Amidst heavy snowfall and below-freezing temperatures, more than a hundred people gathered at the foot of Soldiers’ Tower to take part in U of T’s Service of Remembrance. This year’s service marks the 100th anniversary of the laying of the first cornerstone of Soldiers’ Tower.
The Soldiers’ Tower Committee has been holding Remembrance Day services since 1924, when the tower was officially unveiled. In her opening remarks, Michelle Alfano, Chair of the Soldiers’ Tower Committee, said “to those who served and all their families, we see you, we acknowledge the courage of your actions, and as long as the Tower stands, we will honour and remember your sacrifices.”
While the ceremony honours the 16,000 U of T community members who served during World War I, World War II, and other military conflicts, this year, tribute was paid to one serviceperson in particular.
Flying Officer Robert Lesley Edwards is remembered not only for being a part of the No. 1 Squadron Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), but also as a BA graduate from Victoria College who resided in Burwash Hall. Edwards was killed during the Battle of Britain on August 26, 1940. He was the first RCAF member to lose his life in the service of his country.
St. Michael’s College student, Master Corporal Isaiah Samson of the 32 Service Battalion read a brief description of events during the Battle of Britain. Two days after the German air force launched an aerial assault on London, an Allied patrol engaged German bomber planes, known as Dornier 215s.
“Flying Officer Robert Lesley Edwards of Cobourg, Ontario, opened fire at very close range and shot the tail off a bomber but his aircraft was hit by heavy crossfire from the enemy gunners, and it followed the Dornier to earth.” At 28 years old, Edwards left behind a mother and a wife.
Memorial prayers were given throughout the service, first by Rabbi Julia Appel who recited El Ma’alei Rahamim, and then by Imam Yasin Dwyer of the Muslim Chaplaincy of Toronto. The service came to an end with Major The Reverend Richard Ruggle’s prayer of remembrance, followed by the playing of the Last Post and a two minute silence.
“In Flanders Fields,” the iconic Canadian poem, was also recited during the service. The author of the poem and Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae was a U of T alum who served in combat, graduating from the Faculty of Medicine as a member of the Zeta Psi Fraternity. His poem was read by a fellow Zeta Psi Fraternity member, Second Lieutenant Tom Ellard.
In an interview with The Varsity, Ellard spoke about his own experiences as a serviceperson. Reflecting on loss and sacrifice, he recounted how a fellow soldier and friend lost his life in Afghanistan. He said that was the moment “it really came home that what we do is dangerous, and people do pay a price.”
When asked about the ceremony, Ellard expressed how proud he was with the student body for continuing the legacy of honouring Canada’s servicepeople. “There’s a lot of people that arrived to stand in the snow and inclement weather, because I think there’s a recognition that both their grandparents, their brothers or sisters, or they [themselves] might be called upon to do something similar.”
“That’s an important commitment, this freedom we enjoy isn’t free. There are prices to be paid and sometimes it’s the ultimate sacrifice.”
Members of the U of T community, along with overseas visitors, laid wreaths beside Soldiers’ Tower during the service. President Meric Gertler, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr, Chancellor Rose Patten, and Chair of the Governing Council Claire Kennedy laid the wreath for the university.
Federal MP and Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, MPP Jessica Bell, and City Councillor Mike Layton, all elected representatives for University—Rosedale, laid the wreath for the government. The Honourable Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, was also in attendance and laid the wreath for the Commonwealth.