Remembrance Day: Remembering war at 104

Just before Christmas 1939, Isabella Brearley’s life was torn apart. Now at 104, she remembers the hardships war inflicted upon her family, as hundreds more mark Remembrance Day at the Gore Park Cenotaph.

Isabella Brearley remembers the war that shook her family this Remembrance Day

Just before Christmas 1939, Isabella Brearley’s life was torn apart.

She was in her early 20s — a young mother of two who was pregnant with her third child. As she stood on a train platform in Hamilton watching her husband William go off to war, she knew life would never be the same.

“I lost my life the day he put the uniform on,” said Brearley, now 104, from her room at the Meadows Long Term Care Centre in Ancaster. “What was to follow was the separation. What was to follow was the one woman family instead of the man in the family.”

There would be a fire in the city and he would throw my mother under the bed — because the siren was a bomb. He was trying to protect her.- Sandra Patterson

“What did it accomplish that a man put on a uniform, carried a gun on his shoulder, crossed the ocean into another world and shot a whole lot of people? What did it accomplish? All we accomplished was a disturbed world.”

William Brearley was a staff sergeant with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. He was one of the lucky ones who made it back home to his wife and their three children — though with a scar streaking across the side of his head where he almost took a bullet.

But the emotional scars remained, long after. Isabella says her husband, and her family, were never the same after the war. “We were strangers,” she said. “He was a very quiet, very gentle man. But what I saw [after] was a man who was army trained — giving orders…his words pounded out, and I thought — how am I going to live with this?”

“I was terrified. Not of him — but of the way life had treated us. That took a gentle man and made him tough.”

'The siren was a bomb'

Brearley’s daughter Sandra Patterson, 73, spent Remembrance Day with her mother at her long term care home in Ancaster. She was born after her father left for the war, and still remembers the excitement she felt when her father finally came home, back in 1944.

She was almost five years old and had never met her father — all he had been to that point was a portrait in uniform that sat in a chair at dinner, marking his place. When her father stepped inside the house she was terrified, and had to be coerced out of hiding behind a couch with a doll brought back from Berlin and some perfume from Paris.

“He put the perfume on the table and he sat with the doll on his lap and he said ‘it would be very nice if there was a little girl who could have this perfume and this doll,’” she remembered.

It took a long time for her to adjust to having a man in the house — and her father didn’t adjust so well either. The atrocities he faced in wartime were never far behind him, even when safe at home, Patterson says.

“There would be a fire in the city and he would throw my mother under the bed — because the siren was a bomb. He was trying to protect her,” she said.

“These are the things remembered by the people my mother’s age."

'They didn't just die on one day'

In the shadow of the atrocities committed in the Second World War, many men just like William Brearley went off to war. Jack McFarland was one of them. The 92-year-old was part of the raid on the Nazi-occupied port of Dieppe.

The mission went poorly from the start.

When it was over, more than 900 Canadians were dead and thousands more were wounded or captured. Almost 200 of the dead were from Hamilton.

On Monday morning, McFarland was one of a handful of Second World War veterans remembering their fallen friends in front of the Gore Park Cenotaph. But remembering is a year-round promise for him.

“I think about them every day. I wear a poppy every day,” McFarland told CBC Hamilton.

“My friends…they didn’t just die on one day.”

McFarland says it’s always a pleasure to see so many people come out to pay their respects to Canada’s soldiers on Remembrance Day. Hundreds of people lined the streets surrounding Gore Park Monday morning, braving frigid winds and rain.

“I think it’s great that we have the crowd we did,” he said. “I was shocked”.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?