War Museum work lets former peacekeeper pursue passion for history

Influenced by a veteran of the First World War to take an interest in military history, museum volunteer Bob Anglin earned a history degree, joined the army, served 25 years, and continues to study, absorb and teach military history.

Bob Anglin has volunteered at Canadian War Museum for 36 years

Bob Anglin, who served with UN peacekeeping forces in Cyprus in 1967, takes in the view of the War Museum's Cypriot cafe exhibit. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Bob Anglin still remembers the afternoon he spent as a 13-year-old boy, transfixed by the wartime souvenirs of Dr. R.B. McQuay.

Born in 1889, Dr. McQuay had served as medical officer for a Canadian infantry battalion in Northwestern Europe in the First World War.

But that afternoon on Manitoulin Island, as a rapt Bob Anglin sat and listened, Dr. McQuay, then in a wheelchair, showed the boy souvenirs he had picked up from European battlefields and hidden alongside medical provisions in his horse-drawn doctor's wagon.

Gas mask, uniforms, German shells, grenades and an exceptionally rare saw-back bayonet were among the souvenirs McQuay showed a young Anglin.

"I was so impressed by that," said Anglin, pointing to the date as the day he became obsessed with that conflict's history.

Now nearly the age Dr.McQuay was when they met, Anglin said he has acquired his own copies of nearly all of the artifacts exhibited to him that day by the old army doctor.

Anglin, now 76, has been putting his knowledge to good use, volunteering at the Canadian War Museum in 1981 after a lifetime as student, witness, and teacher of history.

Served as peacekeeper in Cyprus

His own first-hand experience began when, while working toward a history degree at the University of Western Ontario, he joined the army.

"Summer jobs I'd had (up until joining) had been fixing railway track and digging ditches and cutting brush and fighting blackflies, and I thought, something's got to be better than this," recalled Anglin.

A photo of Bob Anglin taken in Cyprus in 1967. (Submitted)

More than 60 years years later, Anglin is himself a part of military history and as much absorbed by wartime stories and strategies as ever.

He's also the modern face of War Museum volunteers.

As combatants of the Second World War disappear, increasingly it is veterans who served as Anglin did — in peacekeeping roles in Cyprus, and the Golan Heights — who are the living face of Canada's military history.

Young visitors to the museum frequently thank him for his service and ask to have their photograph taken with him.

"We're part of the local fauna, examples of some strange tourist attraction," joked Anglin.

Anglin served with the Black Watch in Camp Gagetown, N.B. His time there included tours with the United Nations forces in Cyprus in 1967-68, and a year-long deployment with the UN in the Golan Heights after Israel captured it from Syria in 1967.

He survived a four-hour long tank battle while stationed as an observer with the UN in Israel, but he admits what he remembers most vividly is the long, dull hours he spent sitting in an observation post alongside another UN observer, reporting on breaches in the ceasefire on the Golan Heights.

"Sometimes it was so boring I was actually hoping that shooting would break out some place and we'd get an adrenaline rush," he said.

Anglin, a volunteer at the Canadian War Museum for the past 36 years, stands in front of an exhibit on Passchendaele. (Stu Mills/CBC)

A teller of tales

As a soldier, he remained a keen student of military history. Now, he digests a new title from the Museum's book-lending library nearly every week.​

Anglin is an expert on military small arms, and even carries a copper-jacketed projectile from the end of an AK-47 cartridge in his pocket as a conversation starter in his role as museum interpreter.

But he rarely shares his owns experiences.

Instead, it's stories, strategies and historical side notes about conflicts he wasn't engaged in that he passes on to museum visitors during his weekly shift.

"This is, I suppose, why I come down here — I've been interested in this history, and there are bits I can tell people that they don't know."

Like why barbed-wire was laid 30 metres from the edge of a trench  — so enemy soldiers couldn't creep up to the wire to lob explosives into the tunnels, says Anglin. Or why German soldiers didn't, contrary to Hollywood depictions, hold the famous MP40 submachine gun by the clip — doing so caused the gun to jam, he said.

Though Anglin sports a chest full of medals over his veteran's blue jacket, he calls them "been there" medals, awarded for "participation."

"I never did anything brave or courageous — you can't serve 25 years in anyone's army without getting some medals."

But Anglin said it was the people he met at the museum that has kept him coming back.

"I meet the nicest people," he said. "I meet parents that are coming in — working so hard at being good parents — and they want their children to learn their history."