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A genteel confinement


Captain John Ernest McLurg gazes at the camera with piercing eyes. He is in his uniform, complete with shirt and tie. The jacket is tight around his middle. There is a gold band on his left ring finger. It has been a long time since he has seen his Annie.

Between his eyebrows, there is a faint mark from the day he should have died - April 24, 1915, during the second battle of Ypres. A bullet grazed his forehead, but deflected off the metal badge on his cap, saving his life.

However, the wounded 40-year-old Canadian was captured by German troops and later transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp in Heidelberg. During his year there, Capt. McLurg kept a memory book, collecting page after page of photographs, drawings and inscriptions from his fellow captives.

The remarkable book, made of brown canvas with ties on the side, is testament to the more genteel customs of the Great War, a time when officers like Capt. McLurg were treated as gentlemen and housed in PoW camps that, at least in Heidelberg, were more comfortable than the trenches.

The photos, many of which are professional portraits, show apparently well-fed officers engaging in a life of leisure. Two are of the camp's tennis courts, in which men dressed in white clutch wooden rackets as others relax in lawn chairs. Another shows soldiers sitting around a table in a room whose walls are decorated with maps, sketches and pictures of women. There's the cafeteria, with white plates set on the tables, and an apparent tuck shop, complete with games, leather boots and suitcases.

The drawings and cartoons are elaborate and colourful, the result, one imagines, of efforts to fill endless hours. A French soldier paints a watercolour of birch trees. Someone else sketches a detailed horse's head. Others draw a cartoon of a black man entitled "Baboo BungaBing" and what appears to be a likeness of Capt. McLurg, who was in the Second Battalion, First Division of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

A Russian lieutenant writes out the music and lyrics, in Russian, to The Tracker's Song and another soldier pencils in Alfred Lord Tennyson's Hands All Round, with a note at the bottom saying, "Ernie, don't forget." Indeed, while many of the entries have a playful tone, the reality of captivity runs deep. A cartoon entitled "Rules for Kriegsgefangene!" (prisoners of war) notes they are forbidden "to get up later than 9 a.m.," "to be seen uncovered below the waist," "to have civilian clothes in their possession" and, of course, "to escape." There are photos of the facility: stately buildings surrounded by a high brick fence.

In the late summer of 1916, Capt. McLurg was paroled to Switzerland, where he spent more than a year in relative freedom with his wife, Annie, who bore their first child. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. In early 1918, the McLurgs returned to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., the book in tow. Lt. McLurg later received a medical discharge because of his sciatica.

For most of the next eight decades, Lt. McLurg's memory book was kept safe in the recesses of his drop-front desk, travelling around the country in the process. In 1919, it went to Nova Scotia, where Lt. McLurg was an executive in the shipping and steel industries and then, in 1926, to Montreal, where he was president of a paint company.

When he died in 1948, it was passed on to his daughter, but still kept in the desk. His grandson, John McGee, remembers being shown it as a child, but in those days he was far more interested in his grandfather's swords. While the family knew the book was special, they were far more reverential of his cap badge, the piece of twisted metal that saved his life.

The memory book seemed to gain importance for Mr. McGee when he brought it to his high-school Canadian history class in Ottawa. His teacher, a Second World War veteran, was awestruck.

"He just went berserk over this. He just went wild over the book," Mr. McGee recalled. "It probably got me through [the class]."

According to historian Jack Granatstein, the document is unusual, because it is the work of "a prisoner who was able to record what he saw in a way that really speaks to us."

Eventually, the book and the desk in which it spent so many years were given to Mr. McGee, a lawyer who now lives in Edmonton. While it paints a fascinating picture of the time his grandfather spent as a war prisoner, most of the rest of his life is a mystery to Mr. McGee, who was just 3 when his namesake died.

His questions may remain forever unanswered; his parents died in the 1970s, before he became interested in his family history. "Certainly it's unfortunate that I don't know more. I wish I did," he said.

But perhaps the memory book's most important legacy is that the attention it is now receiving has piqued the interest of his two adult children. "All of the sudden, this book has become quite special to them and they're more interested in what happened, the history, and maybe will become more interested in Canadian history in general," he said.

"And maybe the same thing will happen with others. That to me is the exciting thing about this book."

Jill Mahoney is a Globe and Mail reporter in Edmonton.

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