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Veteran races to honour forgotten heroes

Lloyd Swick, 87, and some high-profile backers are on a mission to salute all creatures great and small that served in war, peace

The Ottawa Citizen
Sat Mar 6 2010
Section: News
Byline: Kelly Egan
Column: commentary

Monuments make no haste.

Nothing, for instance, could hurry the National War Memorial. Designed in 1926, erected in 1938 — so long a span the English designer, Vernon March, didn’t live to see King George VI pull back the curtain on Confederation Square on May 21, 1939. Lloyd Swick is 87. He doesn’t have a lifetime to wait. He had a lifetime to live. So, he’s in a hurrying mood.

“Can you send a fax on that machine?” he asks, peering at his gleaming HP printer, which also copies and scans but, alas, does not appear to fax.

Swick is walking us through a PowerPoint presentation on his new pet project — a national monument honouring the sacrifice of animals in peace and war.

The “fax” is a crude drawing of what the monument might look like. First, the why.

Horses pulled heavy artillery. Mules hauled gear and ammo.

Pigeons carried urgent messages. Dogs patrolled, helped string wire, sniffed out land mines, provided comfort. Canaries were life-saving sentinels. Farther afield, there were camels, elephants, even glow-worms to read by.

Closer to home, there is the oft-told story of Gander, a big Newfoundland credited with saving several members of the Royal Rifles during the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941 by picking up a live grenade and, fatally, taking it out of harm’s way. He was awarded the Dickin Medal, the animal world’s Victoria Cross.

In the First World War alone, it is estimated eight million horses died in service, sometimes in agonizing conditions. From Burma, there is the tidbit, lost in all the human sacrifice, that mules had their vocal chords severed to ensure silence in the jungle.

“One picture that remains vivid in my mind,” wrote Swick, of his childhood school in Winnipeg, “shows teams of horses, eyes enflamed with fear, straining on their harnesses to free gun carriages stuck in shell holes of mud.

“Sixty thousand Canadians were killed in World War I. Consider what that number might have been if those horses had failed to move the guns forward to bombard the enemy at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and other places of battle.”

He may be 87, but hell hath no fury like a keen vet with a keyboard.

Remarkably, in only a few short weeks, he has enlisted the support of an enthusiastic MP, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and a host of high-profile military figures.

He has made a presentation to the National Capital Commission, tapped Councillor Alex Cullen as a backup plan, and reached out to Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn.

Swick and Peter Stoffer make an unlikely pair of underdogs.

Stoffer is an NDP MP from Nova Scotia. Swick is a retired soldier and venerable do-gooder.

Last fall, at a military-themed event in Ottawa, they got to talking.

“Isn’t it a pity,” Swick recalls saying, “we don’t pay some tribute to the animals who so valiantly served our cause, in war and peace, and continue to do so to this day?”

He had no idea the man listening was an MP.

One thing led to another. Swick spoke to the NCC at an open house. For inspiration — if not imitation — Stoffer checked out an arch in the Centre Block called The Tunnellers’ Friends, which depicts carvings of animals that helped in the war effort.

“The humble beasts that served and died,” reads the inscription.

The NCC offered moral support and responded with its commemoration policy, which covers every aspect — from design, to location, to theme, to approval process — a daunting document.

“It really is quite mind-boggling what you have to do just to put up a little monument,” said Stoffer.

“They’re asking us for a board of directors, a president, a treasurer. We don’t have any of that. We just have two guys right now, who’d like to put up a stone monument.”

The men agree on a rough plan: fund it privately and keep it simple.

They think a block or face of granite, maybe two metres by three, with a series of etched figures, five or six, and appropriate wording.

As little as $5,000 to $10,000 might get the job done, he said. Location would need to be sorted out. The National War Memorial site probably won’t work, but on the radar are Sparks Street or the Canadian War Museum.

The pair, at this point, probably need an artist or designer to put their ideas into a conceptual model. From there comes fundraising and site selection.

It is startling to see what other countries have done.

In 2004, the Brits unveiled their Animals in War Memorial, a large stone and bronze installation in London that cost more than a million pounds and was commemorated by the Princess Royal.

The Australians have a simpler version, a bronze horse’s head on a tear-shaped plinth, that was unveiled in Canberra in 2009. Still, it took 10 years to complete.

“I think Mr. Swick has come up with a very good idea,” said Stoffer, “an idea whose time has come.”