Craig Bird says his interest in military history has become a 30-year passion.
Bird, who is a sergeant with the Estevan Police Service, is one of several people in southeast Saskatchewan who has compiled an impressive collection of uniforms, memorabilia and other artefacts.
Bird will be the guest speaker for the Remembrance Day service hosted by the Royal Canadian Legion’s Estevan branch. The service will be at Estevan Comprehensive School on Nov. 11, starting at 10:30 a.m.
The ceremony will take place on the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
Much of Bird’s collection is from the First World War and the Second World War. He has an array of what an infantry soldier would have had or carried during that wars. It’s not just of Canadian and British soldiers, but German and Japanese as well.
“It’s … something that piqued my interest early on,” said Bird.
In the last three or four years, Bird has ramped up his research into southeast Saskatchewan’s contributions to the First World War, because of the events held locally to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917.
“I’m trying to keep it a little more fresh, plus I’ve been running into people in the area that have a connection with World War I, they’ve had a relative or what not in the family, so some of the stuff is coming out a little bit more.”
He noted a lot of local soldiers joined with the 152nd Battalion, but that ended up being disbanded over in England in 1917, and they went into the 15th Saskatchewan Reserve Battalion. When the drafts came occurred the end of the war, they often went into the First Saskatchewan Garrison Battalion.
“A lot of these guys would have gone to the units that needed reinforcements at the time because of battles and what not,” said Bird.
He has also learned more about people who came to Estevan after the war who weren’t originally from the city.
Bird believes recent milestones have boosted interest and awareness of the war, including the 100th anniversary of the start of the war in 1914, to the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge last year, and this year’s 100th anniversary of the end of the war.
In a visit to the Mercury office, Bird brought a number of items from his personal collection. One of them was an 18-pound British shrapnel shell that is dated 1917. It was fused to detonate over troops. It could be set for height and distance, and it would rain down marble-sized led balls onto the opposing soldiers below.
“It was just carnage,” said Bird. “And they would use the shrapnel shells basically for breaking up wire entanglements, or infantry in the open.”
Also with him was a smaller German howitzer shell from the following year.
“They called them whiz bangs because when you watch the old movies and hear the whistle, those are calibre shells that would whistle over your head,” said Bird.
Millions of those howitzer shells were fired during the First World War.
He also brought several photos with him. One is a collage of photos and other artefacts that includes a picture of a tent city at Camp Hughes, Man., during the First World War. At the time, more than 30,000 people lived at Camp Hughes, making it the second largest city in Manitoba. He also had a photo of the presentation of the colours to the battalion on June 22, 1916. Bird believes that Prince Arthur’s wife presented the colours.
Another of his framed collections is of the regimental badges of Estevan area soldiers who died during the First World War.
And then there is a photo that was taken during the war of the first depot battalion in Regina. Among those in the photo are the grandfather of Bird’s wife Tina, and a soldier named Michael Ching, who was from Bienfait. Bird has both of their uniforms.
He also brought a buckle, a medal and a trench periscope, which was created at the end of the First World War. The periscope allowed soldiers in the trenches to see activity on the other side.
Bird said he likes to bring items that people can relate to, see and touch. Other items in his collection can’t be handled due to their fragility.
“If it gets damaged, it would be hard to replace. Some of the things are a little bit more resilient in that manner, like the shell casings and the photos and stuff.”
Bird says he gained his interest in military history through his own service. He joined the Regina Rifles infantry unit when he was still in high school and living in Lumsden. It provided part-time, summer employment, and he could drive to Regina for training, particularly during the summer months.
After he graduated high school, there was a full-time opening with the Rifles, and he was fortunate to be hired.
“They weren’t a regular force at the time. It was basically a full-time reservist. So you got to travel and do courses and do training all over the place, and basically had a steady paycheque at the time, which was nice.”
While he was with the Rifles, he learned a lot about the unit’s history and its esprit de corps.
“Every time they did class history on the unit and what they did, mainly during the Second World War, because the Regina Rifles were formed just before World War II. Before that, they were the 28th Battalion.”
It proved to be a fantastic experience that took him all over Canada and the U.S. He spent 10 years with the Rifles, and once he finished his service in the military, he joined the Estevan Police Service.
“I was right out of the military. Basically I transferred over, changed one uniform from a green one to a blue one, and then I got roped into working with the army cadets down here, and pretty much have been doing that for much of my time down here as well.”
He teaches the military history course to the army cadets each year, and he has talked to the Second World War veterans at the legion.
“They start talking to you because they know you were in the military, and they’re a little more forthcoming, I guess, with the stories than they would be … with anybody in general, because a lot of the veterans didn’t talk about wartime experiences,” said Bird.
Bird is looking forward to his role with the legion’s Remembrance Day service this year, and he hopes to see a larger crowd out to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War.