescue unit based out of Trenton, Ont., responsible for an area of more than 10 million square kilometres, from the American border to the North Pole. And that means you never know how your day is going to unfold.

"It's always different," says Vernon-Jarvis. "We're shift workers because it's a 24-hour search-and-rescue posture..."

He describes the day-to-day work as being: "Ready for everything."

Perhaps the thing that makes his job even more unique is that Vernon-Jarvis works alongside his younger brother Rhett, 18-months his junior, also a captain in 424 Squadron.

Younger brother Sterling flies out of Edmonton for 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron.

The love of flying for country runs even deeper in the family.

Their grandfather, Eric Vernon-Jarvis, was a fighter pilot in the Second World War, flying Typhoons as a Squadron Leader for the Royal Air Force (RAF) Volunteer Reserve. He was shot down in February 1945.

Their father, Chris Vernon-Jarvis, didn't know much about the circumstances of his dad's death until five years ago, through the Internet.

His dad was shot down on Feb. 3, attacking a train in Germany. Eric Vernon-Jarvis was 27 or 28 at the time.

Who was to know that Victory in Europe (VE Day) would be declared three months later?

"A lot of people died after that," says Chris of those final few months after his dad was shot down and before the war ended.

The flying tradition lives on, however, in Eric Vernon-Jarvis's grandchildren.

"Children hear family history," says Chris Vernon-Jarvis. "I tried not to influence them."

Tarrant Vernon-Jarvis, who graduated from Whistler Secondary School in 2002, was the first to join. The Air Force was never really part of the plan. One day, during his third year studying history at the University of Victoria, he went to the recruitment centre. He joined in 2006 after finishing his degree. Sixteen weeks of basic training in Quebec followed, and then eight months at a language school to learn French. Next came a posting in Moosejaw and then Portage la Prairie.

With the perspective of the past decade, Vernon-Jarvis has this to say about his decision to join the Air Force:

"I think it makes you grow up quickly," he says. "You learn a lot about responsibility — personal responsibility and responsibility for other people."

And then there are the perks of the job — the amazing people he never expected to meet when he joined, the cross-country friendships he has forged along the way.

Before he joined, Vernon-Jarvis had only lived in British Columbia, right on the West Coast. Now he's lived all over the country.

He adds: "It definitely has helped me grow as a person and explore and learn new boundaries and get out in the world."

Remembrance Day means something different now, too, not just the far-off history stories of the First World War's trench warfare, of the Second World War's horrifying concentration camps, and the Korean War's hostilities.

"We just had almost another decade of conflict," says Vernon-Jarvis. "I went to basic training with people who went overseas. They come back with their stories and you hear about that stuff. I think it gets a lot more personal now."

 

The Royal Canadian Navy — Finding Sea Legs

Even members of the Royal Canadian Navy get seasick.

Just ask 24-year-old Luke Brannigan.

"I do get seasick, yes," admits Brannigan with a laugh. "That's one of the big downfalls!"

He's not the only one. And it usually only lasts for a day. Most people, he adds, will build up an immunity to it.

But worse than the seasickness is the land sickness when you come back to shore.

It's all just part and parcel of the job in the Royal Canadian Navy.

Brannigan grew up in Whistler playing soldiers in the forest with his friend McGaw.

His family moved to Florida for a job opportunity when he was 15 years old but Brannigan always set his sights on Canada and he was intent on serving his country.

"It's really just been what I've always wanted to do," he says. "I couldn't see myself doing anything else."

Brannigan joined the army in 2011, heading straight to the Royal Military College in Kingston.

At first he was intent on a career in the army, in particular to command tanks. But an injury prompted him to make the switch to the navy.

"It's a big culture change," says Brannigan, from Victoria where he is now posted, working as a maritime surface and subsurface officer as an Acting Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy.

After training, he will ultimately choose between a life either on frigates or on submarines. He's leaning towards subs.

Canada has four submarines: HMCS Victoria, HMCS Windsor, HMCS Chicoutimi and HMCS Corner Brook.

According to the Fleet Status on the Royal Canadian Navy's website, submarines are: "Part of the unseen force of the nation; they are stealthy, lethal, and persistent, making them ideal for surveillance and intelligence gathering."

That's part of their appeal for Brannigan, who calls them "Canada's tip of the spear."

A life on submarines appeals to him because of their importance to Canada's defence.

"It's a lot like being in a tank," he says. "They're key to battlefield success.

"If something does happen, a submarine becomes very important, very quickly."

Brannigan will be deciding in the coming months as his training continues.

As for the threat of war and getting deployed to a war zone, Brannigan says that's the job he signed up for.

"No one ever wants to go but if I need to, I'll follow my order and do what I need to do."

 

Remembrance Day in Whistler

Whistler's Service of Remembrance will take place at the Whistler Cenotaph on Friday, Nov. 11.

The service begins at 10:45 a.m. with the Veterans Parade and Colour Party marching up Village Gate Boulevard. The Whistler Children's Chorus will perform, in addition to poetry readings. The service will include a helicopter fly-over and two minutes of silence.

All are welcome to attend.

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Remembering: The Battle of Kitcheners' Wood

"The yellow-green poisonous gas cloud had never been seen before. Early on the night of April 22, 1915, the gas cloud drifted over No Man's Land and into the Allied trenches, creating widespread panic. Gas had been used before in war but not this kind of chlorine gas that destroyed the respiratory system within seconds of inhalation. This was the first full-scale deployment of deadly chemical warfare agents during World War I. The Germans targeted about five kilometres of the Allied line, decimating two divisions of French and Algerian colonial troops and leaving a big, gaping hole on the front. The Germans could have pressed on to take their advantage but instead they waited.

The delay allowed the Allies to quickly regroup.

The 1st Canadian Division was called in to fill the gap, in particular two Canadian battalions were positioned at Kitcheners' Wood — the 10th Battalion, CEF of the 2nd Canadian Brigade and the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) of the 3rd Canadian Brigade. Both battalions had over 800 men.

The order to advance came just before midnight with a goal to drive back the German advance. There was no time for reconnaissance; the threat of poison gas hung heavy on the minds; the darkness closed in around them.

And still, the men advanced.

The troops ran into a hedge interlaced with wire as the Germans rained down fire. They pressed on, ultimately routing the enemy who abandoned the wood, allowing them to regain their ground. The Canadians suffered more than 75 per cent casualties in the Battle of Kitcheners' Wood; the two battalions were decimated.

In the end, however, the Germans never made it to the North Sea and the trench warfare on the Western Front continued until 1919 when the German government and the Allies sued for peace.

After the war, the Allied Supreme Commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, called the assault on Kitcheners' Wood by the 10th and 16th Battalions the greatest act of the war.

More than 17 million people died in WWI; 20 million were wounded.

It was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history."

-According to historical accounts, compiled by Alison Taylor

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