Remembering a soldier I never knew

A couple of years ago, I happened onto the website of Legion magazine, the English-language periodical dedicated to “Canada’s military and its heritage.” I noticed the “last post search” tool in a lower corner of the page and, rather offhandedly, plugged in my surname. I was certain I’d get a “no results” type of response. But there, in blue on grey, was the unexpected outcome: Private William Cornies. Service No. B154579. Died Jan. 19, 2003.

It surprised me, because nearly every Cornies is Canada is somehow related, however distantly. Nearly all arrived in this country during one of several waves of Mennonite migrations from Europe — either as settlers or refugees — during the 19th and 20th centuries. And with them came the dominant view of warfare and participation in it: that it ran counter to their understanding of Christian faith. They were, and are, predominantly pacifist. So how was it, I wondered, that a young man of Mennonite ancestry came to serve in the Canadian military?

I began my search with Library and Archives Canada. I wasn’t immediate family, so there were strict limits on what the Archives’ analysts could tell me. They could reveal this: He enlisted on Feb. 1, 1944, and was discharged on July 15, 1946. He served with the Irish Fusiliers (Vancouver Regiment) at the rank of fusilier.

The next step was to ask my parents (I’m fortunate both are still alive). I provided what details I had and they, in turn, dove into their multi-tiered network of acquaintances, as robust — and often as reliable — as any Internet connection. Within a matter of days, the answer came back: They knew someone who knew someone who would likely know. (Among Canadian Mennonites, the notion of six degrees of separation shrinks to two or three.)

I followed the virtual trail of DNA and, before long, was speaking to Henry Cornies of St. Catharines, Ont. Private Bill had been his older brother. During that conversation, a picture emerged of an independent-minded young man who didn’t unquestioningly accept the religious views of his parents. (His father, Wilhelm Henry, had served in the Russian army during the First World War and had become an ardent pacifist.)

After his draft notice arrived shortly before his 18th birthday, William refused to let anyone talk him out of enlisting in the army. He was determined to serve his country and didn’t want to be branded a coward — the epithet leveled at many young Mennonite men who applied for and received conscientious objector status. They served their tours of duty as farm workers, loggers, lumberjacks, miners, grain handlers, factory labourers, construction workers and similar assignments. Some served in the medical or dental corps.

In all, about 7,500 young Mennonites claimed CO status during the Second World War. There is another figure, however, that gets far less mention in official denominational circles: about 4,500 young Canadian Mennonite men (and a few women) enlisted for active military service, despite church’s historic peace position and the invocations of their elders to shun enlistment in the Canadian forces in favour of CO service. For them, church leaders deployed an unfortunate term: verlorene Soehne. Lost sons. And thus began a disaffection that, in many cases, would be last a lifetime. William was one of these. He was resolute. For church elders, there would be no saving Private Cornies.

He trained as an anti-aircraft gunner in Nova Scotia, where he met Shirley Smith, his future wife, from nearby Windsor, N.S. He was eventually relegated to the service corps and was discharged from the army on July 15, 1946, after serving about 30 months. He spent the lion’s share of his career as a steelworker and boilermaker at Foster Wheeler in St. Catharines, which, at the time, was doing a lot of work for Atomic Energy of Canada.

After his children, Billy Jr. and Linda, had grown and his wife Shirley had died, William Cornies continued his connection to a brotherhood that would never have dubbed him “lost.” He was a proud member of the Legion’s General Nelles Branch in Niagara-on-the Lake, where even today he is remembered for his loyalty, independent thought and the frequent companionship of his dog.

I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet this distant relative a few years earlier. I would have enjoyed the conversation.

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