At this year’s national Remembrance Day ceremony, a weathered Canadian flag recovered from the battlefields of Dieppe will be placed at the foot of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This national symbol, possibly stained by the blood of a young soldier during one of the deadliest military operations of the Second World War, nearly ended up in a landfill if not for its rescue by an American veteran.
On Aug. 19, 1942, Canadian soldiers lead an attack on Dieppe, a French coastal town occupied by German forces. The dawn raid that turned into a disaster involved 5,000 Canadians besieged by heavy artillery fire from land and air. Seventy per cent of the soldiers would either be killed, wounded or captured over the course of nine hours. More than 900 men died there. Some were as young as 16, all were volunteers.
The Red Ensign flag was found on one soldier’s body strewn on the beach — historical treasure nearly trashed.
“If that flag was a cat it would be on its ninth life,” said the donor of the flag Mike Lowry, 75, from his home in Virginia. “My dad gave you back a bit of history. I’m glad I had a piece of the action.”
That piece of action began in 1965, when Lowry’s father, Charles, enlisted him to be part of a mission to return the flag to its Canadian home.
Charles Lowry stumbled across the flag at his neighbour’s garage sale in Nevada. The neighbour was an American soldier who had guarded prisoners of war in Europe during the Second World War. Among the captives he watched over was a German who dug graves at Dieppe and had taken the flag off the body of Canadian soldier before burying him.
Historian Jeff Noakes of the Canadian War Museum said it was common for soldiers to carry flags with them as inspirational reminders of the country and regiment to which they belonged.
“Because of the value they take on as symbols they are of value to the enemy. If Germans captured Canadian flags at Dieppe they would have been valued trophies. Just as Canadians who captured Nazi flags would view them as trophies and symbols of victory,” said Noakes.
The American took the flag from the German prisoner, hoping to return it to a Canadian batallion but he didn’t encounter any Canadians before his tour of duty ended. However. on that day of the garage sale in 1965, he entrusted the flag to Charles Lowry.
“His friend was going to throw it away but my dad said, ‘Someone in Canada would want that,'” Lowry said, adding that his father, an engineer worked alongside many Canadians as they built the Alaska-Canada highway. He remembers his father poring over library books about flags trying to find the regiment that may have carried the flag. Charles was unable to find the owner before his death in 1993, but his son continued his work. Instead of searching library books, Lowry searched the internet and contacted the Imperial War Museum in Britain.
The museum was able to confirm the flag’s Canadian origins but could not pinpoint the era. Instead of bequeathing the flag to a museum “where it would just end up in a drawer,” Lowry decided to donate the flag to the Royal Canadian Legion in 2013. Using the provincial symbols in the coat of arms as a guide, the Legion was able to date the flag back to 1870, just after Manitoba joined Confederation, but before British Columbia joined.
Photo of Charles Lowry and his wife June (supplied). Lowry found the Red Ensign at a garage sale in Nevada in 1965. After his death in 1993, his son, Mike donated the flag to the Canadian Legion.
Tarnished by time and damaged by sea water, the blue hue of the Union Jack has faded, but the yellowish-brown patches soaked into the fabric offer potential clues to the question of who carried the flag into battle. Danny Martin, the director of corporate services at the Royal Canadian Legion, wants to conduct a DNA analysis on what could be blood stains.
“Hopefully we’ll get a connection point…then you can actually trace it back to a regiment and where this was formed and then get closer to the actual truth,” said Martin, who still has so many questions beyond the identity of the soldier. The flag was created a few years after Confederation — was it taken to the front during the Boer War, or the First World War? And was it passed on from one generation of soldier to another as a family heirloom?
“It’s so important that these artifacts are brought to life because they bring back these memories of remembrance. The Legion wants to make sure that people understand exactly the sacrifices made by these young men.”
For now the flag is home, but the full story of its journey remains a mystery.
FILE – Members of the Royal Canadian Medical Corps evacuating Allied soldiers from the beach after the Dieppe, France raid during the Second World War. (CP PHOTO)