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6 Field Engineer museum tells stories of North Van squadron

Colin Parkinson

Army.ca Legend
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Preserving a proud military heritage

6 Field Engineer museum tells stories of North Van squadron

Rosalind Duane


A Christmas card sending holiday wishes across the miles to Canada from the U.K. dated December 1914 is signed by North Vancouver store owner J.H. English.

Just two months later, by February 1915, English had been shipped to the Western Front - the main theatre of fighting during the First World War.

English was one of 4,000 soldiers sent overseas from the training centre at the J.P. Fell Armoury when war broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914. The North Vancouver location served as a training centre for troops from across the province, as well as Americans with British citizenship who were given the choice of being drafted for the American army or volunteering for the Canadian army.

English would later receive the Belgian award for bravery for rescuing a group of Belgian women and children from a German attack.

His Christmas card was found on EBay and now shares a shelf at North Vancouver's 6 Field Engineer Squadron's military museum with other important memorabilia commemorating the long service of the members of the local engineering squadron.

Located in the corner of the armoury, in a small room that once served as a sapper's mess (a sapper is an engineering regiment's equivalent of the rank of private), the museum is crowded with medals, photos, uniforms, engineering hardware and newspaper clippings that offer a unique perspective on the unit's history.

Museum co-founder Vince Larocque points out a photo album with pictures from the front lines taken during the First World War by Lt. Henry Blackadder, the architect of the cenotaph. The album includes photos from the end of the war of glaring German soldiers withdrawing a short distance from Blackadder's position.

Further along the row of display cases is a collection of Second World War artifacts, including a telegraph giving 24-hour-notice for the unit to mobilize before being shipped out, and an engineering pocket book with water damage from D-Day.

Larocque notes that D-Day was one of the bloodiest days of the war for the unit, as the members participated in the first wave of the famous assault on the beaches of Normandy in 1944. The engineers travelled with the infantry carrying satchel charges (backpacks with explosives) that were used to blow up German bunkers forcing the Germans back and establishing a line of defence for the next wave of Allied troops. However, early in the assault the bunkers were still manned by German soldiers and the unit suffered many casualties.

With an abundance of official military reports and records on hand about the D-Day assault and other unit operations, Larocque says he is more interested now in acquiring personal items for the museum, such as photos and personal memoirs. While the official accounts are necessary for establishing facts, they are rather dry, notes Larocque, adding that the personal artifacts add another important dimension to the presentation of the group's history.

The engineers' museum officially opened to the public on Nov. 11, but has been many years in the making.

When asked how he got involved with the project, Larocque heads out of the museum to the drill deck, leading the way to a large plaque mounted in the centre of the south wall of the building.

Looking up at the plaque etched with names of members of the unit who died in the First World War, Larocque explains how he discovered that many names were missing from the memorial wall. Larocque, who joined the unit as a reservist in 1969, and eventually earned the rank of lieutenant-colonel, served as commanding officer from 1990 to 1994.

He became interested in the unit's history while working at the military engineering school at Canadian Forces Base Chilliwack, which also housed a military engineering museum containing artifacts from the 6 Field Engineer Squadron.

While researching the unit's history, he discovered that a few names were missing from the memorial plaque and set out to establish if there were any more men who had earned a place on the wall but were not included when the plaque was originally dedicated in the 1920s.

It took three years to compile the information and, in 2003, an official rededication ceremony added two separate wings to the plaque with the names of dozens more of the unit's men who had died in the First World War. Unfortunately, Larocque was serving in Bosnia at the time and missed the ceremony. He says he is still finding information and plans to add another plaque in about five years. He calls the situation a "90-per-cent solution," adding that it's unlikely he will ever be able to recover a complete record of all the men from the unit who served in that war.

While Larocque's interest in the unit's history was being piqued by his search for records, the museum's other co-founder was already collecting and displaying some of the unit's historical objects around the armoury.

Brian Seward, now a retired captain, joined the unit in 1960. He says that he has been a collector of military items since he was a boy, and early in his career with the engineer squadron he questioned why the group's historical artifacts were being sent to CFB Chilliwack, including the uniform of J.P. Fell, the unit's first commanding officer, whom the building is named after. Seward also notes that items were being stored in various locations around the armoury and he even found photos and other important objects in the garbage. He decided to rescue some of the items, including medals belonging to Blackadder, and donate them to the North Vancouver Museum and Archives for safekeeping.

One night in 1970, Seward was leafing through a newspaper and noticed an ad for two display cases being sold "dirt cheap" for $25 each, so he made the purchase, borrowed an army truck and delivered the eight-foot glass cases to the armoury. He placed the cases on the balcony overlooking the drill deck and filled them with engineer badges, medals, flags and "a whole lot of interesting stuff."

He stored many more items in his basement and notes with a laugh that his wife wasn't too happy about his home collection.

In 1971, a provincial centennial committee was considering grant submissions, and Seward put in his request for an official museum, but was turned down because there was already an engineering museum at CFB Chilliwack.

However, when the Chilliwack base was closed in 1998, Seward was finally given the go-ahead by the area commander to designate a room at the armoury for a museum.

Seward's wife was "pleased as punch" to learn that the uniforms, medals, badges and other memorabilia he had stored in his basement would be moved to the new museum.

Seward joined forces with Larocque to establish a committee made up of volunteers, which now oversees the museum and its collection.

While many of the committee members are actively involved in acquiring items for the museum, Larocque notes that it was Seward who established the core of the collection. In recognition of his efforts, the museum has been named after Seward, who, in 1979, was also recognized for his exceptional service to the unit when he was awarded the Military Order of Canada.

Seward says he is honoured that the museum bears his name stating, "Not many people get a museum named after them."

Over the years, Seward has continued to pick up items related to the unit at second-hand stores, collectors' conventions and online.

In a downtown flea market he discovered a service medal marked with the number 36 belonging to a unit member.

"He must have joined on the first day of the war," says Seward, adding that the marking order would have started with 01, so this soldier was probably the 36th to enlist.

Among his favourite pieces at the museum are a Canadian flag that had been flown over the unit's camp in the southcoast of Britain before they headed to Normandy on D-Day.

He is also fond of a Second World War Military Cross awarded in 1945 to the unit's chaplain for "gallantry in action," and explains that it was very rare for a chaplain to receive such a high honour.

"Lots of people don't even know the engineers exist on the North Shore," notes Seward, adding that he hopes visitors to the museum will feel pride looking back at what the engineers have done.

He says he encourages people on the North Shore to "come have a look to see what their men have been doing for the past 90 years."

The museum is currently open on the first Thursday of the month from 7 to 9 p.m., but Seward says future plans for the museum include extended opening hours, possibly on Sunday afternoons, as well as school tours and other programs.

Organizers are interested in acquiring personal items related to the engineering squadron to add to the current collection, including photos, medals, letters and diary entries.

The J.P. Fell Armoury is located at 1513 Forbes Ave., North Vancouver. For more information about the museum call Larocque at 604-669-5852.

For more information about the 6 Field Engineer Squadron visit the website www.army.dnd.ca/6field_engineers.

published on 12/10/2006