John Goheen knew the Royal Canadian Legion wanted to do something special during this year’s national Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
But when he learned the Legion had settled on a special wreath to honour the Canadians who lost their lives during the Great War, the longtime Legion member and Coquitlam, B.C., school principal never suspected organizers would ask him to lay it at the National War Memorial on Nov. 11.
By Sunday morning, Goheen, who had three relatives serve between 1914 and 1918, said his initial shock and surprise had transformed into sombre anticipation.
“I think as I go up there I’ll be thinking of my family’s sacrifices in both World Wars but, again, being mindful of just the immense cost this country paid,” he told Global News before the ceremony. “To think, one in three males donned a uniform at that time.
“It’s staggering, the immensity of it all.”
Goheen, who joined his local Legion at 19 and was hired for the tour job in his late 20s, has never served in the Canadian military but has been researching those two wars for the better part of his life. To this day, he can pinpoint the moment his fascination with the World Wars, remembrance and veterans began.
He was seven years old, Goheen says, and his father took him to Vancouver’s annual Remembrance Day ceremony in Victory Square, where he saw many First World War veterans, probably in their late 70s and early 80s at the time.
“There was something — I can’t say exactly what it was — but it struck me as something quite meaningful to see those fellows,” Goheen said in a phone interview ahead of Sunday morning’s ceremony. “And so I think I started getting interested, wanting to know what it was all about.”
After decades of research, trips to Europe and work with the Legion, it’s no surprise that Goheen had already made plans to attend Ottawa’s Remembrance Day ceremony for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. And then he got the call about laying the special wreath just over a month ago.
The wreath, Goheen said, was modeled after those used in 1919, specifically a wreath used for commemoration by Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
Goheen said he’s “grateful and honoured” for the opportunity.
“It’s hard to even put into words,” he said earlier this week.
While they were unable to join him in Ottawa, Goheen said his wife and four daughters would watch the ceremony from their home on the West Coast.
‘It just kind of grabs you by the throat’
Goheen said his interest in the First World War grew into a passion as he read and researched “voraciously” throughout his teens and 20s. At the same time, he also uncovered his family’s history, which made the connection to his research more personal and meaningful, he said.
Goheen’s maternal grandfather fought with the 26th Battalion from New Brunswick after fudging his age on his attestation papers. On his 18th birthday in 1916, Francis Niles was fighting on the front line south of Ypres, Goheen said. Niles was wounded weeks later, which put an end to his service and “probably saved his life,” Goheen said.
“He never talked about his experiences, like many of them … and my family, his daughters really didn’t know much about him,” Goheen said of his grandfather, who died in 1971. “It was only when I started researching and I pieced together his story.”
On his father’s side, Goheen’s great-grandfather’s youngest brother and cousin also served. They were killed toward the end of the war, in September and October 1918, respectively. The great uncle was buried, and Goheen has visited his grave; the cousin’s body was never found, but his name is engraved on the Vimy Memorial in France, Goheen said.
The B.C. man first travelled to Europe to visit World War sites as a selected participant on one of the Legion’s pilgrimages in 1995, a trip that he said touched him profoundly.
“The first time I went to the Vimy Memorial and saw (my family name), it just kind of grabs you by the throat,” he said. “You sort of get a shiver in the spine. It’s quite emotional. And it doesn’t change because I’ve been there several times and it’s the same feeling.”
“I just knew that when I got home from that trip, I had to get back there.”
Goheen went on a personal trip the following year and returned in 1997 as a newly minted tour guide. In the years since, he has continued to make personal trips to Europe to discover new sites and artifacts, revisit his great uncle’s grave and retrace certain events, like his relatives’ last days.
Lots of people are history buffs, Goheen said, but he feels his trips and his research into Canada’s military history are something different because they are “always underscored by this idea of remembrance.”
“I was always mindful of the remembrance aspect … wanting to know more so I can understand who these guys were and what they went through,” he said.
Goheen received a commendation from the Minister of Veterans Affairs in 2012 for his advocacy for “military history and remembrance.”
Goheen said he talks to his daughters about their family history and his work when he sees them show interest. This year, he said, as it’s the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, the message he’s tried to convey to them is that the commemoration also marks the “beginning of how our modern remembrance started.”
“Because of the First War and the mass numbers of deaths and the amount of grieving going on, really, remembrance was born because of the sheer cost to the country,” he said. “You had these formations of Legions and memorial buildings in every small town so I try to put that into perspective for them.
“… It is a long time, but that’s really where it all begins.”