In 1942, with the war in Europe raging, my father, big for his age but only 17, chafed to enlist. The Canadian Navy was where the strapping lad set his sights. He headed to the local recruitment office to sign up.
He might have slipped through, other under-agers did. But my grandmother, no slouch in the knowing-what-was-going-on- under-her-nose department, got wind of the plan. Steam escaping liberally from her ears, she marched into the office, produced her boy’s birth certificate and dragged him home.
The very day of his 18th birthday, Dad was first in line when the doors of the recruitment office opened. This time he was legally off to war.
He left the next day for Wolseley Barracks, in nearby London, Ontario. There he’d learn to march and shoot and gain the strength to kill, if need be. This was Basic Training.
Fifty years later, he recalls the routine he followed, over the next months:
We were given a rifle and taught to shoot it. We also learned to march and were taken on 20-mile route marches over the countryside. But it wasn’t just physical fitness we needed to practice. It was mental discipline too. And not just obeying our officers. Our cots had to be clean and tidy or we were punished.
Training for combat didn’t happen overnight. Almost 19 months after he entered Basic Training, my father left Canadian Forces Base Cornwallis, Nova Scotia, bound for England. There he would meet his ship, the Canadian minesweeper Caraquet.
His role in the war would be as a coder, relaying and receiving Morse code messages. Over the next seven months, until German surrender in early June 1945, the Caraquet would ply the coast of northern Africa and Europe searching for German mines.
Almost 70 years after young men like my father headed off to help save the world, Wolseley Barracks still stands.
With the British military withdrawal from Canada in 1871, the government of Canada would construct barracks across the country to train and house its own officers.
Built over 1886 to 1888, Wolseley Barracks in London formed Company “D” of the Infantry School Corps of the Royal Canadian Regiment. Other military training centres were located in Toronto, St. Jean, Quebec; and Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Only officers would train and be stationed at these facilities. Enlisted rank-and-file soldiers, farm boys and labourers received scant training, save for a rifle in their hand.
Designed in a U-shape around a parade and drill ground, Wolseley was “state of the art” for the day. Its residential quarters, offices, classrooms, mess quarters (dining room and kitchen), and library and were the essence of modernity and convenience.
“It’s quite beautiful,” I comment to Jane Morphew as we stroll the sprawling Wolseley grounds. Jane is Co-coordinator of Visitor Services and Education at the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum. The Museum is the only building of the Wolseley complex which is open to the public today. She agrees it is a “treasure.” Indeed, architecture was an important factor in Wolseley Barrack’s designation as a National Historic Site in 1963.
Designed in the Italianate style, these heritage buildings are surprisingly elegant. Only the presence of World War II vintage tanks, jeeps and armoured cars give its former purpose away.
Tag along with us, as we walk around the grounds. Let’s start at Wolseley Hall. This is where the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum is housed.
Now look up—way up. The roofscape must rank among the most outstanding among public buildings in Ontario.
Covered with fish-scale slate tiles, the roofline is an eclectic combination of steeply pitched gabled design, side-by-side mansard (flat) roof and iron cresting. An imposing tower creates a medieval effect.
Massive corbelled (stacked) chimneys and intricately carved finials reach toward heaven.
Wolseley windows are equally intriguing. They’re a varied lot of circular, square and rectangulars and lend eclecticism to the effect.
Near the roof-line, oriel (small, round) windows are encircled with red brick. Against the dominant yellow brick façade, they appear as curious bulls’-eyes.
Below the oriels are a series of triple tall, very narrow “arrow-hole” windows. Were these placed with design, or fortification in mind? One can almost imagine military protectors behind them, rifles in hand, surveying the landscape for attack.
There’s more window serendipity. Contrasting red-brick in a half-circle pattern perches above rectangular windows. Within the half circle is an intricate pattern of raised brickwork called “stringed courses.”
Windows in themselves are worth a Wolseley visit.
With much more to discover, I’ll leave the rest of the architectural sleuthing to you. Let’s go inside to see the Museum. Feel free to wander on your own, but Wolseley guides—retired Regiment men—are happy to give you a tour.
An extensive number of displays tell the story of Canada’s military history from the Northwest (Riel) Rebellion of 1885 to modern day Canadian military presence in world trouble spots.
They include military uniforms and helmets; medals, silverware, weapons and various pictorial images. A large collection of military documents are held in Museum archives.
One wall is devoted to military badges and medals, including the highest Canadian honours, the Victoria Cross and the Star of Military Valour.
Prior to 1993, 94 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadians for military valour. Since that time no V.C’s have been invested.
My guide informs me that veterans and their families often will medals and military memorabilia to the Museum on their passing.
My Dad returned from Europe in early August 1945. Apparently the taste of war had been purged from his system. Dad declined the invitation to set sail for the Pacific in the war against Japan.
His first act after setting his feet on Canadian soil at Canadian Forces Base, Cornwallis Nova Scotia was to call his sweetheart, Audrey.
“I’ll be home in a couple of weeks,” he told her. “Can you get a wedding planned by then?”
Norm and Audrey were married at the bride’s home on August 25, 1945. The dashing groom proudly wore his navy uniform.
Wolseley Barracks and
The Royal Canadian Regiment
701 Oxford Street East