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Man of few words leaves an invaluable archive


As a small boy growing up in Ottawa, Robert Edge saw his English grandfather as a tall, somewhat distant man, who could be a bit brusque. "We were probably a bit afraid of him. He was a fairly imposing figure and he had a bearing about him. He had seen a lot from a young age. You wouldn't have described him as a touchy-feely guy." His view of the First World War could be summed up in a few words: "We went over and people died."

But a richer perspective on Edwin Pye's war experience can be found in the treasure trove of photos, letters, scrapbooks and other memorabilia he left behind. When the fighting ended, Mr. Pye had returned to his adopted Canada and settled in Ottawa, where he worked for the rest of his career as an historian for the Defence Department, and documented the war that had so marked him.

After he passed away in the early 1960s, the collection passed to his widow. In the granny flat at the back of his parents' home, the young Mr. Edge would spend hours sifting through the cardboard boxes full of mementos, and listening to his grandmother tell the stories of her husband's exploits as a soldier with the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

When Mr. Edge moved to London in the 1980s to work as an investment banker for Wood Gundy, his grandmother insisted that he take the archive with him.

Edwin Pye was born in the village of Westerham, in the Kent countryside south of London in 1893. He was proud to recall that it was the birthplace of General James Wolfe. In 1911, at the age of 18, he set off to seek his fortune in Canada, ending up in Moose Jaw, Sask., where he worked for the railway.

When war broke out in 1914, Mr. Pye lost no time in volunteering, like thousands of his countrymen, anxious to defend the empire and find a bit of adventure. "Like a lot of other guys, he heard the call and was one of the first to sign up. ..... They asked for one contingent of about 20,000 men and there was such enthusiasm, they got 40,000," Mr. Edge said.

After basic training at Valcartier, Que., Mr. Pye joined the First Expeditionary Force that sailed on the Prince Edward from Quebec City on Oct. 3, 1914, part of the first flotilla of Canadian soldiers to leave. By early 1915, he was at the battlefront in Flanders and stayed there until war ended in 1918, witnessing the horrors of the first use of poison gas at the second battle of Ypres, and the horrific casualties that resulted among the Canadians, who were totally unprepared for the chemical onslaught.

"My grandfather said they were given a piece of cheesecloth and they were told to use water or to urinate on the cloth and hold it over their noses," Mr. Edge said, pointing to a 1950 issue of The Legionary, the Canadian Legion magazine, where his grandfather retold the story on the battle's 35th anniversary.

The article, one of many Mr. Pye wrote for The Legionary, recounts how officers had been warned by two German deserters of the impending gas attack, but chose not to believe the story. It describes how the Germans turned the Ypres Salient into a laboratory for new weapons, including mustard gas and flamethrowers, for which the Canadians effectively served as guinea pigs.

Yet there is no bitterness - Mr. Edge says he doesn't think his grandfather would have had much time for that kind of thinking.

A photo from the Ypres battlefield appears to confirm that view. A rugged-looking young man, with a thick head of hair and a cigarette stub jutting out of his mouth, looks straight at the camera, a half-smile plastered on his face.

Like any true archivist, Mr. Pye threw away very little. The scrapbook includes an army ticket, wartime leaflets warning against spies and remarkable black-and-white photos of life on the front line. "You weren't allowed to write and take photographs, but they all did anyhow. They wanted to record their experiences," Mr. Edge said.

But there was a more sensitive side to his grandfather as well. He wrote poetry and sketched a leafless, limbless tree that stood as a solitary sentry on one of the battlefields where he fought.

For Mr. Edge, now 48, the move to London has served to rekindle his interest in his grandfather's war experience. With the battlefields of the First World War just a brief journey away, he has taken his two eldest sons to important sites, and to visit the grave of Mr. Edge's great-uncle, who was killed in 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.

"It's important that I pass these memories on to my children," he said. "What seems a distant war from Canada is something you experience here all the time."

Alan Freeman is The Globe and Mail's London bureau chief.

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