Westmount High Memorial Project brings stories of school's war dead to life

For years they’ve just been photos filed away in the archives of Westmount High School. Now the collected portraits of 141 students and alumni killed during the Second World War are inspiring students to tell their stories.

Montreal school lost 141 students and alumni in Second World War

Westmount High School honours its war dead

7 years ago
Duration 1:35
Featured VideoMontreal's Westmount High School lost 141 students and alumni in the Second World War. A school project is bringing their stories to life.

For years they've just been photos filed away in the archives of Westmount High School, the collected portraits of 141 students and alumni who died just as their lives were about to begin.

The uniforms of the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal Canadian Navy and local infantry regiments lend them a maturity beyond their years, but the youth of these clean-cut warriors is impossible to hide.

Most appear solemn and proud before the camera in their service caps and tunics, but at least one hams it up in true high-school fashion, his cheeky smile contrasted by the caption "Killed in action overseas. 1944."

Four of the original portraits of students killed during the Second World War that inspired Westmount High School's Memorial Project. (Stephen Smith / CBC)

One by one, the stories of these 141 men are being told thanks to the school's two-year-old Memorial Project.

Led by social sciences teacher Chantal Clabrough, the Grade 10 history class project has already researched the stories of 30 students and made them available online.

This year, Clabrough's students are working on 30 more.

Working mostly in pairs, students select one of the old photographs and begin piecing together the soldier's story through old yearbooks and other material found in the high school's archives and online.

"Students dig through yearbooks, find their high school blurbs, what sports teams they played for, their likes and dislikes and their aspirations for the future, as any young person has," Clabrough told CBC Montreal.

She said her goal for the project is to give students a greater appreciation of these young Montrealers and their contributions, as well as Canada's, to the war effort.

Over time, her hope is to profile all of Westmount High School's war dead, including Victoria Cross recipient Fred Fisher and the 57 other students and alumni killed during in the First World War.

"These men were students, just like they are students, and unfortunately they didn't come back from the war, they didn't get to go on and live everything everyone aspires to do — go to school, have a family, travel — they didn't get to do that," Clabrough said.

"We're all here today because of what they did for us, and I think it's important to remember who these men were."

A plaque in the school's lobby is dedicated to Westmount High School students who died in the Second World War. Another plaque across from it is dedicated to the school's students who fought and died in the First World War. (Stephen Smith / CBC)

William George Pepper, RCAF

Dylan Lang is researching William George Pepper, a 21-year-old bomber pilot with the RCAF's 428th "Ghost" Squadron.

Pepper's Wellington bomber was shot down over Belgium during an overnight raid targeting Dusseldorf in May 1943.  

"It really shows you that these were people, too. It really gets you into the people that were there. You learn the stories behind the names, and it's amazing, really. You start to see what they did and what they accomplished with their lives.. They made Canada what it is today," Lang said.

"It gives you pride going to this school, but it also gives you pride to be Canadian. Because it shows you what Canadians are capable of, and that's amazing."  

Rupert McCaul, Royal Regiment of Canada

Lieut. Rupert McCaul was a bit of a mystery when Mason Kreissl began his research. McCaul didn't have a photo like the others, and there was nothing in any of the archived yearbooks.

Westmount alumni Lieut. Rupert McCaul is one of seven Canadians memorialized on this monument in Cordebugle, Normandy. (Philippe Frilley / WikiCommons)
"It made me curious to find out who he was," Kreissl said. "It made the case more interesting."

McCaul's nephew, Robin Walsh, helped Kreissl fill in the blanks, including the story of McCaul's immortalized role in the liberation of Cordebugle in Normandy.

"He and six other guys helped free this town and there's a monument there thanking them for their service. He actually died freeing the town," Kreissl said.

Kreissl said connecting with McCaul's family and finding out about their efforts to research this war story added to the experience.

"I wanted to learn what the family had to say, and learn about their journey," he said.

"I would like to see the monument for myself someday."

Kenneth Pedley Pyper, Royal Montreal Regiment

Kenneth Pyper's service with the Royal Montreal Regiment attracted Stephanie Berglas to his case, given the regiment's home just down Ste-Catherine Street from Westmount High School.

"Earlier this week our class actually went to see the Royal Montreal Regiment and I just thought it was really fascinating," she said.

Berglas said working on the Memory Project has given her a deeper appreciation for the names she sees everyday on the bronze memorial plaques in the lobby of Westmount High School.

"We see a bunch of names there but you get to learn their stories and they're just not names anymore," she said.

"As we go on and search more soldiers and more soldiers, I think it's going to make Westmount complete, because we get to remember everybody who went here and fought in the war."

Students Dylan Lang, Mason Kreissl and Stephanie Berglas stand with teacher Chantal Clabrough in front of a bronze plaque dedicated to the 141 Westmount High School students who died during the Second World War.