“When you wear a poppy, you’re wearing it for the guys that didn’t make it.”
That was the crux of the message 90-year-old Ernie Scale imparted upon Grade 10 students at Father John Redmond Catholic Secondary School, during the school’s annual Remembrance Day ceremony on Friday, Nov. 9.
Pte. Scale – as the long-time New Toronto resident was known when he fought in the Second World War – knows what it’s like first hand to bury a friend in the battlefield.
He shared with students his memories from the war, the friends he lost, and the importance of remembering the sacrifices soldiers made, and continue to make, on behalf of all Canadians.
“It is a tremendous honour to meet anyone who served in World War Two. I can’t say how much it means,” said 15-year-old Samuel John Demmery, a John Redmond student and member of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets. “His story was awe inspiring.”
One of three sons born to an Italian immigrant father and French Canadian mother on a farm in Callander, ON, Scale signed on to join the war effort in 1941 at age 19.
After receiving training in Brantford, Camp Borden and Nova Scotia, Scale and 15,000 of his fellow recruits were shipped across the Atlantic to Aldershot, England aboard the Ile de France liner in early 1943.
Once there, Scale and a few of his buddies joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who were fighting side-by-side with a Polish division around the German headquarters at Caen, France.
For seven weeks, Scale fought alongside his fellow Argylls, trying to reach a stranded, battle-weary regiment that had nearly been wiped out. The Argylls were ordered to the town of Bourguebus, France to wait for reinforcements – and there they waited, Scale said, for five grueling days and four long nights.
“We dug holes in the ground and we were not to move until the Americans and British showed up. In the meantime, the Germans knew where we were and they kept shelling us, all around us,” he told students, recalling for them the misery of those days.
“There were dead horses and cows all around us. We had to take turns sleeping, but no one really slept. We ran out of water and lived on bully beef and hard biscuits. We couldn’t wash or change our clothes.”
After days of waiting, the Argylls were relieved by another regiment and began a jubilant march up to Falaise Gap – but their renewed good spirits were soon dashed once again.
“As we were walking, it was about 3 a.m., we were singing and telling jokes,” he said. Then all of a sudden an explosive landed in the middle of their group, throwing Scale into the air.
“My buddy got hit in the neck and the other guy in the side. Another guy came up to me and asked if I was OK and if I could run. ‘We gotta keep going,’ he said. So we had to leave the guys there,” Scale recalled, breaking down.
“I wished them luck. I don’t what happened to them after that. I never saw them since.”
As the regrouped Argylls approached Falaise, they came across a group of German soldiers who had surrendered to another group along the periphery of a little town on the French hillside. After being told they may have to stay put for a while, Scale set about digging himself yet another bunker.
“I never got the chance,” he said, noting that the Germans began shelling them in ambush. “They hit the guys, and I got hit. I tried to get up, but there was shrapnel in my leg. When they managed to save me, they took me down the road and a jeep came along...they took us far enough away so that the shelling wouldn’t hit us.”
Scale was then transferred to a Polish field hospital, treated, then loaded onto a hospital boat bound for England, where he spent a further four months convalescing.
He returned home to Callander in May 1945, just hours before hearing the news that the war had ended.
“I went to bed that night, and my sister came knocking on the door and said ‘Ernie, Ernie get up! The war is over.’ I said, ‘I don’t care!’ and I went back to sleep,” Scale remembered.
“When I came back, I never spoke about the war for 57 years.”
It was for love of his country, he said, that he finally opened up. This year marks Scale’s 11th year speaking to the students of Father John Redmond about his war experiences.
“I should tell you what a great country we live in,” he told his rapt audience, shortly before being presented with a 90th birthday cupcake. “It’s the best country in the world; no other country in the world will ever match Canada. Believe it – I know.”