In May I did an interview about my grandfather with Dan Riendeau of News Talk 770 CHQR in Calgary. He hung onto the interview for Remembrance Day took the time to include sections of Doc Alexander’s journals, read by colleague, along with sound effects. It’s nearly 20 minutes long and a great listen, aside from the ill-prepared interviewee . . . (that would be me; I didn’t have my facts and figures at hand and had to by memory). But I think it came out well nonetheless. And my thanks to Dan for a great Remembrance Day piece.
Doc Alexander’s Second World War journey has come to a close. I posted the last entry in his last journal on Sept. 13 with
the last sentence “Everybody is very excited and this train cannot go nearly fast enough.”
The train did reach Calgary later that day, ending his wartime journey. His post-war journey continued, of course. Dr.
Laurence Guy Alexander (Alex), no longer Major L.G. Alexander, rebuilt his Calgary medical practice and many of his first patients were members of the Calgary Tanks. Who better to care for them after the war than the man who cared for them during the war?
Alex also continued to offer his services to the people of the Stoney Nakoda First Nations, traveling out to the little hospital at Morley every Thursday, which would have not been enough for him. He would have loved to given the Nakoda more of his time, but he just never had enough.
Along with his family practice (and he made house calls), he worked as a surgeon at the General and Holy Cross hospitalsl. He also served as the doctor for the Hudson’s Bay Company store in downtown Calgary, the Calgary Stampeders hockey team and chief medical officer for the Calgary Stampede.
All told, he was a busy man after the war because he believed it was his duty to serve; it was a rare evening or an even rarer Christmas morning that he wasn’t called out to attend to a patient.
He sacrificed much for his belief that it was his duty to serve: he gave up his practice and his ability to support his family when he left for overseas, all those years away from his family (my dad, Bob, was three when his father left and seven when he came home), his personal safety (wounded three times) but thankfully he did not give up his life.
In return, his patients out of appreciation for him, often found ways to help his family. Grocers put extras aside for my grandmother. Nakoda often arrived at the doorstep with meat, as did local farmers.
His commitment to and his connection with his patients came back in the kindness they showed his family while he served overseas.
Along with his commitment to serve, I think he also personally enjoyed the risk and the rush that came with being a front-line regimental medical officer. And even when he was shifted to the 2nd Field Ambulance and then given command of the 6th Field Dressing Station, he still rushed headlong into danger whenever given the chance.
Alex, like all of us, was a complex man. He was humour-filled, irreverent and if orders did not suit him, he would not follow them. He liked to be the centre of attention, but when he was doing his job, the person he was caring for became his centre of his attention.
Despite being a prominent and very busy doctor, he was never a wealthy man. He learned what it meant to be a medical professional in the First World War as a stretcher bearer, during the Great Depression and the Second World War: To him, along with a call to serve, it meant compassion first and foremost, and if that meant accepting eggs or milk in payment that was fine by him.
I first began to get know him in 1994 when, as a journalism student at Mount Royal College (now a university), I wrote my first story about his experience at Dieppe; I have refined and retold that story three times since then.
I began sharing his journals in 2012, in time for the 70th anniversary of the Raid of Dieppe. I continued to share his journals for the next four years, not always consistently. Four years is a long time and I didn’t always feel motivated or have the time. The death of my sister Lesley on Aug. 9, 2013 pushed everything, including this project, to the side; as did my move to Calgary and the time it took to get settled and adjust. Sometimes I got frustrated and couldn’t bring myself to post the entries and sometimes I just couldn’t face the work it would take to get caught up (and my thanks to Mike Hunter for his timely reminders that Alex’s story is important).
My hope from the outset was that a wider audience could see what I saw in my grandfather’s journal: a remarkable story of the Second World War, which is why I wanted to share it, rather than just keep in the family. I have plans to take the next step and turn Alex’s journals into a book. I would also love to explore his story as a graphic novel, as well.
For now, I am surprised and a little saddened that it is over; that we’ve reached the end. Sharing Alex’s journals has been a regular part of my life for the past three years and just like that, it’s done.
But, as they say in my grandfather’s beloved regiment, the Calgary Tanks, Onward!
Thank you all for reading.
Feb. 29 – General inspection a few miles north of Lingfield. Gen. Montgomery gave his usual address. Everything went off well.
March 2, 1944 – We had a dance for the men in their mess hall. This was largely an experiment but went off a hundred percent. We are planning on another next Thursday night. Yesterday Lt. Dibb and I went to Woking where we met Col. Hazard and proceeded to the 3rd Cacru where I lectured to the Officers and then gave a demonstration of my jeep. Later gave a demonstration to the 3rd Div.
March 3 – Went with 3rd CC (Maj. Patterson) to a rendevous for a general inspection next week. On Monday I go to a medical meeting in London. On Wednesday I lecture to 3rd CCS. I am now waiting for Timmy Cameron to arrive. He will spend the weekend with me. Timmy arrived at Dormans station and I met him in a jeep. We went to East Grinstead for the evening.
March 4 – Rus. Noble (of 4th Div.) phoned for Tim and I to meet him in Burgess Hill. we took a jeep and went over. Molly Hunt (Bill Hunt’s wife) was there and a Jean Black from Toronto, also Major … ? from 4th Div. workshop. We went back to his Mess for lunch then back to Russ’s Mess for dinner. It was grand to see them all again. The old Army Tank Brigade in force.
March 5 – I took an early morning train to London to attend the Royal Society of Medicine meeting. Met a lot of chaps I knew. Came home late the same night. Timmy’s brother-in-law called for him during the day. It was a grand weekend.
March 6 – on another meeting with 4th Div and 2nd Corps – in final preparation for the inspection by the King which will take place on the 9th of March.
March 7 – Was at Corps H.Q. for a medical meeting.
March 8 – Gave a lecture on Sicily and Italy to 3 CCS today. This afternoon I go to Lewes to see Capt. Fleetwood (Eng), an old friend of mine from 14th days. I am trying to find a suitable place for going under canvas. Tomorrow will be a heavy day. The King’s inspection.
Feb. 1/44 – Our fifth day at sea. We are now out of sight of land in the Atlantic. The trip through the Mediterranean has been grand and our first day out in the Atlantic is also beautiful. About ten ships – all liners and we appear to be making good time. There is much more swell here than inside the Rock. Should arrive in England in about a week’s time I hope. Still going almost due west.
Feb. 2 – Wednesday, our sixth day at Sea. The weather is good and we are still sailing westward. All exchange Medical Officers had a meeting this morning concerning our official duties on arrival in U.K. Present at the meeting were: Gus McCarroll from the 4th Field Amb, Williams and Townsend from the 9th F.A., and Bruce Hunter and I from the 2nd Light Fld Amb. We are the only Armoured M.O.s on board, we hope to be posted to the same Bdge. in England.
Feb. 3 – Thursday – our seventh at sea. It is getting much colder and the Sea is rougher, but this ship is very steady, so we are still having a good trip. About four or five days should land us in Liverpool or Greenoch. Another ship joined our convoy this A.M. we are now sailing north, northeast.
Feb. 4 – Very foggy this morning when we got up. This is Friday, our eighth day at Sea, and we are now travelling north east. Orders have just been posted announcing that we will land somewhere on Monday. This has been a wonderful trip, but it is becoming somewhat monotonous.
Feb. 5 – Saturday, our ninth day at Sea. Action Stations – practice only. A lecture in the lounge this afternoon by a Major on Gen. Montgomery’s staff on the campaign of North Africa. ABout the best military lecture I have heard yet. An impromptu concert in Officers lounge this evening. Very good. It is much rougher out today.
Feb. 6 – Sunday – our tenth day at Sea. rather rough and rainy today. Church in lounge at 10:30 – Maj Sutherland, who at one time was with us is to be the speaker. We should see land tomorrow. It has been a lovely trip but we will all be glad when we reach the other end and find out what we are supposed to do.
Feb. 7 – Monday – eleventh day out – We sighted the North Coast of Ireland today and are now sailing through the Irish Sea. The Convoy has divided. One half appears to be going to Liverpool while we seem to going to Glasgow. Should arrive in the Clyde this afternoon, but do not expect to get off the ship until tomorrow morning. Pass “Paddy’s Mile Stone” in Clyde Estuary at 12:30 noon. Pass through boom at 3:50. 5 P.M. – now anchored in Garoch Harbour. Will proceed up the Clyde to King George Docks in Glasgow in the morning.
What do a First World War bugle, three Second World War daggers and a bayonet, a silk escape map and a Zippo lighter (not to mention a pile of badges and other insignia) have in common? They all belonged to my grandfather – Doc Alexander – and have been passed on to me via my uncle, Don, and his brother, my dad, Bob. It’s a veritable treasure trove and I’m really excited as I have the mate to two of the daggers and have never seen the other two, one of which is a German bayonet. My grandfather did not play the bugle during the First World War. He was in a mortar unit and then served as a stretcher bearer, but somehow, he came to have this beautiful, but very battered bugle in his possession. Along with all of that is a King’s Own Calgary Regiment Zippo lighter from 1950 that has obviously been well used. I’m not a smoker, never have been, but there is something about flicking a Zippo lighter open and closed. It’s incredibly satisfying, especially knowing that my grandfather would have done the same thing with it. The silk escape map is of Germany and some of the badges would have been on his uniforms at different times during the war. The two white rams lying on the escape map can be seen in a photograph of my grandfather taken in his Regimental Aid Post in Seaford, England early on in the war. The rams were early insignia of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps. I’m a pack rat by nature and I love old objects, so I’m thrilled to have this little treasure trove of my grandfather’s fall into my lap and many thanks to my uncle for passing it on to me!
April 30: All wheeled vehicles left this morning for Annon in Scotland. Jim and Mac are both gone. The rest of us are wandering around like lost sheep.
May 1: We all leave by train tomorrow. Ralph, Mike and I leave at 10 a.m. Bert leaves with second train about 10 p.m. We are all awfully anxious to get there now and to get settled down to what ever we are going to do.