Geoffrey Reaume is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Health at York University, Toronto
Who would ever have thought that writing an article for CMAJ could lead to the re-discovery of precious World War I medals from a beloved grandfather that had been stolen a quarter century before? Well that is just what happened to me.
First, a bit of background. In August 1975, less than one year before she died, my maternal Grandmother, Anne Udall, gave me three medals from World War I which belonged to her husband, my maternal Grandfather, Francis Udall, along with a photo taken of him in 1915 in his uniform. When my Grandmother gave me these precious parts of our family history she said, looking at his photo, “He certainly was a handsome man.” A few years later, my parents, Josephine and Nelson Reaume had my Grandpa’s medals mounted, along with his ribbons, identity tag, and the 1915 photo, in a glass frame which they gave to me for a Christmas present. When I moved to Toronto in 1988, I left the frame with Grandpa’s medals in Windsor at my parent’s home. I felt they belonged with his daughter and I also believed they would be safer in Windsor than in the big city of Toronto.
In early December 1989, thieves broke into my Mom and Dad’s house, smashed the glass frame that was hanging on the wall and stole my Grandpa’s three World War I medals, while leaving behind his military ribbons, identity tag and the original 1915 photo. The police told my parents that it looked liked the work of two thieves and that the thieves would probably melt down his medals. We were all devastated at losing these precious objects and in such a violent way. I remember going to my grandparents’ graves and apologizing for what happened.
Twenty-five years later, I was asked to write a short article for the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) about Critical Disability Studies, which the editors asked me to relate to World War I since it was to be published just before Remembrance Day. I said that I would like to mention shell shock which was agreed upon. I then proceeded, with my Mom’s permission, to include a brief mention of what happened to my Grandfather during and after World War I. The editors also asked for a photo, so I included a copy of his 1915 picture for the forthcoming article.
When she provided the final edits to the article on September 30, Kelly Clarke, one of CMAJ‘s editors, wrote to me that “Francis Udall’s medals are for sale” on a website that sells military medals. She had found out this information through a Google search (I had done a Google search on my grandfather earlier as well but didn’t find anything). Needless to say I was absolutely stunned. I then told her that these medals were given to me when I was 13 by my Grandmother a year before she died and that they were stolen from my parents’ house in Windsor fourteen years later in 1989. After a frantic search, which Kelly helped with by providing the link for me to access the web site selling the medals, I immediately purchased Grandpa’s medals within an hour after finding out about them being offered for sale. On October 2, 2014, two days before what would have been my Grandfather’s 122nd birthday, the three stolen medals arrived by Federal Express. I opened the package with a copy of my Grandfather’s 1915 photo at my side, along with a photo of his brother Wilfred Udall who was killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. There they were, the three original medals engraved with my Grandfather’s name and identity numbers in the Royal Canadian Field Artillery: the 1914-15 Star (85799 DVR: F. UDALL. CAN:FD:ART:); British War Medal (85799 GNR. F. UDALL. C.F.A.); and Victory Medal (85799 GNR. F. UDALL. C.F.A.).
After 25 years, Francis Udall’s medals have been returned to his loved ones. My 84 year old Mother, along with the rest of our family, were as excited, moved and amazed as was I at this completely unexpected turn of events, and just in time for Grandpa’s birthday on October 4. I know my late Dad would also have been so happy at this news, as he and my Mom were heart-broken when their father and father-in-law’s medals were stolen from their house only a few weeks before my father retired. Interestingly, my Dad is one of the few people my Grandfather spoke to about his war experiences, when he talked to his son-in-law about what it was like to be at the Battle of Paschendaele in 1917 (this is where the quote in the CMAJ article comes from).
After getting over the shock and then exhilaration of this extraordinary discovery, I could not help but feel angry to know that my Grandfather’s stolen medals, given to me by my Grandmother, were being shopped around by strangers while his family to whom they belonged had no idea of any of this. I also realize that most of the people who shopped them around likely did not know that they were stolen after the original thieves sold them at some point. At the same time, it is also an enormous relief that whoever possessed the medals took good care of them as Francis Udall’s medals still exist, are in as good condition as they were when I last saw them in 1989, and are back with his family where they belong. Next time I visit Windsor and pay my respects to my grandparents’ grave, I will bring them my Grandpa’s medals and let them know that everything is all right.
I have written plenty of articles over the years but none has been as personally gratifying as this one for reasons I could never have dreamed when writing it. Thank you, Kelly Clarke, from our entire family, for helping to find a precious piece of our family’s history that none of us ever thought we would see again. As my Mom said about the return after 25 years of her Father’s stolen World War I medals, “It still seems like a miracle.”