By Thom Racine
In 1998, director Steven Spielberg released a movie that helped define a generation. “Saving Private Ryan” was based on a true story about four brothers serving in the Second World War. Three were killed and the fourth became the object of a search, an effort to save the last brother from the war and bring him home to his mother, an attempt to save one of her sons. It was theatrical storytelling, but the plot and Spielberg’s genius, made for one of the best war movies ever filmed.
Every November just before Remembrance day, I dedicate my column to a memory of war. Last year I wrote about some of the Commonwealth War Graves at St. Columban’s Cemetery. I featured 11 tombstones in honour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Eleven heroes who served king and country and were able to come home. Families often bury their war veteran, sons and daughters, under Commonwealth War Graves (CWG) tombstones when they die, a fitting tribute from their country, for many who lived long lives after their service.
One of the eleven featured tombstones belonged to Edward Tyo who died in 1957, long after the First World War. I knew nothing of Pte. Francis Edward Tyo, but that would change a few days later when his nephew Doug Flaro called to tell me the incredible story about his five uncles.
Edward Tyo was the son of Stephen and Annie Tyo of Cornwall. He was 18 years old when he enlisted for service in the Frist World War in December 1915. He had served with the 59th Militia Unit in Cornwall and guarding the canal was the extent of his local military experience. Edward was the youngest of five boys and three girls – his brothers Arthur 27, William 24, Joseph 20 and James 19 also enlisted with the CEF. Five brothers, five sons, all signed up for a supposed “great adventure” and unknowingly headed to certain hell.
In April of 1917, with Vimy Ridge now in Allied hands, the task of securing the area fell to different units of Canadian and Commonwealth troops. On Aug. 15 Canadians began an assault to draw the enemy away from the Third battle of Ypres. Ten days of war began at 4:25 a.m. when 5,000 Canadians serving 10 Infantry Battalions were engaged at Hill 70, North of Lens, France. The German 6th Army was holding the western front.
James Henry Tyo age 20, was in the 21st Battalion’s Eastern Ontario Regiment. The 21st’s objective was to take Chicory Trench and keep the Germans busy in the Nabob Valley. Sgt. Lapointe of the 21st had issued “no stopping for wounded” orders, and by 5 a.m. the front was reported by Pvt. Barnes to be “cut up badly.” Barnes reportedly had to take cover behind a mutilated corpse of a fellow 21st infantryman as the trenches had been blown to pieces. More than 9,000 Canadians were killed, wounded or taken prisoner between Aug. 15 and 25. James Tyo was one of those killed. Killed on the first day of the operation. He is buried in Caberet Rouge British Cemetery Souchy, France.
On Aug. 17, not more than half a mile away and most likely unaware that his brother James had fallen two days before, Stephen Arthur Tyo age 28, was fighting with the 24th Battalion Victoria Rifles Quebec Regiment. After two days, the 24th was encroaching on its objective. Fighting was fierce and at the end of the day Arthur Tyo was dead. Arthur is buried at Bruay Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France. The mere fact both brothers have a known grave might be considered rare.
For the three remaining Tyo brothers William, Joseph and Edward, the war was far from over. We are left to wonder about the emotions felt when word came of their brothers deaths. Were family told that James and Arthur died very close to each other? Did the remaining three boys ever imagine that just over a year later, William and Joseph would face the same fate? Perhaps, after two years of combat, they could see it coming.
Joseph Tyo left Canada for France in the 77th Battalion and transferred to the 2nd Battalion. He was a piper arriving in Europe in June 1916. Joseph Tyo saw his share of war in three years. On Sept. 27, 1918, the Canadians were penetrating the Hindenburg Line and moving on Cambrai. They would have to cross a canal west of the city. Known as the battle of Canal du Nord, four divisions began their assault at 5:20 that morning taking the German 1st Prussian Guards and 3rd German Naval Division by surprise. Securing Canal du Nord and circling the area known as Bourlon Wood, meant the road to Cambrai was clear. It did not come without heavy casualties and just 43 days before the end of the war, Joseph Tyo would suffer the effects of a German gas attack. Pvt. Tyo returned home in January of 1919, making it to Montreal and the Royal Victoria Hospital where he never recovered and died in 1921. Joseph is buried at St. Columban’s in Cornwall.
William Henry Tyo’s story is different, but no less tragic.
On Dec. 4, 1916 the 77th lead by former SD&G Highlander Maj. William Magwood went on a recruiting march from Ottawa to Cornwall and places in between. William became the last of the Tyo brother’s to sign up. William’s service record states he served in Canada as part of a reserve unit attached to the 77th Battalion known as the 207th. After training in Ottawa, the 207th left for Nova Scotia in January of 1917 and shortly after arriving, the unit was inflicted with disease. Quarantined, they did not leave for France until June of 1917. Many were still sick and left behind. I could not find that William was inflicted with disease in 1917, however during the summer and fall of 1918, influenza ravaged populations worldwide.
William’s death certificate notes he died after a 15-day illness (flu) on Oct. 23, 1918, while in hospital in Cornwall and is buried at St. Columban’s.
With Joseph’s fate pretty much sealed, that left Edward. Francis Edward Tyo enlisted in 1915 as part of the 154th Battalion and eventually found himself serving with the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry. On April 9, 1917 Edward Tyo was part of the battle that defined our nation. At Vimy Ridge, the PPCLI attacked the German positions defending the Zwischen Stellung near La Folie Farm – Pvt. Tyo’s service record shows he suffered the effects of gas. He recovered and returned home to his parents and sisters Rose, Dorothy and May. One has to wonder, how did he manage? Early on, Edward made sure his mother Annie would be called upon to lay a wreath at our War Memorial on Remembrance Day, something Annie Tyo did for years. Edward was able to see that Annie met the Viscount of Vimy and 12th Governor General of Canada Julien Byng in 1932. Early in 1939, with his mother in failing health, Edward petitioned that Annie be chosen as the Silver Cross mother in 1939. As fate played into her sons lives, Annie never made the ceremony, dying in February, that year.
The fact that Edward Tyo held it together is noteworthy. An accomplished fiddle player all his life, Edward had difficulty coping in the years that followed the war. There were no safety nets for veterans back then, no understanding of the horrors our soldiers had been involved in, or had seen. No one really cared that he lost four brothers in the war. His hard, often alcohol-fuelled life ended in 1957. In tribute, a CWG stone was placed on his grave at St. Columban’s cemetery.
When you reflect on our war dead this weekend, remember the Tyo’s, five boys from Cornwall who went off to do the noble thing. Five boys, who left a sad family legacy of war in their wake. Five boys, who never really, if ever, came home.