Gaining insight from local war veteran

This month marks 100 years since the Canadian military victory at Vimy Ridge in France.

The Markham Review wanted to reveal first-hand knowledge of the two world wars from a local veteran. We sat down for an interview with veteran Jack Embrey last December.

During the interview, Embrey disclosed some of his thoughts and feelings about both world wars, and how crucial it is to remember the tragedy and extreme loss, so it won’t happen again.

He talked about his time in the army and his travels throughout Europe as part of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade – Tank Regiment. He spoke of his duties with the regiment and how his tasks involved supplying tanks for battle in what he called a Field Park, and that his main tasks were radio and tank radio communications, and battery repair and maintenance.

Embrey was a hero in many ways. Most recently, he was awarded France’s Highest Honour where he was made a Chevalier (Knight) of the National Order of the Legion of Honour, in November 2015.

Embrey passed away earlier this year on Jan. 29 at the Markham Stouffville Hospital with family and friends at his side.

Embrey, 98, was a long-time resident of Markham. He was a well-known and favourite longtime member at York Downs Golf Club, where everybody knew his name.

Lina Vickers, one of Jack’s neighbours, was so saddened by the news of his recent passing. She remarked, “Jack was such a gentleman. He was so kind and generous with his time.  He made the effort to visit Unionville Public School each Remembrance Day to ensure that the children  remembered the war so that it wouldn’t happen again.” He often repeated the words “Lest we forget, so it won’t happen again.”

In reference to WWI, Embrey said, “it was a needless war. It should never have started, and it involved more than half of the people in the world, and incredible casualties, and all this was hidden.”

Embrey started and ended our interview with “Lest we forget, so it (major war) won’t happen again.” for the full interview with Jack Embrey.

Photo: Veteran Jack Embrey wartime photo.


**Online interview**

MR: Your main message is “Lest we forget, so it (major war) won’t happen again”, please explain why this phrase tops the list of importance.

Jack: The purpose of bringing WWI into it –it was a needless war. It should never have started and it involved more than half of the people in the world and incredible casualties, and all this was hidden.

I remember my parents talking about Christie hospital. It was a hospital for badly wounded veterans. They stayed there the rest of their lives. Never got out of there. Of course, they are all gone now.

The idea after WWll is lest we forget, they want us to remember, so it won’t happen again.

It impresses me that the children (today) are learning (about war history).

MR: What are your thoughts on how WWI was started?

Jack: What happened, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were touring through Europe around Yugoslavia, and when they went into Serbia, an assassin killed them both. Of course, it was just like (similar to) shooting the Queen of England.

They weren’t happy with whatever Serbia would do, or offered them; they wanted revenge. Austria attacked Serbia, which was a little country, but what they didn’t realize was that Serbia had a really good army and flattened Austria, beat them badly.

They also didn’t realize that Serbia had a pact with Russia. And if someone attacked Serbia, Russia would attack them. So Russia declared war on Austria. And Austria had a pact with Germany. If someone attacked them, you could see what’s happening.

Poland was in there, France was in there. England was in there and England tried to keep out of it and they had a pact with Belgium, a small country, if anyone attacks them.

But Germany did attack, and so they were in the war.

And the British Empire at that time was at its peak. It controlled about a quarter of the people in the world.

So all of these people in Newfoundland, which was a separate place (not part of Canada at that time), Canada was a small country at the time with seven million people, Australia, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong, South Africa and all these people were in it, and of course there was no purpose of the war.

All these people were fighting, fighting for what?

And Vimy Ridge was a very important place which was called Hill 140.

Germans controlled that right from the first of the war and had good observation with troops.

The French tried to capture it, and lost 200,000 men and said it wasn’t worth it.

Then the British took over in nine months, and hundreds of thousands casualties.

(They thought) It wasn’t worth it.

Then the Canadians, which were under British command and broke away and formed the first Canadian Core.

Two divisions make a core, and two cores make an army, and under their own command, they captured Vimy Ridge in four days.

And even when General Haig got the dispatch, he threw it away.  He said Vimy Ridge was impregnable.

He found out three weeks later from an American newspaper, that the Canadians captured Vimy Ridge.

I didn’t learn anything about Vimy Ridge (at school). They didn’t tell me what a great battle it was, and that the Canadians won until I was over there during the Second World War and went to see Vimy Ridge.

It was mandatory, once you’re over there, to take time off and take a couple of trucks and go see Vimy Ridge.

MR: Why didn’t you learn about it (Vimy Ridge) in school?

Jack: You still don’t.  This could be one of the greatest battles in the history of the British Empire. You hear nothing of it.

That’s something I don’t understand. Britain always plays Canada down.

They didn’t have enough medic. When I was young, everyone knew someone with a dad who had one leg, (or) one arm.

When you remember these casualties, some of this won’t happen again.

When I was 21 years of age, Canada declared war in Germany. I was born during the First World War. There was only 20 years difference (between wars).

MR: What would have happened if a soldier wanted to go home, could they leave?

Jack: You were there and that’s it.

MR: If you did leave, what would happen?

Jack: You could be shot.

All Canadians in the war were volunteers. They called us up for Canadian defense, and then once you signed up, they immediately tried to get you to sign for what they called active service, which means they could send you anywhere and pretty much everybody signed up. Ones that didn’t sign up, we used to call them zombies.

I was in the army, not a very long time –maybe March until December –then I went overseas and stayed there in England for three years before the invasion. I was married one week before I went overseas. Everyone was talking that the war would last six months. Nobody dreamed of this.

MR: Three years and your wife was here. Did you write letters?

Jack: I wrote letters and I used to number them. When I got up to a thousand, I quit numbering them.

I remember coming back very vividly. They (soldiers) came back on the train to the exhibition grounds, and when we went into the coliseum, there in the centre were all the people’s name with E like Embry and you see family. Father, mother, brother, sister and wife from a distance.

MR: How can we make sure a war like that doesn’t occur again?

Jack: Well,  just like the peace-keeping forces they have now, and there are countries like Russia and North Korea, there is nothing you can do about them. They are the countries you’ve got to watch. Because they’ll set off the bombs.

Russia could never be trusted and has an opinion about something, and next day they change their mind, so I think you just have to keep remembering. Keep realizing that it could happen again, and I think we are doing a pretty good job (remembering). It has been 72 years since the major war. But there are all kinds of other wars in between. The best we can do, I think, is remember to keep it from happening again.

I think Churchill once said that  “people that forget their history are likely to make the same mistakes all over again.”

MR: How many people slept in the same area where you slept?

Jack: Millions. Aldershot area was a huge.

MR: How old were you and what did you do (your duties)?

Jack: I was 24. I was part of the 2nd Canadian armoured brigade, the tank regiment. When the tanks went into battle, they had to have field park to get supplies. So we were a mobile field park. We drove trucks and had them waterproofed. We drove them up into the water.

Landed in France, went to Belgium, Holland and northern Germany. We followed the tanks. We had to be close to wherever the tanks were. My part was radio, tank radio, batteries was the big thing. In the field park, we had something like 31 trucks. 

When we were getting off the barges, tanks went off first.

MR: Are you comfortable talking about the war days?

Jack: Yes, (but) never talk about killing or anything.

You’ve heard of “friendly fire”?

Well, the Canadians had trapped something like 360,000 Germans, and they had to close that gap. (In the) town of Follies,  gap vehicles lined up and moving slowly, the American pilots bombed in the daytime and the British at nighttime. They came over to bomb the Germans, (instead) they bombed the Canadians and killed 145 Canadians. I was in the line. We thought we were going to close the gap. You hear all this racket.

We couldn’t see it. But boy could we hear it. We had no idea what was happening.

You can’t (make) mistakes. Just shrug shoulders and say,  a casualty of war.


Jack Embry
April 25, 1918- January 29, 2017.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share This