Monthly Archives: March 2009

William DeWindt: a soldier’s story

n2009-010smFrom California I acquired a Canadian postcard from the time of the First World War.  A laughing soldier, laden down by his kit, poses in the winter snow outside the Quartermaster’s Store.  The photograph was taken in Hamilton, Ontario.  His name is recorded on the back, probably in his own hand.  Wm. DeWindt. 

I wanted to know more about Mr. DeWindt, so I invested a couple of hours and this is what I now know.

William DeWindt was born in Ingelmunster, Belgium on April 26th, 1879.   He said that his mother-tongue was French, so he may have come from a Walloon family.  This is significant, because  there was conflict between the Flemish and Walloon ethnic groups. 

As a young man with limited prospects, William enlisted in the Belgian Army, likely at the age of 16 in April, 1895.  This was a dangerous time to enlist, as the notorious Leopold II, King of the Belgians, was intent on expanding his influence, in particular in Africa.  Having grabbed the Belgian Congo, he insisted on giving it to the Belgian people in 1890, even though most of his government did not want it. 

There was great turmoil in Belgium as landed and industrial elites were trying to squeeze gains from industrial expansion by exluding most of the population.  Since Belgium had become a sovereign state, it had lost access to the sea, and this together with other changes had precipitated economic hard times, which increased internal friction.   Frightening disturbances occurred in Belgium with major unrest betweent 1899 and 1902 over who could and could not vote.  Flemish people battled Walloons for influence and workers took  on factory owners and the government for more rights.  (Even after the extension of the franchise, less than 22% of Belgians could vote.)  Troops were used to put down violent protests particularly in 1893.

I do not know whether William DeWindt was one of the soldiers turned on the citizens.  He may have avoided danger as he was talanted musically, and had been sent to one of the Beligian military bands.  He served in the army for about eight years so he could scarcely avoid seeing some of the violence.   He left active service in about 1903.

At about that time, he married Rachel, daughter of Orchid Remie of Ghent.  A son, Polidor DeWindt, was born in about 1905.  With a new family dependent upon him, William looked overseas and decided to go the United States.  His destination was Chicago, where another appearance of the unusual name DeWindt suggests to me that he had at least one relation.

The U.S. Census says that the whole family emigrated in 1905, but in fact only William left Belgium.    Rachel and Polidor followed later, arriving at New York on October 20th, 1908 on the Kroonland, out of Antwerp.  The little family appear on the 1910 census, living in the Flat Building in Chicago where William was the janitor.

Life expectancy for women in Belgium at the turn of the last century was less than 40 years, but Rachel did not gain much through emigration.  Sometime between 1910 and 1917, Rachel died.  As she was born in about 1879, she was not yet 40.  I do not know what happened to the little boy, Polidor. 

In the autumn of 1917, British and Canadian officers were in Chicago recruiting.   Heavy losses prompted the need for more men.  William enlisted on Dec. 5th, 1917, in Chicago, and was sent across the border to Canada to join the First Depot Battalion of the 2nd Central Ontario Regiment (Serial No. 3105913).  He gave his next-of-kin as his sister back in Belgium.  He was sent to Toronto, and then probably to Hamilton, where this picture was taken, likely in January, 1918. 

William was only 5′ 1″ tall.  Although to his generation this was not as short as it appears to us today it was less than desirable and combined with his age (39) and relatively non-combative background (bandsman) one would expect that he would have been deployed in one of the support activities.  -But I can’t be sure, being reluctant to pay for copies of his file from the National Library and Archives of Canada.  Perhaps he was sent to the Western Front and saw Flanders once more under very different circumstances.

I found William after the War back in Chicago, at the Washington Park Hospital.  He was still single.  At first, I thought he was a patient, but upon examining the census I concluded that he was on staff and living on the grounds.  This was confirmed by the 1930 census which shows William DeWindt, now age 51, occupation “orderly employed by hospital”.

At the hospital, William probably met his second wife, Nettie, an American from New York State who worked at the same place as a nurse’s aid.  Nettie was seven years younger than William, and he married her in late in 1920 or early in 1921.

The couple was living comfortably in a small house in Ward 7 of Chicago in 1930, and that is the last I found of them.  Perhaps there is someone else who knows the end of the story.   William DeWindt lived through a period of great changes, some of them terribly violent.  Imagine the adventures that he likely experienced.

I am indebted to Sandra Halperin, whose interesting book, “War and Social Change in Europe, 1789-1945” was a great help in understanding William’s times.  The book is published by Cambridge University Press.

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Ontario Ministry of Culture offers pre-packaged presentation aimed at municipal councils.

In Ontario, our Ministry of Culture is offering a tool called, “Supporting Heritage in Your Community”.  The objective is to assist local heritage organizations with making a case for heritage at the municipal level.  Specifically, the presentation is designed to be useful in trying to convince municipal councils and employees of the value of establishing an “heritage committee” under the Ontario Heritage Act.

The “Supporting Heritage” package includes speaking notes (a presentation) which someone must study and then deliver.  Also included are slides and some answers to challenging questions that may come up, such as, “How much will all this cost?”

The Ontario Heritage Act places the initiation of heritage protection right at the grassroots, through committees.  In offering this presentation package, in my opinion, the Ontario Government is finally acknowledging that the grassroots are often complete babes-in-the-wood when it comes to kick-starting the process.  In many municipalities where there are important resources and concerned citizens, nothing is being done.

However, will a packaged presentation overcome the handicap of an inexperienced presenter?  If one is not a competent and confident public speaker, will the impatience and disinterest of councillors be overcome?  I have worn these shoes, and political rallies have nothing on a meeting of annoyed and defensive councillors facing a mountainous Wednesday agenda.

Also, without depth of understanding of competing heritage assets, will the presenter avoid being perceived as yet another hysterical, minority interest?  Councils are tired of all the whining.

Going to them is a bit like the heritage equivalent of the Dragons’ Den.

The Ontario Heritage Act is deficient in tools to provide leadership.  It is intended to empower not to endorse.   The “Supporting Heritage” package aims to help while avoiding Provincial interference. 

I, for one, will be very interested to know how often the package is used and whether the number of heritage committees increases during 2009.

You can see the the “Supporting Heritage in Your Community” package for yourself at

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Will our grandchildren be able to read our letters?

During a visit to my local archive last week, I noticed a guide tacked beside the computer — the machine that  is used for access to the Ontario Vital Statistics.    cursif2Shelley (the archivist) explained that clients are unable to read the original records which are presented as “pdf” files or “jpg’s”.  The original records are in cursive script, or what we always called long-hand

I am constantly annoyed with folks who claim that all the recent indexing has made those hand-written  originals obsolete.  The index to the Vital Stats is (in a word) horrible.  In a rush to finish, the sponsor accepted any moron to do the transcription.  The index is riddled with mistakes, many of which were completely avoidable.  For instance, I have seen the phrase “Canada West”, which appears in the index frequently, transcribed as “Cweste”  and “Canwe”.   Surnames are often horribly mangled.  

It seems that researchers are beginning to agree with me, and are coming to the archives to gain access to the pictures of the originals. 

An over-whelming number of this archives’ clients are over fifty years of age, so I was astonished to learn that they are mostly unable to read anything written in pen and ink.  What’s with that?  We are all pre-keyboard and set down anything and everything by hand right through high school.

However, it does explain why the indices to the Vital Stats, and to Canada Census for that matter, are so dratted awful.

If  older folks who learned penmanship can no longer read the writings from our recent past, how are our children and grandchildren going to cope?  The Kingston Whig-Standard (Wed. March 18, 2009) recently contained two articles: “Saving the lost art of handwriting,” and another, “Parents concerned…”  which questions whether keyboarding is preventing children from learning to write with a pen or pencil.  As our local Whiggy (alas) is no longer independent, but syndicated, you may have seen the same articles in your own local paper.

What a shame.  For the sake of a few weeks of training in primary school, our descendants will be denied the pleasure of reading an actual letter in Lord Byron’s hand not to mention great-grandma’s account of the Halifax explosion or the rich details of the 19th century data just as the clerk set them down. 

Presumably, everyone will be basing their understanding on a transcription made by someone else, a transcription which might be good, fair or downright misleading.   How very sad.

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Not all “old” books are in the public domain

Just because a book was printed in 1970, don’t assume that the author is deceased.

Living authors have a right to give or deny permission for the use of their work.  Their estates have similar rights for a period after death (fifty years in many countries). 

Authors of short runs, less than five hundred copies, often have books left to sell.  If someone puts the work up on a free site on the internet, sales drop to zero. 

Historical Societies and Genealogical Societies are particularly vulnerable.  Until recently, niche publications have been a major source of revenue for many such groups.  In most countries, the work is copyrighted for at least fifty years from date of publication, but these books get posted on the internet and the law is ignored.

If someone took your car from your driveway and used it to ferry friends around, no one would argue that it was theft.  When revenue is taken from historical societies without their consent, it is described as “sharing”.  This must stop.

Writing is not a lucrative profession.   Authors need to sell their remaining publications.   Historical Societies and Genealogical Societies also need the revenue from their works.

Ask permission before re-publishing a book on the ‘net.

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Who was the lady with the sad eyes?

She looks into your eyes across time — sad and far away, the lovely woman in the photograph.  She was no elegant lady of fashion.  Her beautiful bonnet would have been the acme of style in the 1840’s when she was married, but by the time she posed for the daguerreotypist in the 1850’s it was just a little too fussy and too large.  We know that she was a hard worker.  Her linens and printed gown are spotlessly clean and pressed.  She is not old, but there are already lines etched on her pretty face.  


So, who was she?  We will never know.  Almost certainly, she was a farmer’s wife from northern New York State, where her photograph surfaced a century and a half later. 

I wonder what family cast out her picture, consigning it to the flotsam and jetsam of the antique trade?  Obviously, there was no one left alive among her descendants who remembered her name.  -But did no one in the family resemble her?  Was an accruel of $50 more important then keeping her where she belonged?

It is an humbling thought.  We all feel so needed, so connected while we live, but who will keep our life and times alive, after we are gone?

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The Royal Flying Corps in Canada

Bill Hunt’s Latest Book finally Gets Off the Ground

On Saturday, Dundurn Press and author, C.W. Hunt, formally launched “Dancing in the Sky” at a standing room only reception in Deseronto.  This long-awaited work deals with the early days of aviation in Canada, particularly with the role of the RAF in kick-starting what became the RCAF.  One of the most interesting stories in the book concerns the connection with Vernon and Irene Castle, the famous dance-instructors.  The book is almost a must for air and  military enthusiasts, but it is a good read for just about anybody who enjoys adventure, tragedy and a smattering of Canadian politics.

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