George Roderick Chisholm: From Pictou, Nova Scotia to Vimy Ridge

Quite a few years ago I was contacted by a man who had some First World War medals and  “some letters and documents” he wished to sell. At that time I would take items on consignment and sell them on eBay. I visited him and through this informal archive learned about George Roderick Chisholm of the Canadian Infantry’s 78th Battalion, and his short life in WWI.

After choosing the most interesting passages from just George’s letters, there were over 5,000 words of quotes – far too long for a blog, I thought. How do you do justice to any person’s life from a hundred years ago, let alone one who fought in The Great War, without making it a long read? You can’t. So, in honour of the memory of Pte. George Roderick Chisholm, most of the talking will be done by his correspondence with the family, the letters of others and selections from his war records and other documents.

George in his bank clerk suit, ca 1914

 

The Chisholms were an old family from Nova Scotia. George, born March 15th, 1897, in Pictou, was the youngest son of five children and by the 1911 Census the family was living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. George started work as a clerk at The Royal Bank of Canada in Saskatoon on July 2, 1914, following in his father’s footsteps. He later  transferred to Nelson, B.C.

Postcard from Moose Jaw sent as he made his way to Nelson, B.C. for his job at the Royal Bank.

Reverse of card

 

His older brother, Cyril, had already enlisted in 1915 in Lord Strathcona’s Horse, and perhaps George felt he wasn’t doing his duty by working in a small town bank branch. Just before he left for France, Cyril wrote on Jan. 1, 1916:

 

Cyril Chisholm

“Tell George to stay where he is and if he has any sense left he will.”

 

True to all younger brothers, George didn’t listen. His attestation papers show he enlisted on April 17th, 1916, when he was nineteen years old. In Winnipeg he joined the 78th Infantry, C.E.F. for preliminary training.

 

Attestation page 1

 

Attestation page 2

 

A group of unnamed soldiers in the 78th Infantry, 1916

May 13, 1916, Winnipeg

Today I am sending a picture of the battalion but you will need a microscope to see me with. I have marked the place. I am also sending a pin to each of the girls. The little maple Leaf is for Annie (the one on the pin). The gilt bursting grenade for Gladys and I will try to get a larger one for Bird in the semi-khaki color the same as we wear in our hats but may not be able – our canteen haven’t any left. The one I am enclosing is for you if you would like to wear it as a buttonhole – it is more or less a fixture but is exactly what our hat ones are like. The pin is intended to give away and the one with fasteners for wearing ourselves.

Received the music from Bird today. Thank her but tell her I only intended to get my own old stuff and not that she should go to the expense. However, I am much obliged and will take them with me as there will be a piano somewhere.

The  78th button Battalion pin mentioned in his letter

 

Shortly after this letter the battalion were off to Halifax for embarkation.

On the train to Halifax:

At all the larger towns we had quite a number at the stations. Every day at division points we got off for route marches through the main streets. On Sunday we (the 78th) had to parade in the big street parade – it was some length. We were at the head of the infantry section and when the one end was at the cemetery, the other was just passing the Royal Alex. That would be the same as two ranks packed solid for about three miles.

 

SS Empress of Great Britain

We arrived in Halifax on Saturday 20th and didn’t leave till Monday morning but of course we were put on board and the transport went out in midstream to anchor so there was no chance of seeing anything more of the relatives.

The Seventy-eighth have the best quarters on board and are the senior battalion. Base Co. is quartered on “D” deck and parades on “A” so we are alright.

Monday, May 29th, 1916, Liverpool

Tonight just at seven the ship pulled into port. Every few minutes along comes a small boat load of people just to wave and cheer. Well, reveille is 3:30 am tomorrow and I haven’t gotten over my guard night so am feeling a bit blue. 

I forgot to say that I am and have been smoking since leaving the Peg.

Has he indeed? That’s not all. His records show he was confined to barracks (CB) at the training camp in England for eight days, for gambling. See the second entry below.

 

24-6-16 Gambling in lines – 8 days CB. (c. LAC)

 

This is how he describes the CB in his next letter home:

June 25th, 1916 Bramshott, Hants

 Quarantine is very exciting.

 You will have received the cards of Bordon ”huts” and “parades” by now – here the huts are not so nice to look at but are on the same plan and will be fine for the summer. Just a couple of days and the seven of us will be free to go and come with the rest.

Bordon camp 1916

Reverse of postcard from Bordon

 

We know George was musical and could play the piano. In his first letter after joining up he thanks his sister, Bird for the sheet music and expects there to be a piano somewhere. The letters below show what lengths (literally and figuratively) he will go to to satisfy his urge to play.

July 16, 1916 Bramshott, Hants.

Am awfully glad to get the parcel – it sure goes right to the spot everything was all that I could want and I don’t know what I thought the most of but the home-made cookies surely were “it.” You cannot buy home-made stuff that is worth eating. I have tried some pies – talk about country pies – dough inches thick and only half-baked.

St Stephen’s Church, Liphook Road, Shottermill

On Friday the Battn  was on a twenty mile march all day. I was not so tired that I couldn’t go another three and back for an organ practice. The organ is run by a pump and I have to get a kid to work whenever I go down (Shottermill) again on Saturday afternoon I was at it again for two hours. The organ is only a one manual with pedals of course and only eight stops so there is very little to get confused with.

 

July 23, 1916 Bramshott 

Today on our dining room fatigue washing tables, floor, etc. after each meal, I can still smell the mush (porridge) on my hands from breakfast, and they look like goose flesh from the soda in the water.

Nearly every night I go down and practice – have to get a kid to blow for me which costs the immense sum of 12 cents the lesson of a half hour – amounts to one shilling once a week- isn’t that enormous. Last week Mrs. Robertson sent a box of tarts (fine!) to me unfortunately they were in a paper box and the tarts were as flat as pancakes but unharmed as they were a pineapple centre and weren’t mushy.

The Mrs. Robertson mentioned above was the wife of Lieutenant-Colonel Struan Gordon Robertson, born in Scotland but now from Pictou, N.S. The families may have known each other socially or perhaps the Lt.-Col. felt responsible for his Pictou boys. In any case, he and Winnie Robertson entertained George in England and treated him like a son, as we see in the long excerpt below. George is exposed to his first displays of snobbery of the “Imperialists” over the “Colonials”, but stands up for himself.

Bramshott Camp

Aug. 2, 1916 Bramshott

For example – we have a rotten major in many ways. Always looking for all the smallest of faults – a frequent sentence – Cover off no matter the conditions while he rides a horse we have a pack, rifle and walk. Today we were kept on the go – route march – until quarter to one – oh the sun was hot. When we arrived at our destination (12 or 15 miles) we all got to the shady side when along comes Maj. and says “ fall in.” As soon as we were back up and had our coats all buttoned up he said, “Fall out.” It was so ridiculous that the whole company laughed at him (227 men.)

Last Friday evening a quarter of the Battalion got leave till Monday midnight. I was one of the lucky ones. We (200) stood till 8 P.M. and 10 P.M. from 4:30 waiting for transportation tickets – there were several (many hundreds) going on leave at the same time. I got off on the first train out. [to London]

Then we hunted up a “Tube” and as it was too roundabout took a bus and went to the “Y” Aldwych. It takes some describing.

The Aldwych YMCA Hut, London
Copyright Harold J. Curnow

The Hut was ideal in many ways – three or four chesterfields – leather and a couple of suites of leather chairs so comfortable etc. A grand piano, Victorola and billiard tables – baths, beds in either cubicles (one above the other, two per room) or a private room (one bed). The rooms are of course just enough room for the beds and a chair (150 beds in the Aldwych). Then there is a café where you can get a meal at cost (very little) served at any hour (all night). The women serve all the time. The “Y” of course is in great demand, and the second night I couldn’t even get a camp bed but that comes at another time. The first night I had a camp bed in the billiard room.

Copyright Harold J. Curnow. Picture taken by his fatherJ.J.Percival Curnow, who was in charge of the YMCA Aldwych starting in 1914.

(The next day he had dinner with the Robertsons and declined their offer of a bed.)

There was such a crowd of soldiers in town that I couldn’t get a bed anywhere after walking till 1 A.M. so went back to the Aldwych Hut and slept on a mat with the majority of my clothes on.

The next evening he is back with the Robertsons again and gives his opinion of the young couples he sees.

The R’s took me for a stroll along the Thames which is very much like our Assiniboine at that point and like the Red near the Tower. There were any number of punts on the river, all flat bottomed and something like a long rowboat. Any number of soldiers and civilians and women, of course, and they were all at the same game – the fellow with his arms around the girl – In one scene there were two pairs – disgusting out in such a place.

Sunday night I had a bed in a cubicle – white sheets, pillow (the first I have seen since leaving)

He spends the better part of the following day with Mrs. Robertson, who takes him from the Abbey to St. Paul’s to the Tower in a taxi, and feeds him at every chance. They meet “Mrs. P.” an English friend of the Robertsons.

All the English people around London – whether they say it or not – have the idea we are just here to fight their enemies on their account and of course they have to be patronizing to us “colonials” that wear sheep-skin vests and clothing out West and very little better in the East or things of that sort as Mrs. P. had the nerve to say but we put her right.

The Crown Jewels were too amazing to believe, apparently.

The Crown jewels were all there but we are so unused to such sights several asked if they were imitation although they were in the Tower and in a glass cage with iron bars and every stone known throughout the Kingdom. We all had the impression, and although we were assured, I still am doubtful – crazy – one diamond was easily as big as the ring I have drawn here.

Well – lunch time – which Mrs. Robertson did at the Army and Navy Stores, where you have to be an officer’s wife or a large subscriber to the War Fund before you can buy anything. It was a swell departmental store and I was thoroughly out of place with my private’s outfit sitting down to luncheon. Officers, swells, etc. were the only ones there. Mrs. R. had some business at Lloyds (branch) which is in the Can. War Offices (Pay & Records branch). I was stopped when entering with her which was embarrassing for her But I didn’t notice it much myself (again the uniform.)

Army and Navy Stores, London from House of Fraser Archives

After his long weekend with the Robertsons it’s back to the training camp at Bramshott.

Had an easy day the Tuesday as I am on a bombing course although it is very broken up – Wednesday was much the same and Thursday we didn’t go out till 4 P.M. but we carried the pack we go to France with and it weighed between 80 and 85 lbs. and a rifle of 10 or 11 lbs. We had I pr boots, 1 undershirt, holdall which carries soap, brushes, etc., balaclava, housewife (needle, thread buttons, etc.) 1 pr laces, razor, towel, flannel shirt, 2 pr sox, knife, fork, spoon, 1 great coat, 1 entrenching tool, 2 gas masks, and 1 pr. Goggles, to keep the gas, which affects your eyes, away. Bayonet and 120 shells, loaded. It was awful and we were out for a 12 or 15 mile walk which took 5 hours. Bill fell out and I was all in but managed to stick it although my feet, shoulders, neck, legs and everything was sore.

In his last undated letter before embarkation to France he emphasises how he must keep locations secret and explains in more detail what makes up his kit.

Last letter before embarkation – Between Aug 7-12, 1916

The other day – the 7th– we were inspected by Lloyd George and Sam Hughes. The whole division (4th) were there and it took about three hours for the march-past. First, the 9th, 10th, 11th and then our Brigade (12th). There are 4 battalions to each and 4 Companies to each Battn. Besides transport teams at the end of each Battn and field kitchens – an ammunition mule for each Co. The movies took the whole show and as you may see it on the screen watch out for the fourth Battn. In the 12th Brigade and I the third (and last) company front rank just to the right of the major on horseback and as I am just a little taller as the boy on each side for three or four around you may see me –so take your specs. Well, so much for that.

It is quite plain there is no news. We leave Saturday for “somewhere” and should you like to know what we carry I will give you a list;

Cap – Boots – Undersuit – Tunic – Puttees – Pants X – Shirt (Khaki) – Sweater X – Braces – Identity Disc X – Badges – Sox – 4 field dressings (put into a place which we cut open in our tunic – Clasp Knife – Paybook – Harness, rifle and bayonet, entrenching tool, 120 rounds of ammunition, 2 gas helmets and a pair of special gas goggles (weeping gas). That we wear on ourselves. Everything new in the way of clothes I have marked with an X underneath [I have transcribed it beside the items].

In the pack we carry great coat, waterproof sheet, 1 shirt (I am taking a woolen one and wearing one also, Gladys’ Khaki one), 2 pr sox (I have 3) 1 mess tin. In our haversack we have 1 towel, Balaclava, housewife (razor, comb, soap, tooth and shaving brushes, mirror – metal sheet – a pair of laces, holdall (darning, needles, buttons, etc) and rations for the balance of the day. Believe me I am loaded down and if both Gladys’ and Bird’s socks had come I don’t know what I would have done.

Anything I may say must be absolutely secret or I may get into deep water as the censor may miss something. The whole lot of us are on the move – sixteen to twenty thousand, all Canadians. That seems public around here. 

Should we get taken prisoner (don’t worry there won’t be any Bosche get me) and look out for my signature George R. if eats are wrotten [sic] or not enough and there won’t be any need to think anything is wrong unless I address to Papa and sign “Jr.” only.

Please do not send me any handkerchiefs or paper and go easy on sox for a while.

 He leaves for the Front on August 12th, 1916 and docks in LeHavre.

Aug. 14, 1916, France

Everyone smokes – on the beach yesterday while waiting for a swim – “le petit garcon” came around in bunches and begged cigarettes – even those who could hardly “toddle” along – thinking the little ones didn’t smoke I passed him one and asked him “fumez-vous” – he was quite indignant and although I couldn’t understand him, his expression soon showed me, and then asked for “une allumette” and proceeded to light up.

Another kid tied a piece of the Belgian colors on my hat strap, so I will enclose it. They wanted anything – buttons, badges, pennies, etc. There is very little actual silver in circulation – we get sous and fifty centime pieces and francs but circulation is mostly paper- 50 centimes (10 cents) even is a sort of “shin plaster” affair as also the other denominations.

50 centime note, 1916

His letters from the trenches simultaneously recount the conditions and the casualties with reassurances to his dear Mama that he is in a “safe” position. He was in working parties that operated at night.

Aug. 27, 1916, Trenches

Next move was a long march to a “tent” camp where we had more or less time of our own but we had a couple of marches and the cobbled roads got my feet, awfully.

Next we had a long march to the reserve trenches and spent Saturday night there. We have seen a number of aeroplanes, only one of “Fritz’s” – ours come around in any number from one to twelve – that is the most I’ve seen in one squad. They are constantly being bombed and some were pretty above tonight. We had a “hit (?)” this afternoon and a couple of the “Imperials” had a narrow escape.

Our first night (night before last) while on a working party expedition one of our company’s boys was killed by a stray bullet. It was only one chance in a thousand – there is comparatively little danger on an outing such as this was and ours was less dangerous. The Germans use an awful lot of “star” shells. They light the country for about six hundred yards in all directions, just like a great electric arc.

Aug. 31 – We are safely at the base camp again. Rec’d cake etc. also Gladys’ box.

Canadian troops, wearing leather jerkins and trench waders, outside a coffee stall in the mud.
© IWM (CO 1030)

The “Front” he refers to is the Somme. The lack of proper communication and resultant misdirection took a heavy toll on the soldiers, both physical and mental.

Front Sep. 10, 1916

The first night we got to the wrong place and had a ten mile walk for nothing. Next day we were on Parade nearly as early as usual and off an hour earlier. That night we worked from eight thirty to three, got home at four A.M. and it was work. Next A.M. at 8:30 we had to tumble out for a five mile walk each way for a bath. They change the towels, sox, top shirt and undershirts and give us a hot and later a cold shower to wind up with.

…..rifle drill with our Lee Enfields (when we just got them about two hundred of us took ours up to one of our companies, in exchange for their “Sam Hughes” , as we call the Ross, they were holding a front at that time.

Why the Canadians ditched the Ross Rifle in WWI.

 Pay day I felt rich besides being sick of cheese and bread and vice versa so on my three dollars set out for some eggs, etc. I had three fried, two bread, two milk and some chocolate bars (only kind). All afternoon and night I was sick as a dog but had to keep working.

We are the last Coy. to have a front of our own – it lasts days this trip. The trenches are good, dry and clean as a whistle. Our worst enemy is rain and it’s time for some as it’s quite four days since the last storm.

11th – In trenches as reserves one full day. Having a fine time, no danger here. Lots of rats, though. Good eats – while up here we cook our own.

 

Colourized personal photos of British soldiers relaxing before the Somme. These photos give you an idea of life away from the trenches but still close to the Front.

In his next letter George describes his living conditions. It seems his Mama hasn’t quite taken on board what fighting in France really means.

France Sept. 16, 1916 , 100-150 yards from the enemy 

While in reserve trenches there were four of us per dug-out. The dug-out is just a little higher than your head when you sit down. About six feet square and partly built into the ground, partly sand bags with a sheet iron and sand bag top. Ours had a half wooden floor.

WWI dugout recreated at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show

Probably not quite like the recreation of a dug-out I photographed in 2014.

We put a fireplace into it and had our meals served table d’hôte, sometimes perfection, sometimes otherwise. […] At one dinner or better to distinguish it, call it a banquet – we had buttered toast, cocoa, two kinds of jam (saved from former meals) fruit cakes, sardines and oatcakes, gingerbread, pork and beans (for two), fried ham (or whatever it might be) and cold beef (not bully). Isn’t that some class, no wonder I was sick that night.

The dug-outs are all the same and we stretch out as often as the chance comes along. […..] The trenches are necessarily narrow and the “fire-step” takes all available space so when someone comes along it’s a case of down with your feet from the opposite wall to let the person pass. I had a great laugh when I read your letter re: “beds” – no we don’t get into anything like that. I can sleep sitting down or standing up if there isn’t any place else. Today I made a periscope of my mirror and a stick  put up on the palisades. It is only necessary to glance up to see if Fritz is making any move.

Eating at the Somme. August 1917. photo: LAC—PA001596

 

Front Sep. 23, 1916

You will be interested to know how we get food – water, carried in a tin formerly used for oil or gasoline, holding two gallons. The shape is square cornered, so as to take less room for waste space in the wagon. Bread, comes in bags, six four pound loaves; butter (if any) in tins one pound each, pork and beans, bully beef, three-quarter lbs. jam in tins; all packed in a bag. Bacon and ham half cooked so as to heat it if we get a chance. Tea and sugar comes for the platoon (57) to be made if the cook’s kitchen is not in reach. When they are around we get a hot mulligan for dinner (made of Maconochie’s rations and anything else available.) Mac’s is a mixture of beef, beans & potatoes and goes good especially so a couple of days ago when we had a real good dinner of it.

Maconochie’s Rations

For four days we were at a support trench – the dugouts were of the kind I told you. We had no fire-place and as it was quite cold and rains often I set to work and got the other three worked up to building a fire-place in it.

We had a good deal of experience while at that front – too much for me – we had an old trench buried under the one in use and the thing wasn’t especially enjoyable.

Several of our boys were on working parties to “no man’s land” returning with turnips – they said there were all kinds of them also potatoes growing out there.

The dug-outs were crowded with rats but I haven’t any strangers [lice] yet. The rats went into my haversack and ate all my biscuits which made up part of my emergency rations….

Today we had a relief and I got one of the jobs as a guide when on the way back I “spared” a half ripe pear – wouldn’t I like to get into our old Pictou orchard for a half hour.

In October, 1916 George started training as a machine gunner.

France Oct. 1916

Some of the troops have had to make a bottle of water last three or four days and then go without for a while…

At present there are three of us from the 78th taking a machine gun course at a French town near the coast. We are having a ‘jake’ time and will get a week of comparative rest…..I seem to be in pretty fair luck so far as to courses. This is my third now and next I report to get into our M.G. section so as to be able to be of some use. The M.G. is practically the only gun or rifle of any use in this section of the country. We have now seen the shell ploughed fields and they are all the papers say.

 

Road on the Somme, October 1916.
LAC 3194754

 

Am going up the line right away as before I haven’t yet connected with the M.G. Coy. Rec’d a card from Cyril – he is OK. Don’t worry about either of us as we are both jake and I may not get an opportunity of writing for a couple of weeks – mail service will be very poor from the line I expect.

France Nov. 24, 1916  (This was the only letter addressed to his “Dear Papa”.) George had received a letter of Oct 22 and a couple of days later was off to the trenches – no time for even a field card. Now he’s back from the Front.

A number of prisoners were taken – everyone treats them to cigarettes and they carry out our wounded, also any of their own who happen to be in our lines. The usual trouble of going beyond the objective happened – the boys went over and of course, even our artillery caught a few of them.

From a series of postcards published by the Canadian Daily Mirror. Photograph by Ivor Castle, who took hundred of photographs at the Somme between mid August and November, 1916

It is awfully cold or was so while we were up last time – snow, ground frozen, sleet and then on top of that rain, and then the worst enemy we have – mud. Well, I must get ‘dressed’ ready to go for new equipment (Webb) as our Canadian outfit has all been changed except the harness. We are quite “Imperial” now and our reinforcements won’t recognize the old Canadian 78th.

Canadians return from trenches on the Somme Nov. 1916
LAC 3194728

 

From now on I will be with the Lewis Gun squad as the Companies get the guns and the former M.G. Co. goes into reserve. There is no danger attached to the job.… this last trip the two boys who were up with me at Etaples, also myself, were given the job of explaining and getting ready about a dozen boys to come with us on the guns.

One of our boys who went over was looked after by a Fritz who stole food for him, disguising himself in one of our great coats and speaking perfect English, after three days he got a chance to bring him in and everyone made quite a fuss over him – he had a slight leg wound himself and two soldiers took him to the dressing station – they didn’t even have rifles with them.

The casualty lists will be quite startling when you look over them and see a number of 78th or numbers beginning 48—. We get the papers here from the Peg…

The total of Canadians killed, wounded and missing on the Somme was 24,000.

George continues writing letters in moments snatched between training, duties, maintaining the dugout and coping with cold weather. Here he touches on one of the most important armaments to be tested in the Great War.

British Mark 1 Tank

 

France Dec. 13, 1916

 The first thing that strikes me is the “tank” – you have very likely seen a good picture in the “free Press” as a copy reached here over a month ago with a good one in it. There is nothing so wonderful to it from what we have seen of them (never yet in action) but the boys who have been in action with them place a great deal of confidence in them – there are two kinds of machine gun and “small shelters” with M.G. – they are quite large and travel slowly but as for invulnerability, why I have seen a couple “put out of business”.

Again he tries to reassure his family he is safe where he is.

 At this front the Colonel told us in a joking way that the women could come up to the trenches and sell us chocolates and biscuits.

In December’s letter George responds to his family’s alarm over news reports, and his mother working to raise funds for the soldiers.

France Dec. 14, 1916

Your letter Nov. 12: The report you received was absolutely unreliable. On Oct. 13 we had our first working party at our last post and of course it was at night – there were nine killed and twenty-seven wounded instead of twenty-three killed and an officer. There was one slightly wounded – he was hit in the shoulder by a small piece of shrapnel. The reason for all the casualties was not because it was our unlucky day. You are working too hard trying to raise funds for different things…

 Yours Nov. 14: The M. Gunner is not one bit worse off than the man in the platoon –a gunner doesn’t go out on working parties and seldom has any worse than an outpost duty.

 (during his latest trip to the trenches)… during my guard a couple of Fritzies came across maybe to examine our barbed wire. I wounded one and got him prisoner and the other was helped back to his own lines…. I am satisfied we won’t be in the War for a few more months.

Don’t worry about me because I have a jake job.

Typical trench

Apologizing for not writing regularly in the past two months:

France Jan. 9, 1917 

  ..a whiz-bang (field-card) doesn’t quite say enough.

A whiz-bang or field card was a simple postcard which let a soldier tick off what his current situation was. He was not allowed to add any message to it, or it would be destroyed.

Whiz Bang

 

.. all of us agree that we have travelled quite enough through France.

D.S.O. Distinguished Service Order

 Today, our Colonel, the Col of the 38th Bn and seven or eight of the men were decorated with D.S.O.’s and D.C.M.’s also a military medal.

Canadian Lance-Corporal receiving the D.C.M.

Distinguished Conduct Medal

 

 We go into the line again in a few days

 I wrote to Mrs. Turner around Xmas to thank her for a swell scarf and cigarettes she sent me. This last time up the line I had to leave the scarf – It was a Jaeger and very fine and the “other things” [lice] got into it so I had to take it off. 

A heavy howitzer on the Somme, Dec. 1916
LAC 3194242

 

Jan. 29, 1917

 The telegram [Telegraph?] published an interview of a Col who had seen the 78th and in the interview they said we had come out of the Somme with 350. You can take it for what it is worth. In every case there are very large numbers of sick – bad feet, etc.

 Xmas: Well you didn’t have a very gay one did you? It is too bad but no one seems to be handing out the tickets for Canada yet so I have to stay for awhile yet.

The Royal Bank sent their ex-employees a hamper from Harrod’s at Christmas.

The hamper ordered from Harrod’s as a gesture to RBC employees serving on the Front. Xmas 1916

 

 I wish you would ask Bird to thank the members of the staff that I know – as there is a great big parcel on the way from London.

 At times when a field card comes will you make it do for a letter as it is bitterly cold and has been for the past two or three weeks.

George’s next trip to the line was interrupted by two bouts of bronchitis, back-to-back. According to documents he was sick from Feb. 11-21, 1917. While he was at the dressing station his comrades raided his haversack.

France Feb. 12, 1917

We have had a fairly uneventful trip in the line, and a couple of nights ago I got a touch of bronchitis and the M.O. is sending me to the hospital for a little rest and a change…. You remember how I used to get a couple of weeks of it about Feb. or March every year. I am sending Gladys a field card with “bronchitis” spelled on it – I wonder if she will get it or if it is destroyed?

Will you thank Mr. Ingram for me – really his box was immense and such a packet of eats. Everything was swell and it hung out for four or five days so you can imagine the quantity when there is always a hungry half dozen sticking around. Incidentally the same bunch stripped my haversack when I went to the dressing station and although there is nothing of any value yet it is funny… one of my chums was there and he got my knife, fork etc that the bank sent, also a towel.

Mar 8, 1917  France

 Sometimes I wear the homemade sox out and often they are so full of mud that they have to be thrown away. While at the last town I had four pairs washed and if things aren’t too busy this Spring there won’t be any trouble in doing the same right along.

 The U.S. is quite a joke to everybody now.

 Expect to spend my birthday in the line and the box will be fine, should it just come that day, it will be more so, but one day is just the same as the next. … Thanks for the good wishes. I expect the next time to receive them in person instead of by mail.

 Thanks very much again for the fine parcel en route – if you should ever send anything of value again like the watch from Papa, please register the parcel or send whatever it is separate – registered.

On Good Friday, April 6th, 1917, George writes a note and encloses his ring and razor with it. Perhaps he gave it to a fellow soldier behind the lines for safekeeping. His parcel from Papa had arrived safely and included a black faced watch for his birthday, Mar. 15th.

A note he wrote three days before Vimy.
from: Canadian Letters and Image Project

This is in addition to the short will form that every soldier fills out.

George’s will signed Aug. 2nd, 1916
LAC RG 150, Box 1685 – 28

 

Despite the fact that George enlisted in the Winnipeg Grenadiers, an infantry company, he  complained that at first he was doing night duty repairing trenches. He then gets trained on the Lewis gun and has some time acting like a real soldier, but not enough for him. Excerpt from letter dated Jan. 29th, 1917:

…..we are supposed to be fighting as you think but instead about half and more of the time we are put in doing working parties – carrying lumber for dug-outs, trenches, etc. – sand bags from the mines etc. and for all the ammunition I have used since coming from Belgium I could put it in one of my pants pockets.

At 5:30 on the morning of Easter Monday, April 9th, he gets his wish and goes over the top at Vimy Ridge. Nearly a month later, his father receives this telegram:

May 6th, 1917 telegram reports George is missing since April 9th

“30 WN. N. 38 4 ex Day Letter, Do not report delivery

Ottawa, Ont,. May 6, 1917

G.R. Chisholm

213 Fifth Ave. Saskatoon

A G G 203. Sincerely regret inform you 148804 Pte George Roderick Chisholm infantry officially reported Missing April ninth nineteen seventeen will send further particulars when received.

Officer In Charge Records.

1611″

His father, also named George Roderick Chisholm, appeals to everyone he can think of. There are numerous letters to the Red Cross, appeals to the Overseas Military Forces of Canada and Lieut. Col. Robertson. On June 21st, 1917 he receives a letter from Mr. R. Whitley of  The Royal Bank of Canada, Princes St., London. Enclosed were two reports from the Canadian Red Cross Society .

Mr. Whitley states:

“I enclose two reports sent to me by the Canadian Red Cross Society, from which you will see that two other men have stated  (1) that they saw him killed on Vimy Ridge and  (2) that they saw him wounded and that about dusk  the same day he was still in a shell hole.

This last report by itself would leave us with some hope, but in view of the fact that we held the ground on which the shell hole was, I fear there is little hope that he can still be alive.”

Two accounts of George’s death.

 

“On April 9th at Vimy he was with me. We had gone a little too far and as we turned to come back one of our rifle gren. fired from behind a ridge passed within an inch or two of me and hit him in the chest where it exploded and wounded him beyond all hope. As he was not dead I dragged him to a shell hole but he was hit twice again before I got him there, in the elbow and the knee. He died at about six o’clock the same evening.. As the spot we were in was suffering from our own shell fire we withdrew a little. It is quite possible he was eventually buried by one of our own shells, but of course he may have been buried though I never heard of his body being found. He was in No. 1 sec. xl and was my instructor on the Lewis Gun for quite a while. We came over with the original 78th battalion.” Pte. Gourlay 234345 [spelled incorrectly “Gourley” on the note]

“I knew Chisholm who was in my company. Just before we reached our objective the German third line on April 9th I saw him wounded. He had wounds on the side and one knee. I spoke to him and helped to bandage him. I then went back to try and find a s/b [stretcher bearer] but could not do so. It was about dusk. I returned and he was then still in the shell hole. Shortly after I left and that was the last I saw or heard of him. We held the ground.” Lance-Corporal Jackson 147814

George’s family do not give up hope, and continue to appeal to everyone they know.

Finally, on Sep. 12, 1917 they receive this telegram.

CP Telegram officially reporting G.R. Chisholm’s death five months after Vimy.

They must finally accept the loss of their youngest son, the handsome, musical George who was going into banking like his father. He is honoured on the RBC (Royal Bank of Canada) website, in a Roll of Honour. Their entry reads:

“George Roderick Chisholm, Jr.
PRIVATE CHISHOLM, born at Pictou, Nova Scotia, March 15, 1897. Home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Joined Saskatoon branch, July 2, 1914. Enlisted from Saskatoon branch, in the 78th Battalion, April 15, 1916. Present on the Somme and Vimy Ridge. Killed in action at Vimy Ridge, April 9, 1917.”

Another memorial was planted in Saskatoon.

Memorial Avenue of trees in Saskatoon, SK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At some point after the war the family moved to Victoria, BC, where their house still stands.

The Chisholm family home on Oak Bay Ave. Victoria, B.C. They moved after WWI.

Then, in 1923, just when one would think some of their pain had receded, they received this letter and its enclosure:

Dec. 26, 1923

 

George Roderick Chisholm’s identity disc, dug up in 1923, still pitted with Vimy mud.

 

His remains lie today in the Cabaret Rouge Cemetery in France and are looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

 

His mother received the Silver Memorial Cross with his name engraved on the back.

The Silver Memorial Cross awarded to wives or mothers of fallen soldiers

Reverse side of his mother’s silver Memorial Cross

 

The family also received his medals and the large Bronze Memorial Medal also known as the ‘Death Penny.”

The British War Medal and the Victory Medal. George’s name is inscribed on the edge

Death Penny, identity disc, memorial cross and two 78th Battalion pins given to his sisters

 

Who had kept all the medals, pins, letters and cards in this archive I was fortunate enough to study?

It had literally arrived in a treasure chest; a beautiful wooden trunk lined in pink silk. The trunk belonged to a spinster, Ida M. Chisholm (known as Bird in his letters) who kept her brother’s medals and documents all her life.

Chisholm Trunk

Trunk maker, another Chisholm

Secret compartment in the trunk where the letters and medals were hidden

I took everything home and started to read. It took a long time with some of the letters worn thin at the creases, the faded ink and tiny handwriting. I read everything, without stopping, until my eyes were red with strain and tears. At the end, I felt close to George and his WWI experiences culminating at the battle of  Vimy Ridge,  and I hope those of you who read this will feel the same way.

Here dead we lie, by A. E. Housman

Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.

Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

Cabaret-Rouge Cemetery, Souchez France
Image by Wernervc

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Early Photography in Burma, Part 2: Willoughby Wallace Hooper

East India House, Leadenhall St., drawn by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, c.1817

Willoughby Wallace Hooper was born in London in 1837 and by the age of sixteen he became a writer in the East India Company. A writer was a junior clerk at the lowest level who took minutes,  recorded the entries in ships’ logs, assisted the directors and learned the business of the EIC from the ground up. By this time the power of the EIC was waning, to be completely destroyed by the Indian Mutiny of 1857. With the passing of the Government of India Act in 1858 the Crown took over its rule in India and by 1874 the Company was dissolved and its holdings and armies were then controlled by the British government. Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India in 1877, just in case the sub-continent was under the impression it had escaped foreign rule.

Hooper joined the 7th Madras Light Cavalry in 1858 and rose through the ranks until he was made a full colonel in 1884. Throughout his time in India he was an obsessive photographer, as much as one could be while lugging around a large Victorian camera and tripod. He contributed to the eight volume set, “The People of India” , published in parts from 1868-1875,  and photographed the Madras Famine from 1876 to 1878.

Portrait of a Nihang or an Akali, W. W. Hooper, ca 1870; Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Famine victims, Madras
1876-1878; courtesy of Bloomsbury Auctions – London

I believe that while excelling at the static studio portrait, Hooper wanted more. He wanted to capture the moment; the moment a gun is fired, the moment a man takes his last breath as he dies from starvation. He is described as rushing into battles with his camera and tripod:

“It is related of him that on one occasion when a sepoy went shooting at large at his officers and comrades, he ran out with a photographic apparatus and brought it to bear upon the sepoy, who was in the act of taking aim at him. The homicidal soldier was struck at the instant by a bullet from another sepoy, and Colonel Hooper obtained his negative.”

The desire to seize the moment in an image is not a new one. In the 19th century the Impressionists tried to catch the essence of changing light. The 17th century painter, Caravaggio, stunned the cognoscenti in Rome with his Conversion on the Road to Damascus; his depiction of Saul’s tumble from his horse, his blindness, and his reaching out for salvation is a transformational moment in St. Paul’s life.

 

The Conversion on the Road to Damascus by Caravaggio, 1600; Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

It was this desire to capture a transformational moment which led to the sensational scandal of Willoughby Wallace Hooper’s dacoit photo.

Newly promoted to Provost Marshall with the Burma Expeditionary Force he sails to Burma in 1885 for what will be the Third (and final) Anglo-Burmese War. The troops commandeer ships from the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company and steam up the river to Mandalay, encountering little opposition.

Group of officers taken on board the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co’s Steamer “Irrawaddy” while advancing up the river. W. W. Hooper 1885; British Library

 

Once disembarked at the Royal City in Upper Burmah, a minimum number of shots are fired, the city taken, the enemy’s arms confiscated and a few days later, King Thibaw and his Queen are banished to Ratnagiri in India.

 

Arrival of the Expedition at Mandalay on the 28th Nov. 1885; British Library

 

A Print from a Negative (found in the Palace) of King Theebaw, Queen Soopy-a-lat and her sister; British Library

The fierce fighting was now about to start, with rebels loyal to the country waging guerrilla warfare for a good five years. Some of these soldiers weren’t always polite to surrounding villagers and would often take by violence what they wanted in the way of arms, food and other supplies. The British described them as “dacoits”, a particular and political term. From “Hobson-Jobson,” by Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell, 1886:

Dacoit, dacoo, s. Hind. … a robber belonging to an armed gang. The term, being current in Bengal, got into the Penal Code. By law, to constitute dacoity, there must be five or more in the gang committing the crime.”

A gang of Dacoits being conveyed down the river from Mandalay to Rangoon on board one of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company’s steamers. W.W. Hooper 1886; British Library

When the British captured armed gangs, they were all considered dacoits, despite many  being just villagers hiding in the jungle. At that time, a man in Burma was not considered a man unless he had his “dah” with him; a long, broad, razor sharp knife in a sheath slung over his shoulder. He used it for everything from slicing fruit to chopping down bamboo. It was practically an extension of his arm and although rarely used for any violent purpose, the British had a perfect excuse to inflict the ultimate punishment on any armed group they caught. And they did, just to set an example.

A dacoit group was before the firing squad where Hooper was stationed and set up his camera nearby. There are many  pictures of this subject from the past up to the present: the prisoners tied to posts or not, the execution squad poised with their rifles, the aftermath of the slumped bodies. Goya painted this subject in his “The Third of May 1808.”

The Third of May 1808; Museo del Prado, Madrid

 

They are disturbing because we know what is about to or has just happened. Hooper, though,  wanted an unconventional shot and approached it with a scientific frame of mind. The order goes out, “Ready, Present….” But what’s this? Hooper interrupts. He needs to adjust his camera. The calibrations are made, the order to fire is given and Hooper takes the perfect shot of the bullets striking the slight bodies of the Burmese dacoits.

A group of Dacoits captured near Mandalay. W.W. Hooper 1885; British Library

As inured to violence as the soldiers in the BEF were, word of what happened got back to London. It was as shocking to people then as Isil beheading videos are today. The Secretary of State, Lord Randolph Churchill, ordered a court of enquiry. Hooper was reprimanded and given a reduction in pay. It did not seem to hurt his career in the army. He went on to publish “Burmah; a series of one hundred photographs” in 1887 and retired in 1896, dying in England in 1912.

The most remarkable thing to come out of the scandal was the description of it by Grattan Geary in his book, “Burma, after the conquest” London, 1886. I quote some of it here to show his very modern opinion of the Scandal of Willoughby Wallace Hooper, and  to show how little the world has changed.

Excerpt pp 241-244, (bold type my own):

“The second instance which may be adduced is that in which the too curious use of the photographic camera added an unseemly element to military executions in Mandalay. Being desirous of getting photographs of the prisoners’ attitudes and expressions at the moment the bullets struck them, the Provost-Marshal set up a photographic camera in a convenient position when the dread words of command, “Ready! Present” were given. The discharge was then delayed for a few minutes while the camera was brought to bear on the doomed men; the focus attained, the signal was given, the bullets struck the waiting men; the negatives were secured. This procedure probably did not add perceptibly to the suffering of the men expecting momentarily the fatal bullets; but there is something unpleasant and almost sinister at the coolness and deliberation with which the action of the tragedy was suspended in order that a scientific record might be taken of the effect, physical and moral, of the shock of bullets, on the persons of defenceless and despairing men. Lord Dufferin at Calcutta and the Ministers in England shared the indignation of Mr. Bernard, when they came to know what had been done. The then Secretary of State, Lord Randolph Churchill, at once telegraphed instructions that grave and immediate action should be taken with regard to the officer concerned. His successor ordered that the Provost Marshal should be tried by Court-martial. But no one supposes that statesmen and administrators, accustomed to recognise and respect the rights of humanity, would fail to reprobate acts of the kind. The fatal thing is that such acts under certain circumstances become inevitable under a natural law, which ordains that the practice of cruelty makes even merciful men cruel, dulling the moral sense until it is impossible to draw the line with any precision between what is legitimate and what is not.

It is fair to say that Colonel Hooper has the reputation of being a very good officer, and that the desire to photograph the Burmese when struck by bullets is attributed, not to any inhumanity, but to what may almost be regarded as a passion for securing an indelible record of human expression at the supreme moment. It is related of him that on one occasion when a sepoy went shooting at large at his officers and comrades, he ran out with a photographic apparatus and brought it to bear upon the sepoy, who was in the act of taking aim at him. The homicidal soldier was struck at the instant by a bullet from another sepoy, and Colonel Hooper obtained his negative. At the battle of Minelah the gallant officer carried his camera under fire, so that it might be available for the record of any exceptional incident.

The photographing of the men shot at Mandalay under the circumstances mentioned was undoubtedly reprehensible. It created a bad impression, from which Colonel Hooper must be prepared to suffer in public opinion. But it is open to doubt whether there is not something very pharasaical in the spirit which revolts at the operation of photographing a batch of men at the moment of their execution, when their execution in batches is accepted as an ordinary incident in the subjugation of a conquered people. If all the men who were shot were dacoits, or had committed any moral offence other than that of hazarding their life in a lost cause, the shooting would be righteous as well as necessary, but, speaking generally, the executions in such cases are exemplary, and not punitive. It is the custom to close the eyes and the ears to the real nature of the “salutary severities” which are sparingly alluded to in the narratives of military operations in a vanquished country. It would be a great gain to the cause of humanity if there were more Colonel Hoopers, who would focus and fix and make widely known, every horror which it is the custom to slur over in referring to incidents of the kind. If people at large realised with anything like exactitude, the real nature of the price which subjugated populations pay for the blessings of civilisation, sounder views on such subjects would perhaps become more prevalent. As has been said above, if the severities produced always and everywhere the tranquillising effects which are generally expected from them, it might be a duty to acquiesce, as it is the duty of a surgeon to inflict pain as the price of an ultimate good.”

Some of King Theebaw’s Guards at the East Gate of the Palace enclosure, [Mandalay], the day we entered. W.W. Hooper 1885; British Library

References:

Luminous Lint

John Falconer at Luminous Lint

The British Library

Wikipedia

 

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Early Photography in Burma, Part 1: Linnaeus Tripe

Capt. Linnaeus Tripe

Capt. Linnaeus Tripe

Linnaeus Tripe was born in Devonport, Devon on April 14, 1822, the ninth of twelve children. His father Cornelius was a surgeon. In 1839 he joined the East India Company as an ensign in the 12th Madras Native Infantry, and travelled to Madras on the Carnatica, a voyage of four months. He was promoted to lieutenant early in 1840 and followed the usual round of moving to different posts in India with his regiment. In November, 1850 he sailed back to England (a five month journey this time) and arrived at a momentous time in its history: a celebration of the midpoint of the century with the the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was a fortunate coming together of circumstances that would change his life.

The daguerrotypes of the Americans and the calotypes of the French won awards and there were many photographs displayed throughout the Exhibition, as well as camera equipment and supplies. He must have been fascinated by this new technology, for at the end of 1851 he placed an order for equipment with G. Knight & Son and by early 1853 he was elected a founding member of the Photographic Society of London.

Although we don’t know the precise make of his camera, we do know it took 12 by 15 inch negatives which meant it was one of the more advanced options of the time. He used waxed paper negatives which were easier to carry and develop than the usual glass plates. We do know his lens was the four and a half pound Ross No. 4 Landscape Lens, with a focal length of 20 inches.

Unlike many new photographers he eschewed the taking of sentimental and highly narrative scenes in favour of an architectural approach to his subjects of ships and dockyard paraphernalia. His eye for composition was well developed by the time his leave finished and he sailed back to India in April of 1854.

Quarterdeck of HMS "Impregnable," 1852-1854

Quarterdeck of HMS “Impregnable,” 1852-1854

At the end of the year he took leave and self financed a photography expedition to Mysore where he used his meticulous method of long shots, mid-shots and close-ups to document two temples. Always aware of light, he employed it to advantage on complex carvings and to enhance his depth of focus. He entered sixty eight of these photos in to the Raw Products, Arts and Manufactures of Southern India exhibition and won a First Class Medal in 1855.

Hullabede: Temple of Siva, Sculptures, December 1854

Hullabede: Temple of Siva, Sculptures, December 1854

This honour brought him to the attention of Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general of India, who was planning a political mission to the King of Burma after the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852. The British wished to explore and record as much as they could about the country and so hired Colesworthy  Grant as the official artist but also Tripe as the photographer for the mission. His was the first such appointment given to a photographer in the history of British diplomatic missions.

Tripe threw himself into preparations for the trip. Specially made sturdy and waterproof cases were ordered for all his equipment and supplies, including the waxed paper slides and the developing chemicals. He even included a small still so he could be sure of using only pure water when fixing the negatives. He left Bangalore in July 1855, headed to Burma by way of Madras, Calcutta and the Bay of Bengal.

The Mission to Ava sailed upriver from Rangoon on August 1, 1855, under the leadership of Col. Arthur Phayre. Tripe started taking photographs once they reached Prome (now called Pyay) and numbered them sequentially.

No. 2. Prome. North entrance to the Shwe San-dau Pagoda

No. 2. Prome. North entrance to the Shwe San-dau Pagoda

We do not know how he worked, whether he had an assistant or what happened day to day as he left no diary. There is a scribbled note found later which gives us some idea of his difficulties:

he was working against time; and frequently with no opportunities of replacing poor proofs by better,” and “from unfavourable weather, sickness, and the circumstances unavoidably attending such a mission, his actual working time was narrowed to thirty-six days.

It is on record that of 6,517 prints 2,832 had to be rejected, and that many plates were ruined because the heat melted the wax on the negatives. Considering that temperatures in the months of August, September and October in the Dry Zone of Upper Burma regularly exceed 40℃ (100℉) his accomplishment was astonishing.

No. 9. Ye-nan-gyoung [Yenangyaung]. Balcony of a Kyoung

No. 9. Ye-nan-gyoung [Yenangyaung]. Balcony of a Kyoung

Tripe didn’t just develop the negatives he took over the three months of the trip; he drew on the plates directly, enhancing straight lines, putting extra leaves on a tree, ripples in a pool or clouds in the sky. Was he the first to re-touch his photos? Probably not; in fact it was a common practice, but he was a master of this early Victorian version of Photoshop.

No. 10. Ye-nan-gyoung [Yenangyaung]. Tamarind tree

No. 10. Ye-nan-gyoung [Yenangyaung]. Tamarind tree

He photographed in Prome, Thayetmyo, Yenangyoung, Bagan, Sagaing, Ava, Mingun, Amarapura and finally, Rangoon. They left Burma in October and returned to India, where Tripe methodically and carefully started printing.

It took him two years to complete the printing of a book, “Burma Views,” of which 50 copies were sent to the government in Calcutta in March of 1857, along with all the other prints, both partial and complete, that he succeeded in making. The government was so impressed with his work they granted him the copyright on all the images and gave him permission to make them for himself and for retail.

He was also given the office of photographer to the Madras Presidency which lasted until the end of 1859 when a newly appointed governor, Sir Charles Trevelyan asked whether the “Photographic Establishment is not an article of high luxury which is unsuited to the state of our finances.”

One can only believe that this was a blow of huge magnitude to Tripe, because of his subsequent actions, or rather omission of action. After putting on the pressure to finish printing all the work he had taken in Madras, while contending with constant requests for updated reports and financial scrutiny, and dismantling his printing studio, he returned to England on convalescent leave in the spring of 1860. He took no photographs while on leave.

Not a rich man, he was forced to resume his army career in India in 1863, where he remained for ten years. He took a only a handful of personal photographs of Burma in that time. Compare this paltry output with the impressive production during a single visit of three months to Burma on the Mission to Ava and a subsequent six months in 1858 travelling around India – 794 negatives.

In 1873 he retired to Devonport and never took another photograph. He died in 1902.

 

 

 

Please click on the photos for credits. Quotes and information taken from the book “Captain Linnaeus Tripe; Photographer of India and Burma, 1852-1860” by Roger Taylor and Crispin Branfoot with Sarah Greenough and Malcolm Daniel.

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The Burmese Zodiac: An Astonishing Discovery

Antique silver libation bowl with the animals of the zodiac. Burma, 1890-1910

Antique silver libation bowl with the animals of the zodiac. Burma, 1890-1910

 

The Burmese are a superstitious people. There are astrologists, numerologists and palm readers in every town, earning a good living. Most people seek their help in deciding an auspicious date for a wedding, starting a business or going to a new job. The military government moved all their ministries out of Yangon in 2005, to their newly built city of Naypyidaw, 300 km to the north because it was deemed more auspicious. While they have a monthly zodiac identical to our Western one, they also have a weekly one. It hinges on the day you were born, with Wednesday being divided into two halves, so making for eight signs. These are:

Monday – Tiger

Tuesday – Lion

Wednesday a.m. – Elephant, tusked

Wednesday p.m. – Elephant, tuskless

Thursday – Rat

Friday – Guinea Pig

Saturday – Naga (mythical dragon/serpent)

Sunday – Garuda (mythical king of birds)

At the Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Tuskless Elephant At the Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

 

It was a bit of a surprise on my first visit to see the eight creatures of the zodiac featured in every pagoda. People would go to their animal or creature and salute it by pouring water over the statue while wishing for a good outcome to their endeavours. I eagerly looked for my day and found I was a guinea pig. What? A guinea pig? They aren’t native to Burma and never have been, yet this tradition goes back to the animist worship that pre-dates Buddhism. The guinea pig statues looked suspiciously like tailless rats to me. Was it a mistranslation? One person I asked said they had seen the day ascribed to the rabbit in times past, but since none of statues had ears people preferred “guinea pig.” Another suggestion was that it was a species called the bamboo rat, but that bigger rat had a tail, and why feature two rats in the list?

bamboorat_27541_lg

 

My big revelation in this blog post is that I have found out exactly what the tailless ratty, guinea piggy, rabbity creature really is. It’s a pika. The lightbulb moment came while watching a BBC documentary on the natural history of India. The team went to the far northwest hills in Assam and filmed these shy little creatures foraging in meadowland and on rocky slopes. They are small, between 5-9 inches long, tailless, with soft coats and faces much like rabbits, but no ears, similar to guinea pigs. This had to be it – the Assam area had very fluid borders with Burma in the past, the astrology and astronomy traditions originally came from Hindu practices, and to cap it all off, the pika is an inhabitant of Myanmar, according to this article.

A pika of the Himalayas

A pika of the Himalayas

Now, how do I convince the entire Myanmar nation to accept my findings?

Answers on a postcard, please, or you can just reply to this post.

 

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Antiques Roadshow, Burmese Style

The Old Dealer

I’ve always loved old things, especially useful but baffling objects from the 19th century. In museums you will find me staring at cases full of marrow scoops and asparagus tongs or marvelling at complete dessert services for 100 people, including tazzas and lidded ice pails. I’m always ready to stop at flea markets and antique shops because my mantra is “You never know.” In other words, you’ll never know what you might find if you stopped even if it was just… you shouldn’t have stopped.

So when my friend suggested she could take me antique shopping in Rangoon I was thrilled. Her friend advised I should go alone to a couple of junk shops on the Dhammazedi road first, to get a feel of what it was like; so armed with a map she marked for me I set off on an overcast but sweltering day, wearing khaki trousers with pockets, plastic flip-flops and a baggy linen shirt. I had some researching to do in that part of town and it looked as though it would just be half an hour’s walk away.

When I came out of the Myanmar Book Centre it was drizzling. The whole forecourt was one massive puddle. I splashed along to the street and turned in the direction of the junk shops. I had an umbrella and used it. The rain was torrential, then misty, then drifting, then torrential again. Well what could I expect at the end of the monsoon season? I walked along the pavement on top of the monsoon drain, which is covered in pavers with little gaps to let the water in. Then there were no more pavers over the open drain, so I walked in the road, cars swishing very close to me. I crossed the road when I saw a sidewalk, proceeded for several blocks, then ran into a restaurant being built out onto the pavement, so it was back to the road again. At this point there was a tidal wave of yellow muddy water to step through. Thank goodness my relative, Rachel Minus had suggested I wear flip-flops.

At one point, fearing I was lost, I asked a uniformed guard in a kiosk by a big gate if I was going the right way. Well, I waved my map at him and jabbed at it and he pointed me in the right direction. Lots of smiles all around, from both sides. Later, I learned he was a Government soldier, and people marvelled at how brave I’d been. No, not brave, just befuddled, lost and desperate. Finally I found the two junk shops. One was completely useless, but the other looked intriguing. It was run by this gentleman:

Antique dealer, Elvis impersonator and all round lovable rogue

Antique dealer, Elvis impersonator and all round lovable rogue

He sat me down on a none too clean chair and offered me some water in an old mug that he dusted with an equally suspect cloth. He handed me the goods I was interested in and didn’t seem downcast when I demurred at his expensive prices. When I returned something to him with a shake of the head, he sang a few bars of “Return to Sender,” a la Elvis Presley. He had the most amazing, large, vintage tin advertising sign at an equally amazingly large price, and to this day I wish I had bought it.

Vintage tin sign

Vintage tin sign

I could have stayed longer but I had to go. Trying to flag down a taxi on this busy road was a performance. After the fifth one turned me down, he suggested I would have better luck if I crossed the road, as the taxis were going in the right direction. So, I took my umbrella and life in my hands and waded shin deep in water across six lanes of traffic. The drivers were very polite, and slowed down as they diverted around me, but didn’t actually stop.

When I finally got back to my fairly swish hotel, I looked like an extra from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Trousers were wet to the thigh and muddy. The linen shirt was stuck to my back. My hair had turned into rats tails with the humidity. I was pink and sweaty and completely the opposite of the dainty Burmese women arriving for a wedding, clad in embroidered silk longyis; hair, nails and makeup glossy and perfect, skin powdered, diamonds glinting and kitten heels clacking.

Refreshed with a shower and change of clothes, I walked to my friend’s and was introduced to her landlord who was going to be guiding us on the afternoon’s antiquing trip. Bala was a Muslim born and bred in Yangon, and after many ups and downs with family fortunes was now a wealthy landowner. We were going to his old neighbourhood of Thingangyun, in the north east part of the city. The area was once the home of the prosperous Burmese middle class, and was still full of gently decaying teak homes with gingerbread trim. These were gradually being eroded in favour of new, shiny concrete and tile houses with barred windows. I suppose those materials are more easy-care in the harsh climate but they are not hla (pretty.)

IMG_6516

Two hla homes.

IMG_6497

 

New build flats with baskets to help top floor occupants buy from street traders

New build flats with baskets to help top floor occupants buy from street traders. Not very hla.

This small neighbourhood contained a Buddhist paya, a Hindu temple, a Muslim mosque and a Catholic nunnery. Everyone seemed to live beside each other with no divisions of race, class or religion.There were open drains and puddles galore, goats, chickens, and even cows tied up outside houses. alongside rundown cars.

Hindu temple

Hindu temple

IMG_6478

IMG_6520

We didn’t actually go into any shops. Bala knew people who demolished houses, or built cupboards and doors, and he took us to their workshops. Piled high outside would be wonderful Art Deco furniture in teak and rattan, deforming in the rain. Some of the places had shelves with a few objects that they had thought worth saving, but I wondered what they had left behind.

Old Burma Furniture

IMG_6476

IMG_6519

I found an Art Deco stepped glass vase for Laetitia in one place, practically the only piece of glass we saw that wasn’t damaged. Bala translated for us and we paid in US dollars. My treasure was a late 19th century or early 20th century teak carving of a Burmese Naga, a mythical serpent dragon. It had once been on the front of a cupboard, and was slightly damaged on one side. It was grey and filthy with cobwebs deep inside the undercuts, but I could see the work was complex and crisp. For thirty dollars it was mine! After being scrubbed with a toothbrush and oiled, it now hangs in my office at the bottom of the basement stairs. The wood is black, the serpent smiles and every time I look at it, so do I.

Carved wood Naga   Naga carving

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In Praise of Boring Books: A Golden Example

Have you ever stopped reading a book that everyone is raving about because you just found it…..boring? Have you persevered to the end of dull books just because you think you might learn something and afterwards regretted all that time you will never get back? I am here to tell you that sometimes it pays to read to the end of even the most yawn inducing volumes.

If you look at the top of this blog you will see a Book List page where I tell you why I set myself a goal in 2014 to read a lot about Burma and which books I read. Most of these would not have been books I’d normally choose to read for fun, but by the end of the year I was a convert to the non-fiction, history and WWII genres. I forced myself to read many books that previously I would have ditched after a few pages. As well as the books from my uncle’s library I started looking for more. So, a few weeks ago I spotted a book at a local secondhand bookstore, Russell Books, after I scrutinized all the shelves in their Southeast Asia section. It was written by a man outstanding in his field and literally, Out Standing In A (Burmese) Field. It was “The Golden Road to Modernity: Village Life in Contemporary Burma,” by Manning Nash, published in 1965.

Cover

Cover

Dr. Nash was a member of The American Ethnological Society, The American Anthropological Association and The Royal Anthropological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He taught anthropology at the university of California, the University of Washington and at the University of Chicago, where he received his PhD. He had done field work in Guatemala and Mexico, and later in Malaya. His field work for this book was done in 1960/61, just before the infamous military takeover that locked the country away until 2012. He chose two villages in Upper Burma near Mandalay: Nondwin, a mixed crop community and Yadaw, a rice growing community.

It could only be read in short doses while my mind was wide awake. It was no good reading it before bed, unless I wanted to fall asleep suddenly, like a parrot with a cloth over its cage. It had no photographs of the area  or even drawings of the thatched huts or a bullock cart. It was as sere as a summer in the Dry Zone of Upper Burma. I started referring to it as The Most Boring Burma Book in the World.

Modernity map

After reading a good introduction about the basic history of Burma I faltered at the first hurdles of maps and tables. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you: maps and this woman do not get on. I have been known to search for a friend’s house on an entirely different street one block parallel to hers and nearly convince myself her house had shape-shifted since I was last there. Nash’s maps were black and white line drawings that I itched to colour in. Shouldn’t the Irrawaddy be blue, the fields green and the scrubland beige? And then there were tables: Crops worked with acre and cultivator totals, return per acre of cotton or sesamum (sesame seed), a graph of landholding sizes, so many tables quantifying minutiae …..but then I came to Table VII: Average Monthly Expenditure Pattern of a Rich Household. I was hooked.

A viss is 3.6 lbs or 1.63 kg.

A viss is 3.6 lbs or 1.63 kg.

This table and its companion for the Moderate and Poor families made the village of Nondwin spring to life. I read on and was rewarded with a description of life in the Burmese countryside that with few changes could easily be written of the villages today. The farmers In 2015 might have cellphones but they still use bullock carts and wooden ploughs. I’ve seen satellite dishes on houses at Inle Lake but the cultivation of floating gardens continues. Cooking over open fires, the wearing of the longyi and the morning ritual of feeding the monks  is normal, and Buddhism is still the main religion.

Woman making rice crackers over a charcoal fire. She makes up to 400 per day and sells them in the market.

Woman making rice crackers over a charcoal fire. She makes up to 400 per day and sells them in the market.

Satellite dishes on the old stilt houses of Inle lake.

Satellite dishes on the old stilt houses of Inle lake.

I had a companion as I read. The previous owner of the book, David S. Moyer according to the bookplate, had pencilled parentheses in the text and N.B’s in the margins. Normally this marking of books annoys me no end and I find the more emphatic the underlinings the less likely the reader has finished the book but Mr. Moyer obviously read every word and fully grasped what was important. I like to think, but have no proof, that he was a graduate student attending one of Nash’s classes when he pencilled the notes in this book.

book plate

The reward for reading on was finding nuggets of gold like this selection of his nota benes:

“The villagers have the material equipment of a mode of life developed centuries ago and a mental outlook more closely geared to that than the modern world, but, at the same time, they are acting members of a working Asian democracy, and they are participants in the political and economic processes of transformation.”

“Toward what is seen as government, villagers take a stance akin to what they take when dealing with nats (the animistic beings peopling a good part of the village conceptual world): They try to ward off or to minimize this potential evil.”

“Women are full, functional members of society, whether they marry or not, as are men, and of course the unmarried are built-in parts of the social structure, not anomalies. The great overlap in the sexual division of labor makes it simple, on the side of the ordinary business of keeping fed, groomed, kempt, and housed, for single persons to live alone. Men can sew, cook, baby-tend, wash clothes, and shop for food. Women can work in the field, drive bullock carts, chop wood, and be prominent in market transactions.”

My favourite is :”Government is one of the five traditional enemies, along with fire, famine, flood, and plague.”

Since Burma has had little to do with Western countries for the past fifty plus years, it has been frozen in time and many of Professor Nash’s meticulous observations still hold true in the country today, whether it’s rural vs urban populations, the educated classes vs agricultural workers, or the common people vs the ruling elite in Naypyidaw. Considering there is going to be a free (ish) and democratic (sort of) election in Burma at the end of 2015, I think anyone in the Western press surmising about the outcome would do well to study “The Golden Road to Modernity” before coming to any conclusions. We know what happened recently in the UK elections and how the polls and pundits got it so wrong. To find gold you have to sift through masses of heavier material; I hope the election predictors for Myanmar do their homework and get it right, even if it means reading The Most Boring Burma Book in the World.

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A Love Affair with Lovedale

 

Scan

In an earlier post I mentioned Dad’s long journey to school every year (boat from Rangoon to Calcutta, then three days on a train to Lovedale.) He told me that despite the strict discipline he had had the time of his life there. He joined the band and played the clarinet. He won prizes for shooting and boxed as a featherweight, which gave rise to my nickname for him, Feth. He explored the forest and collected birds’ eggs which started his lifelong love of birds and birdwatching.  He made good friends there and spoke of them: Amber, Hoot, Ginger, Dungey, Bhamo and Max.He also innocently flirted with the girls when for the first time the school held coeducational classes.

In the 1970’s I lived in England and he asked me to put an ad in a major newspaper listing these nicknames, naming the school and asking if they would like to meet up with Mino on one of his trips. There was no response. Twenty years later he heard via a letter he had sent to The National Geographic Magazine that someone named Max Cocker, who claimed to be an old schoolmate, would like to contact him. He was as excited as a little boy at his birthday party, Christmas, Cup Final (ice hockey and soccer) all rolled into one. This kicked off his only visit back to Burma in the mid 1990’s plus a trip to the school, which is still going, in India. He met with Max and they became firm e-mail buddies. He also attended several Old Lawrencian reunions in London and kept in touch with several others.

Max had written a reminiscence of his schooldays and sent my father a copy. To Mino’s joy he was mentioned in five anecdotes. I present them here, five pages scanned from the book, Lovedale; The Lawrence Memorial Royal Military School, South India: a
Personal Account by Max Cocker. C 1988.

Catching a trout

Catching a trout

Lab accident

Lab accident

Stealing young hawks

Stealing young hawks

Egg blowing

Egg blowing

Snake on the path.

Snake on the path.

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We’ve Got The Power

 

We’ve Got the Power sung by the Pointer Sisters

(Michael Brooks/Bob Esty)

I know the rules for foolish games

They only fill a heart with pain

We need a rest, a change of pace

Come take my heart to a silent place

Where our dreams run wild

The simple joy of a little child lives here

Telling us to hold on a little longer

 

We can climb a mountain

To the top of the world

We’ve got the power

We’ve got the power

To take us anywhere we wanna go

 

We can live forever

At the top of the world

We’ve got the power

We’ve got the power

To live our dreams chasing after rainbows

 

With what we have is where we start

And what we build or tear apart

Depends on what we gain or lose

What we reject and what we choose

When I see your smile

The simple joy of a baby child is born

Reminding us to hold on a little longer

 

We can climb a mountain

To the top of the world

We’ve got the power

We’ve got the power

To take us anywhere we wanna go

 

We can live forever

At the top of the world

We’ve got the power

We’ve got the power

To live our dreams chasing after rainbows

 

Thinking of a title for this post, the song, “We’ve Got the Power” popped into my mind. The lyrics could easily apply to the group that travelled to Rangoon to save the Armenian Church. The group included some trustees of other Armenian churches, international businessmen and interested parties like myself, headed by His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians; His Grace Bishop Haigazun Najarian; Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Australia and New Zealand and Pontifical Legate of the Far East; Very Rev. Fr. Zaven Yazichyan; Armenian spiritual pastor of India and Manager of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy of Kolkata; and by Rev. Fr. Paruyr Avetisyan, Director of the Intra Church Relations Department of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.

 

Some of the Group

Some of the group

“We’ve got the power”

One could say that by the simple act of visiting the church, this influential group brought it into prominence. It was the first time in history that a Catholicos had visited Burma. It was the first time in decades the church had more than a handful of people at its services. It was the first time a church in Yangon had received an historical Blue Plaque. It was the first time ever, I am willing to bet, that it had a rugby scrum of paparazzi and reporters on its doorstep. With this kind of news coverage (the Burmese nationals and the BBC) you’d think the job would be done. But it wasn’t.

Plaque ceremony crowd

Plaque ceremony crowd

 

“Telling us to hold on a little longer”

There was the problem of the impostor pastor who had the keys to the church. He had taken control last year by the simple act of changing the padlocks on the doors. Even after the denunciation of him from the pulpit, he still wasn’t getting the message that his time was over. On the first Sunday after the visit by His Holiness, the promised Armenian priest from Calcutta could not be there due to visa complications. It takes longer to get a multiple visit visa than a tourist one. There was no way the group would let the church be empty.

Ashot Tunyan, who lives in Singapore stepped in. He came to speak to the newly gathered congregation of two dozen and to reassure them that with their commitment the church would have a future. Impostor Pastor was there as well, dressed up in his robes. (Where did he buy them? There must be a special ecclesiastical supply catalogue rather like the Sears Wish Book.) He introduced Ashot to us while we fumed. He then gave ‘translations’ into Burmese of what Ashot was saying, which weren’t accurate, trying to make us believe the handover was all his idea.

Ashot has come every Sunday since, sometimes with his family. He has succeeded in legally changing the locks so the keys are in the right hands. Father Zaven Yazichyan started coming on Oct. 19 and he or another priest from Calcutta will come every Sunday. The congregation has added some new members and now has an after-the-service meet and greet over coffee or tea.

Ashot Tunyan, second from left.

Ashot Tunyan, second from left.

 

Fr. Zaven addressing the congregation

Fr. Zaven addressing the congregation

 

“With what we have is where we start” 

The congregation is the real key for the success of the church. While it is a charming Eastern/Colonial/English country church building that welcomes visitors of all faiths, it isn’t a museum exhibit just for tourists. In one of his meetings, when asked by a Burmese Armenian descendant how had the current situation happened, His Holiness said it happened because no one, except Richard and Rachel Minus cared. No one, except this father and daughter, was proud of their Armenian heritage. This was the start – these two. At that meeting all the descendants of the original Rangoon Armenians present were asked to make a commitment to the church. As a result there are now enough members to form a committee of Trustees.

Rachel and Richard Minus with His Holiness Karekin II

Rachel and Richard Minus with His Holiness Karekin II

 

Some of the descendants of the Armenians of Rangoon

Some of the descendants of the Armenians of Rangoon

 

“The simple joy of a baby child is born”

The church has already had two baptisms, a sure sign of regeneration. Ashot’s son was the first, a little boy, not a baby. Rachel’s little niece of six months was next. Rachel and her daughter, Beyonce, and Rachel’s sister were confirmed. The church will be welcoming Rachel’s new baby next year in June. Congratulations, Rachel!

IMG_7097

 

Ashot and Lora Tunyan with their son

Ashot and Lora Tunyan with their son

The Minuses, baptized and confirmed

The Minuses, baptized and confirmed

 

“We can live forever

At the top of the world

We’ve got the power

We’ve got the power

To live our dreams chasing after rainbows”

 

This present church building has existed since 1862, there has been an Armenian church in Yangon for nearly 250 years. It has endured capricious kings, Colonial wars, recessions, fire, bombing during World War II and the isolation of a repressive military government. Through it all, the Armenian members hung on, until there were just two.  Those two reached out to the Armenian diaspora, and this is the result. It has surpassed our hopes; from nearly being stripped of it assets in cash and land to now hosting a growing congregation every Sunday, the Church has an excellent chance of survival.

I think all of us who took part in this adventure feel like they are on top of the world. Did we think we were chasing rainbows? If we did, the rainbow was surely caught and will live forever.

The church steeple

The church steeple

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One Quarter Armenian. One Hundred Per Cent Feisty

Armenian Women, 1895

Armenian Women, 1895

“I am a quarter Armenian but it’s the best part of me.” I first said this in Singapore where I was welcomed by the Armenians in Asia as they continued their historic tour with His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. If you are unfamiliar with His title, He is to the Armenian faith what the Pope is to Catholicism.

Why was I on this tour?

About a year ago I received an emotional phone call from my ‘cousin’ Rachel in Rangoon. Cousin is in quotation marks because by family tree rules she is considered to be my third cousin, once removed. By the rules of our friendship she is much more than that. I met her during my first visit to Burma in January, 2013, at the Armenian Church in Rangoon. She, her father Richard and Mr. Basil Martin were the sole local parishioners, although occasionally the congregation swelled to eight or nine if visiting tourists or NGO members came. Richard Minus (Yay! another Minus) had been the Warden for many years and took an active part in the service, ringing the bells, while Rachel was the sole voice of the choir, and a very beautiful one.

At that time I met what I thought was the current priest, John Felix. He invited me to read from the lectern. He invited everyone up to take the sacrament, whether they were baptised in the Christian faith or not. He did not speak Armenian, nor was ordained in the Armenian church. His sole claim to his job seemed to be that his father, an ordained Anglican priest had held the position for more than 20 years. When he died in 2011, his son stepped in, claiming to have the same qualifications. He took great pains to tell me who he had been ordained by and where. No clergyman I have ever met has felt the need to do this.

I asked to see the register of Births, Marriages and Deaths.  It was stolen along with the candlesticks, he said. Any other documents about the church? Yes but you can’t see them. Why not? You cannot step up close to the altar where they are stored in a safe as you are not ordained. Well, can  you bring them out to me? Not possible, he said with much smarmy grinning. He was obsequious to the point of being another Uriah Heep.

But, I always think the best of people and in this church my grandparents were married, my grandfather had his funeral rites and my great-aunts’ trek was remembered in a plaque. So, I gave him $200 for the church and $25 for himself. In case you think that is a bit cheap, consider that the average monthly wage in Burma is $40.

Making a donation in January, 2013

Making a donation in January, 2013

 

He took me to see Mr. Basil Martin, the last full Armenian to worship in the church, although failing health had made his visits few of late. Mr. Martin lived in the splendid colonial house where he was born, hardly updated except for a modern bathroom. The kitchen was a separate building connected to the house by a covered walkway. Inside was the huge brick cooking range fired by wood with holes in the top to accommodate the ‘degchis’ or cooking pots. A single cold tap fed by a garden hose sufficed for water.
The modern fridge was inside the house. He was looked after by Rita, the Chinese housekeeper and her daughter.

I was allowed to see inside the house. You could see it had once been an elegant home, but now it was in a squalid state. I was most shocked by the state of Mr. Martin’s bedroom. His mattress was on the floor, covered by a dirty cloth tent with ragged mosquito netting panels. The room was dusty with the accumulation of months, not days. There was no air conditioning, all the windows were shut tight and looked like they had been that way for years. The house sat on two acres in the rich embassy neighbourhood of Rangoon. He rented out the top half to a doctor and his family. He was descended from the prosperous family of A.C. Martin, who built many of the beautiful colonial buildings you see today. How had his life and the life of the church come to this?

Rachel’s call revealed all. Mr. Martin died in May, a few months after our meeting. He had been Chairman of the trustees, with Richard as Warden. There was only the two of them and now one was dead. John Felix had declared he was head of the trustees now and he would sell the church grounds off to the highest bidder. Contractors were abuzz with excitement. Rachel asked me tearfully if he could do this.

Of course not! Was the man insane? Church property belongs to the church, not some individual. How dare he mislead me and try to sell this property? My blood was up.

That phone call started me researching everything I could about the church. Rachel contacted the Armenians in Asia group and we both communicated with Pierre Hennes of Singapore. They were shocked by what was happening and started the ball rolling which, a year later, culminated in the first visit ever to Rangoon by the head of the Armenian Church.

His Holiness, His Grace the Archbishop, attendant priests and the worldwide group of influential Armenians travelling with them throughout His SE Asian tour attended the installation of a blue historical plaque, only the third awarded by the Yangon Heritage Trust. This trust, headed by Thant Myint U, is doing wonderful work trying to preserve the colonial buildings in Rangoon. Laetitia Millois, of YHT, and I had worked together on three storyboards inside the church, giving visitors a chance to understand not just the history of the church but the importance of Armenians to the development of Burma and Rangoon.

Historical plaque outside the Armenian Church installed by Yangon Heritage Trust on Oct. 1, 2014

Historical plaque outside the Armenian Church installed by Yangon Heritage Trust on Oct. 1, 2014

On Saturday, October 4th, the church was packed for the liturgy to be performed by His Holiness Karekin II. This was the culmination of a year’s worth of emails, phone calls, research at the British Library, shock at Felix’s manoeuvres, times when we felt like giving up. We knew, however, that the experienced and influential Armenians in Asia group had everything in hand.  The deceitful John Felix was not going to mis-represent himself as a priest and take over. He was not going to sell off my ancestors’ heritage. I would see him in Hell before I let that happen.

A packed church on Oct. 4, 2014. Tina Minus talks to Winsome Vertannes in the centre. Winsome's mother waits for the service to start.

A packed church on Oct. 4, 2014. Tina Minus talks to Winsome Vertannes in the centre. Winsome’s mother waits for the service to start.

I was not familiar with all the details of the liturgy, but I did wonder why His Holiness and attendant priests spent a long time washing every surface of the altar. Then His Grace Bishop Haigazoun Najarian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of Australia and New Zealand made this announcement:

“Dear faithful,
Today we are going to re-­‐consecrate the altar of St
John the Baptist Armenian Church because John
Hla Win Felix has misrepresented himself as an
Anglican priest and has desecrated the church by
performing Divine Liturgies and sacraments. Mr.
Felix is not a priest, neither Armenian nor
Anglican. Therefore, according to the canons of
the Armenian Church and the Traditional
Churches, any sacrament officiated by him is not
valid.

We call on Mr. Felix exhorting him to stop violating
Church Canons and Holy Traditions and insulting
the Armenian Church and nation.

What has happened is painful for all of us. We pray
that God may pour His graces upon our faithful
and keep them in peace and harmony. ”

His Grace Bishop Haigazoun Najarian, Primate of The Diocese of the Armenian Church of Australia and New Zealand

L to R: His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, the Very Reverend Father Zaven Yazichyan, and His Grace Bishop Haigazoun Najarian, Primate of The Diocese of the Armenian Church of Australia and New Zealand

Well, I was in church. You can’t jump up and scream “Yes,” while pumping your fist in the air. But as I looked around at the beaming smiles of the congregation I knew they all felt like doing just that. Another cousin, Tina Minus, leaned forward and said this must be translated for the Burmese newspapers. I hope it was.

The press were there, security were there, but where were Rachel and Richard? For that matter, Felix wasn’t there, either. They were all together with the lawyers. Felix had been exposed and they wanted answers.They had discovered proof he was never ordained as a priest, merely a deacon. He was de-frocked of this title while in Thailand, for misappropriation of funds, so was completely without any qualifications when he came to the church in Rangoon.

He deceived Mr. Martin, playing on his father’s reputation, manipulating a frail and trusting old man. By church law, he desecrated the altar every time he used it, Sunday after Sunday for more than three years. The lawyers wanted him to return the keys to the church. He refused. They issued him an ultimatum: if he did not return the keys by 12:30 he would be denounced at the service. He could have one month to quit the shack he lived in, rent free, on the church property. He talked vaguely of having papers but funnily enough could not produce them. So, the denunciation was made.

The BBC who were working on an article and had interviewed me, for background history, and Rachel, for what the church meant to her, immediately took up the story. You can see it here.

Look at Felix’s body language and come to your own conclusions. A couple of days later I visited the church. Felix was still there. I asked what on earth he was doing there? He retreated to his shack and shut the door in my face. I talked at him through the keyhole telling him I knew he was de-frocked and had no right to be there. He threatened me with the police. The cheek of the man knows no bounds, but this feisty one quarter Armenian lady will not put up with it, and neither will the Armenian community worldwide.

I will go to the church this Sunday, Oct. 12th along with the Minus clan, to enjoy the service conducted by the Very Reverend Father Zaven Yazichyan. He assisted at the re-consecration and will be one of three priests from Calcutta who will come every Sunday, to serve the new congregation in a newly cleansed church. It is a re-birth for the little church that was consecrated in 1863 and the result of the innate feistiness of Armenians all over the world.

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The Congregation

Congregation in the late 1950's or early 1960's

Congregation in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s

 

In my last post I gave you a little bit of the history of the Armenian Church in Rangoon. After I visited and went home, I emailed the Yangon Heritage Trust to ask if the church could be put on the register of historical buildings. After all, the church was the first Christian church to be established in Rangoon in 1766, when it was made of  wood and brick. I corresponded with them regularly and tried to dig up more about the church. A relative I had met in Burma sent me two scans of the congregation, with pretty much the same members  in it. With help from my uncle Arthur in London, my dad’s cousin, Noel Minus and his daughter Chris in California, Rachel Minus in Rangoon and various others in Australia I added names and in some cases a word or two about their lives. I would dearly love to identify the question marks in this list.

The Yangon Heritage Trust put up a blue plaque on a building the other day, the first of many, we hope. One day this church will have its plaque, and it will be well deserved. Until I visited it was not a part of the tourist trail. I wrote the first review on Tripadvisor  in 2013 and told my friend Paula Swart-Till, who was the first person to encourage me to go to Burma. She is an Asian art history expert, hired by tour operators like National Geographic to lead tours in Burma, and now the church is one of the must-see places on the itineraries she devises.

Despite the fact that the current congregation when I was there consisted solely of my relative Rachel, her father Richard (the Warden) and the odd NGO worker, I think this church could have a future. This does not include selling the property to a developer, much as some people would like. I don’t usually espouse causes. I don’t belong to any political party. I don’t donate to Greenpeace, although I did attend their Amchitka concert years ago, but that was because of the music. I am a member of the silent majority but this cause stirs my heart. My grandparents were married in this church in 1920. My grandfather, broken and in ill health after the Japanese occupation, died at the age of 51, and his funeral ceremony was held in this church. The plaque honouring his sisters and their families who died in the Trek is in this church. I will do my utmost to see that this church survives.

Those identified in the photograph:

Front Row, L to R:

1. Pete Aratoon. Owned the Silver Grill pre-war. After 1945 he managed the Strand Hotel and later the Kanbawza, the government run hotel that used to be Chin Tsong’s Palace.

2. Archie Gregory. Ran Gaspar and Co., started by his uncle, a bachelor. Archie’s younger brother is John, end of third row.

3. Carr Johns. A long time employee of A.C. Martin and Co. He married a Burmese lady and never left Burma.

Priest from Julfa, Ter Poghos Petrossian.

4. Joe Martin, youngest son of A.C. Martin. He married Helen Apcar, third row.

5. Alfred Simon Mackertich Minus, eldest son of Simon Minus. Father of Keith and Eric.

6. Leon or Gregory Elias. Worked for years at Balthazar and Co.

Second Row, L to R.

7. John (?) Alexander.

8. Marjorie Minus, wife of Keith Minus

9. Priest’s wife, Mrs. ? Petrossian

10. Edie Gregory, nee Minus, married to Bertie Gregory, top row. Sister of Alfred Minus.

11. Annie Minus. Spinster sister of Edie and Alfred Minus.

12. Mrs. Gaspar, related to the Elias family who owned the Continental, a big catering and bakery business.

13. Mrs. Elias

14. Miss Christine Elias

15. Dr. Kenny Minus, second son of George N. S. Minus. He stayed in Burma but went to the U.S. for a short while, then spent the rest of his life in Fiji. I met him when our family travelled to California in 1960, so this photo is more likely to be from the 1950’s.

Third Row, L to R

16. Alexandra Maud Minus, my great-aunt

17. Helen Martin (nee Apcar.)

18. ?

19. Margaret Minus, youngest child of Simon Minus.

20. Sarah MacJohn.

21. ?

22. Noreen Martin, sister to Basil Martin.

23. Ripsy Minas ( wife of Jockey Minas, manager of Kanbawza Hotel.)

24. John Gregory, younger brother of Archie.

Fourth Row

Two men standing:

Man # 1, ?

Man # 2, William Hugh Minus, son of John Mackertich Minus, married to Alexandra Maud Minus.

Back Row, L to R

25. Bertie Gregory, husband of Edie Minus

26. Catchik Stevens, husband of Grace Minus, father of Kay Stevens

27. ?

28. ?

29. Keith Minus

30. Basil Martin

31. Jockey Minas, manager of Kanbawza Hotel

32. ?

33. ?

34. Joe Aratoon, nicknamed ‘Oxford Joe’

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Posted in Armenian Church, Armenians in Burma | Tagged , , | 9 Comments