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Issue: 10 November 2010
Title: Repairing a broken war statue to honour the lost 'boys of Malvern'
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Repairing a broken war statue to honour the lost 'boys of Malvern'

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 10, 2010 | 1:50 PM ET

By Jennifer Clibbon, CBC News

Outside Malvern Collegiate Institute, a high school in a quiet and leafy neighbourhood in Toronto's east end, stands a beautiful but battered statue of a young man in his prime ? a tribute to the more than 60,000 Canadians who died fighting in Europe in the First World War.

The figure wears a toga, with one arm outstretched holding a chain that is meant to signify the shackles of militarism. The other arm, which once held a sword, is broken off at the elbow, with a rusted metal rod sticking out. Faded and barely legible are 25 names engraved on the base of the statue, the names of the boys of Malvern Collegiate who died in the war.

Students walk past the statue every day. Many are able to explain what it represents, but over the years the cenotaph, which has been around for almost 90 years, has become just another part of the landscape rather than a revered place.

The statue

The Malvern statue was created by Canadian sculptor Emanuel Hahn.The Malvern statue was created by Canadian sculptor Emanuel Hahn. The Malvern cenotaph is one of hundreds of war memorials across the country, built by small communities after the Great War to honour their "lost boys." With no bodies to bury at home (they were buried in the killing fields of France and Belgium), the cenotaphs served as substitute gravesites. Cenotaphs took various forms: some were monuments, some plaques, and many others were figurines of soldiers.

But the Malvern statue is one of the more beautiful, say its admirers, those in the community who have been lobbying over the years to get financing from the federal government, the school board, and anybody else, to fix it. The statue was created by a famous Canadian sculptor, Emanuel Hahn, the preeminent designer of war memorials of the 1920s. (He also later designed coins, and came up with the caribou design on our quarter and the Bluenose schooner on our dime.)

When the sculpture was unveiled with great fanfare at a ceremony in 1922, it unified a community in mourning. On one side of the base was engraved: "These at the call of King and Country lost all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty."

East Toronto, as it was called then, had a population of about 5,000 (most of Scottish and English stock). Of that number, 1,000 men went to war, says Carole Stimmell, editor of the community newspaper the Beach Metro News, who has written about the statue and researched the Malvern boys it commemorates.

Time's toll

School principal Line Pinard keeps the statue's hand locked away in a cardboard box in the school vault.School principal Line Pinard keeps the statue's hand locked away in a cardboard box in the school vault. Weather and the passage of time have taken their toll on the sculpture. More recently there has also been petty vandalism and damage caused by the fact that the statue made for excellent climbing.

Some years ago, the hand came off.

"The truth of it is, kids just climbed up on it. If you look at it, the hand is the ideal place to hoist yourself up to the highest point and that's what happened. The hand was damaged and fell on the ground," says Vandra Maseman, alumni president and head of the school's committee to repair the statue.

A woman across the street retrieved the broken hand from her front lawn and returned it to the school. School principal Line Pinard now has the statue's hand protected by bubble wrap and locked away in a cardboard box in the school vault.

Pinard says the federal government has promised half of the $50,000 needed for the statue's restoration, with the proviso that the school raise the other half. Ottawa is also providing funds for the repair of various other cenotaphs across the country.

"Eleven, eleven, eleven ? that's what we're aiming for," Pinard says with regard to when she hopes to have the repairs finished. "Remembrance Day in 2011 is when we'll have our ceremony."

They are fundraising and have raised much of the money needed already.

A 'damn disgrace'

Causes like the Malvern statue are sometimes initiated by stubborn and irrepressible advocates.

In this case, it was Arnie Williamson, a resident in the neighbourhood whose sons attended the school.

Arnie Williamson has lobbied for financing to repair the cenotaph.Arnie Williamson has lobbied for financing to repair the cenotaph. Several years ago, he was at the school with his father, a Second World War vet and a career soldier, who was upset when he saw the condition of the statue.

"He said: 'It's a damn disgrace that we have soldiers dying overseas for this country, while the Malvern war cenotaph for the kids from the First World War is left to decay.'"

"He gave me marching orders to 'get it fixed.' That's pretty much how I got involved."

Williamson, an affable man who wears a Tilley hat and a big smile, not only lobbied for financing, but also started researching the 25 men from the school who died in the war. He set up a web page called the "Boys of Malvern," providing biographical profiles. He discovered that from Malvern Collegiate, more than 100 boys enlisted, some as young as 15.

"We wouldn't even let our kids go to the Eaton Centre alone at that age, imagine those kids going off to war," Williamson says.

Lives behind the names

Among the names on the statue is that of William Commins. He was 23, a graduate of Malvern, a football enthusiast, and was working as a junior accountant when he signed up to fight in the war.

William Commins died in battle in the Somme. His 21-year-old brother Chester signed up too. In 1916, they shipped out on the Empress of Britain from Halifax and were sent to the battlefields of France.

As infantrymen, they experienced the horrors of trench warfare. Both were awarded medals for bravery and, in the parlance of the day, "conspicuous gallantry" in the field.

William, or Bill, as he was known, wrote long, relentlessly cheery letters home, assuring his family that all was well. But in 1918 his brother Chester was killed in a battle near Sancourt, France.

Several months later, his mother in Toronto, still reeling from the death of one son, opened a second letter from France dated Aug. 16, 1918, and beginning: "My dear Mrs. Commins, Words cannot fully express my sorrow?"

Bill had died in battle in the Somme.

Their deaths devastated the Commins family, says nephew, Chris Commins, now 74. His father was one of the two other Commins boys who survived, who didn't go to war.

Chris keeps typed copies of Bill's letters in a binder, and has a thick file of yellowed photos and local press clippings about his uncles.

He leafs through his precious family archive while sitting in the Balmy Beach Clubhouse, a canoe and sports club that has been around since the turn of the last century, and where Bill and Chester also spent many happy hours before the war.

Chris never knew his uncles Bill and Chester, but is moved to tears when he talks about the brothers and why the cenotaph still matters: "It brings back thoughts of two very young men and what their fate was."

Not forgotten

Twenty-five names are engraved on the base of the statue, the names of the boys of Malvern Collegiate who died in the war.Twenty-five names are engraved on the base of the statue, the names of the boys of Malvern Collegiate who died in the war. Vandra Maseman, head of the statue repair committee and a professor in education studies at the University of Toronto, believes that among Malvern students today, there is understanding of the relevance of the cenotaph.

The school has always remembered, partly because the families at the school have been so continuous over several generations. There is a strong community memory there," she says.

"If anything, the sadness of the loss of those boys never goes away because it has always been remembered. The distress about the sorry state of the statue is about its having been let go by the school board or whoever owns it. But this time the community has said that it won't let it go on any longer looking like that."

On his website, The Malvern Boys, Arnie Williamson quotes a poem written a few years ago by a former Grade 10 student about the kids from Malvern who died in the Great War:

They were very young

They laughed and they cried

They fought and they died

Not for king, queen or flag

But for each other

They were

The Boys of Malvern

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