Clayton Ash long ago graduated from Listowel High School, but their motto, “finis coronat opus” or “The end crowns the work” has stuck with him to this day. As Ash guides a detailed tour through the Elmira branch of the Royal Canadian Legion in preparation for the Remembrance Day ceremonies tomorrow (Sunday), that sentiment is echoed tenfold.
Now working from his Elmira home as a tax specialist, Ash, 68, spends much of his time refinishing old photos, rearranging artifacts and polishing medals to proudly display in the Elmira branch. Ash’s father served in the Second World War, joining the early part of the service in 1939, but his tour of duty was cut short after he discovered that he had a medical problem with his eardrum that made it impossible to deal with the explosions of gun and artillery shells: he was given an honorable discharge after about seven months of service.
Because of his father’s time served, Ash qualifies as an associate member of the Legion, one who has climbed the ranks and served for two years as the Elmira branch’s president.
Recognized as the Legionnaire of the Year in 2002, and awarded a lifetime membership in 2006, Ash’s participation in the organization began in 1994 with small steps.
“I wasn’t always a supporter of Remembrance Day festivities. Before I started at the Legion and really knew the importance of it all, I saw November 11 as a day off from work, a time when Evelyn (his wife) and I could get a start on Christmas shopping.”
After being asked by the branch president of the day to help with the fundraising and accounting, Ash slowly became more involved as he learned more about the role the organization plays in reminding the public about the sacrifices of those who served in the wars.
“That job was the trip of a lifetime, never to be forgotten. It was a lot of work, but there is a lot of honour that comes with it as well.”
Upon ending his term as president, Ash decided to continue pursuing his passion for restoration and has been instrumental in creating the atmosphere that is present now at the Legion. Included in the displays are a listing of the 166 Woolwich Township residents enlisted in the Second World War, the names of Canadians killed in the Korean War, photos of the battalion whose recruitment caused enough of a stir to spark the change of name from Berlin to Kitchener, and Elmira’s World War I honour roll, to name a few.
The first item put up on display in the Legion was a painting of a fallen World War I soldier, by Elmira resident and Second World War veteran Cole Bauman. Bauman was a member of the Elmira branch of the Legion and had created the painting several years before it was restored and hung in its current place of honour. When Ash came across the painting, it was yellowed from the constant haze of smoke, its frame was cracked, and the canvas itself had a small hole in it.
Ash recalls asking another member of the group, “Do you know who Cole Bauman is? Do you know how important this is? His pictures are in embassies throughout the world, they are sought after!”
So with the permission of the Legion executive, Ash set off and brought the canvas to Bauman himself to have the hole patched up and the painting restored. Then he cleaned the canvas and mounted it in the sturdy frame it stands in today. It was from that point that Ash became increasingly interested with collecting war memorabilia. Outfitting the Legion is a project that has been ongoing and has now been in the works for almost 16 years.
For the Legion, the most important day of the calendar year is November 11, Remembrance Day. It is a day in which every Legion member participates, starting with the poppy campaign that gets underway weeks prior.
For many people, wearing a poppy pinned to our jacket is the only way we mark the holiday. Although there is a common belief that the poppy was chosen due to it’s colour and the resemblance to the blood shed during the wars, the flower was actually chosen as a symbol of new life and renewal, as poppies were the first plants to grow in the churned-up soil of soldiers’ graves in Belgium and northern France. Little else could grow in the blasted soil that became rich in lime from the rubble.
“Remembrance means a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” said Ash. “What it means to me is mostly education. It is important for our generation and younger generations to be aware of the sacrifices made by some people in the past – many of them are long since dead – so that we can live in a land of relative freedom.”
And those sacrifices were many. Ash said he believes most men who joined the war at the time might not have truly even known what the sacrifices and consequences would be until it was too late.
“The guys who went and fought in the war – I don’t think they knew exactly what would come of it. I don’t know that they were trying to bring forth freedom to us. They wanted a job! There was wine and women and songs, and then they died.”
He also can remember attending Remembrance Day ceremonies in Listowel as a teenager, and being one of only a few in attendance – a stark contrast from the nation-wide ceremonies which take place today. It’s taken years for the significance to sink in.
“It was only years later that they began realizing what they had done, and what their purpose was. They slowly became heroes.”
Ash emphasizes most that it is the work of those in the past that has allowed Canadians to enjoy the freedoms we have today.
“We don’t live in Afghanistan, we don’t live in Somalia, and we don’t live in Zaire. We don’t have our freedom stifled – but we could. We have to be careful, and that’s what remembrance means. That is so important.”
“If we don’t continue to pay homage to those sacrifices each year,” warned Ash, “we just might find that mankind will go back and make the same mistakes we have already made.”