Belle Vue’s veterans – strands from their wartime culture

 

By Paul Hertel

 

(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series of columns on Belle Vue, as written by members of the Belle Vue Conservancy. Though the bulk have been written by Debra Honor, this entry is written by Paul Hertel.)

 

“The Secret History of Soldiers” is a new 2018 book by military historian Tim Cook on how Canada’s soldiers survived the Great War 1914-1918.  As I read it, I realized that aspects of Cook’s story related directly to the Belle Vue veterans in Amherstburg 1946-1954.

Cook focused on the unique genius of soldiers to develop with resilience a wartime secret culture to cope with the horrendous conditions they faced. A language of slang and swearing became a defensive oral way to cope, and built both identity and morale. Whether through cartoons, poetry, or souvenir collection, an integrated culture evolved. It included live entertainment shows such as the ‘Dumbells’.

This complex cultural legacy came home with the veteran survivors, having an impact on daily life. During the years 1946-1954, the Amherstburg Echo reported regularly on activities at the Veterans’ Home. Local legion groups provided entertainment shows for the residents, as well as musical reviews, continuing the cultural events of wartime into the lives of convalescent veterans.

Yet underneath this veneer of normality, the impact of military injuries and “going home to Blighty” (a term for medical hospital care) must have had a daily impact on the lives of the aging vets with limited family support .

Who could really understand the impact of military medical discharge facing a veteran with poor feet and circulation arising from the trenches? What aid could be provided for a vet facing shrapnel still circulating within a scarred torso? And what about those facing long-term mental health issues? Such cases are found behind the records of the old sweats, our Belle Vue vets.

One administrative decision reported in January 1948 demonstrated a concern for the safety and emotional well-being of the veterans: hunting on the grounds of Belle Vue was now prohibited.

As Major Gavin Greig stated, “Sorry, boys. As usual, some one spoiled it for the rest of you. A rabbit hunter fired two shots within ten yards of the house today. In consequence all hunting and shooting privileges are cancelled on the property of the Bellevue Veterans’ Home.”

On 6 March 1952 the Amherstburg Echo reported on a minstrel show held at the Home which showed an on-going legacy of popular live entertainment described in Cook’s book :

“Verne ‘Pop’ Phelps, well known minstrel man, was the star of a show staged at the Bellevue Veterans’ Home on Sunday afternoon by the Disabled Veterans Association of Windsor. Mr. Phelps, who will be 78 years of age in April, won the hearts of the old sweats with his songs and dances of yesterday. The show was arranged by Hugh Simpson of Windsor…. Alexander Rose, president of the association, spoke briefly and told what a pleasure it was to bring the show to Amherstburg. He presented cigarettes and tobacco to the Bellevue patients. Major Gavin Greig, manager of Bellevue, expressed the thanks of the patients to the association and the artists.”

As we remember the sacrifices made by our veterans, Tim Cook’s recent addition to the military history of Canada adds empathy for their individual and collective war experiences. It contributes to a deeper knowledge of those veterans who briefly called Belle Vue their home.

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