At Bishop Strachan School, students play historian to learn stories of soldiers who fought in WWI
Most Grade 10 students observe Remembrance Day with a moment of silence.
At Bishop Strachan School in Forest Hill, however, each Grade 10 history student is given the name of a soldier who served in World War I — and only a name. Using service records from the National Archives, online resources such as the Veterans Affairs or Commonwealth War Graves Commission websites, and the Globe and Mail newspaper archives, they piece together each soldier’s story before presenting it to their classmates.
“They get authentic historical research skills,” says James Stewart, one of three teachers at the all-girls school who developed the soldier inquiry project. “By looking at a single soldier, you put a face to a very large sweep of Canadian history.”
In the project’s early years the students would study the names commemmorated by Grace Church-on-the-Hill’s nearby war memorial, but Stewart says recently the teachers decided to “switch it up” by curating a list of their own, with the girls often discovering a unique reason their particular soldier was available to the class along the way.
Forest Hill resident Kayla Benson, for example, chose William H. McLaren, who lived at 365 Spadina Rd. back in the day.
She discovered McLaren grew up in Hamilton but later moved to Toronto and was 24 when he left for the war.
“He was an ordinary soldier but then was promoted to Captain, and he met a woman overseas whom he then married overseas, and he died in the Battle of the Somme,” Benson says.
By cross-referencing McLaren’s date of death and battalion number with the battles they participated in, Benson worked out that McLaren had died while his battalion was fighting in the battle of Guillemont, during the Battle of the Somme’s second phase in September 1916.
“It challenged my skills of inference, because the documents didn’t always give me the exact answers,” she says. “You have to do some side research and connect everything together.”
She also discovered McLaren had a brother who died during World War I — and a sister, who happened to be Stewart’s grandmother.
“My grandmother lost two brothers in the war, and both of them from around this neighbourhood … so I thought, ‘Why not?’” Stewart explains.
Forest Hill resident Molly Sun discovered her soldier, Conn Smythe, a hockey-playing University of Toronto student and Upper Canada College graduate, had an entire book dedicated to him.
“He was 20 when he joined the war,” Sun explains. “He fought in the Battle of Somme and got wounded … and he became a prisoner. He tried to escape two times and he failed. He came back to Canada one year later.”
More than 300,000 soldiers were killed on both sides during the Battle of the Somme, which is now considered one of the bloodiest battles in human history — but not Smythe, who later fought in World War II as well, though Sun focused on his years in WWI.
And, she discovered, Smythe loved hockey so much, and the sand and gravel business he started after WWI became successful enough, that in 1927 he was able to purchase a struggling NHL team, the Toronto St. Patricks.
Inspired by the armbands Canadian soldiers wore in WWI, he renamed them the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Not that Sun knew that when she started researching him.
“I really liked finding out … he was a student of engineering, and he choose to go to war instead of continuing his studies,” she says.
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