Glen McMahon has never served in the military, but his family has played a role in defending Canada for generations.
McMahon has become something of the “family historian or the keeper of the archives,” having had a lot of memorabilia handed down from his father.
Henry McMahon, 1853-1921, fought in Afghanistan, South Africa, and other places with the British Expeditionary Forces.
Henry, “a very strict man,” McMahon has been told, kept his war documents close at hand. After all, this was a time long before electronic devices existed, so people kept all their important information written down on paper.
“The main document is the war record for his great-grandfather on my father’s side,” McMahon said. “That document, which is made of parchment paper, includes his pension information. Everything before the iPhone came along was on paper and they had to carry it around. That is how he would get his pension money. He had to have it on hand.”
Henry was a member of the Gordon Highlanders, who McMahon said “apparently won a medal or two” while in combat in places like Kandahar and Kabul, in Afghanistan. McMahon said the thing that “astonishes” him most among others, is that his great-grandfather fought in places Canada continues to do battle in even today.
McMahon’s great-grandfather had three kids, including one named Francis who served in the trenches of the First World War. McMahon has several letters and postcards from Francis in his collection.
The young man returned home “so shell-shocked,” suffering from what today is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that he would eventually commit suicide from the top of the Scarborough Bluffs. Francis had been undergoing treatment at the London Military Hospital and was allowed to come home for New Year’s Day.
McMahon has several newspaper clippings about the suicide in amongst his collection.
It is a reminder, McMahon said, of the impact had on the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend a country.
“It just shows how bad war really is and that nothing has changed,” McMahon said. “Maybe the names and the faces, and we have improved how fast and how many we can kill, but really, war remains.”
Henry McMahon, had two sons and a daughter, including Henry Robert McMahon, 1884-1961, who was McMahon’s direct grandfather. He had three sons and a daughter, one of those sons being, Leslie McMahon, 1917-2001, who was McMahon’s father.
Leslie had an older, half-brother, who was in the U.S. military in the Second World War, becoming one of the first Green Berets. He’s also, as McMahon has been told, “a very tough guy.”
McMahon’s father’s two uncles served in the Second World War. In fact, his father was on a destroyer in the North Atlantic during the war.
At the end of the war, Leslie happened to be officer of the day (a military officer who, for a given day, assumes responsibility for security, order, and supervision of the guard) on VJ Day and the first release he signed was his own, which McMahon said he feels would be the typical reaction of most of the men who went overseas and fought.
“They did it because they had to, not because they wanted to. They went to protect what we had and when it was over, it was over,” McMahon said. “My father never wanted to talk about what happened. It took years to pry even a few details out of him. He didn’t want to talk about it, he’d rather forget.”
To show just how much disdain Leslie felt for the war, he even refused the medals he was to be awarded from it. In the early ‘60s the Canadian government decided to send him the medals anyway.
The gesture didn’t go over well.
“He was absolutely disgusted they did that. He had made it was quite clear it wasn’t something he was proud of, other than being in the right place at the right time to help the country,” McMahon said. “But other than that, he didn’t want to brag about it, didn’t want to think about it. The medals ended being kept by my younger brother.”
McMahon’s uncle, who is 94 years old and lives in British Columbia, also has a lot of the family memorabilia. But among the items McMahon has, he feels it is important to preserve the family history.
Those pieces, McMahon said, speak to the Remembrance Day sentiment of Lest We Forget.
“These things, they are very special because they are a connection to my past. We can’t just throw these things out, we need to remember,” McMahon said. “If we do forget, then we are doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over again. The more we have in the way of history, and are able to show the next generation, perhaps we have a chance of stopping this cycle of war.”