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Lest we forget: One man’s mission to honour the fallen

“Here’s where Alden Cottam is buried,” Prowse says. “He was part of the Dambusters Raid- have you heard the story of the Dambusters?”

Prowse spent 23 years as a chaplain in the Canadian military, serving all across the country as well as two tours of duty in Lahr, Germany. It was during his time in Europe that Prowse began researching and visiting the gravesites of those Jasperites who died in the two world wars.

“It started with a family connection,” Prowse says. “My dad came over to visit during my first tour in Germany, and he brought a small bible with him, that had belonged to my uncle. An uncle I never knew had existed.”

Prowse and his parents took a family trip to find his uncle’s gravesite near Dieppe, site of the disastrous 1942 Allied raid where more than 900 Canadian soldiers were killed.

Having been born and raised in Jasper, Prowse knew the family names and had grown up with relatives of the local men who died in battle. When his mother brought him a printed list of the Jasper war dead, Prowse began his search for their final resting places.

Working with the information archived at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Ottawa, Prowse was able to locate cemeteries and headstones. The research was time consuming, Prowse recalls.

“This was before they had computers with all the information, so we’d have to look through one book to find the regiment, and then another to locate the cemetary and so on.”

As a chaplain, Prowse took part in remembrance services and anniversary ceremonies at Allied war cemeteries across Western Europe. This gave him the opportunity to visit and photograph the actual headstones of several fallen Jasperites.

He has seen where Jasper’s war dead are buried in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Italy. But Prowse, who served in Europe during the fall of Communism in the Eastern Bloc, was never able to visit the grave of the man who is perhaps Jasper’s most famous fallen soldier.

Patrick Langford, commemorated on the plaque that sits in front of St Mary and St George Anglican Church, took part in the 1944 escape from Stalag Luft III, a German prisoner of war camp in present-day Poland.

This herculean effort saw imprisoned Allied airmen tunnel out for more than a year, only for 73 of the 76 escapees to be recaptured. Langford was one of 50 of these POW’s executed by the Gestapo.

The events of the Stalag Luft III escape were later immortalised in “The Great Escape” a 1963 film starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Sir Richard Attenbourough.

“Langford’s fellow POW’s have claimed that the movie was pretty accurate through to the escape,” Prowse says. “But the stuff afterwards with the motorcycle and so on isn’t quite so true.” 

Langford is buried in Pozen, Poland, an area unaccessable to Prowse during his time overseas. Now that the Reverend is serving at St Mary’s and St George’s, Prowse has found his own way to honour Langford’s memory, using a commemorative chalice and paten dedicated to the former POW.  

“It’s too small to use for regular services, but I always make sure to use it around the anniversary of the escape and of his execution.”

More than one Jasperite was a casualty of a noted World War II event. Alden Cottam, buried in the Reichwald Cemetary near the Germany-Netherlands border, was killed during the “Dambusters Raid” of 1943. 

The raid, carried out by a squadron of the Royal Air Force, targeted dams on the Ruhr and Eder rivers in western Germany. The aircraft dropped “bouncing bombs”, cylindrical explosives that were spun backwards upon release, actually bouncing over the river water before destroying the dam walls on detonation.

A movie was also made about the raids, released in 1954 and appropriately titled “The Dambusters.”

Not every Jasperite killed in action has a headstone, however, as Prowse discovered on a visit to the Canadian war memorial at Vimy, France. T. Nevitt’s name is inscribed on the  surface of the monument, in recognition of his death during the battle of the Somme in the Great War. He has no known gravesite.

Despite his lengthy career with the Canadian Forces, Prowse does not consider himself a veteran, nor does he use the newly-released veterans license plates.

“I don’t want them because they belong to those who actually did serve or are serving,” he says.

While chaplains are somewhat removed from the active side of warfare and the military, Prowse was in Germany during the Gulf War, and as command chaplain sat in on daily briefings. He also recalls being in the officer’s mess at CFB Petawawa during his first week in the military.

“The commanding officer came in and said ‘this briefing is classified NATO secret’,” he remembers with a smile. “There I was, with no security clearance, and they were talking about the situation in Cyprus.”

Prowse cites the Canadian Forces recruiting slogan as a way to describe his time in the military.

“They say — ‘there’s no life like it’ and you know, it’s true.”

As the nation celebrates the Year of the Veteran and recalls the 60 year anniversary of the end of World War II, the number of direct witnesses to the conflicts of the last century decline, and memories fade through the passing of time, the life’s work of people like Reverend David Prowse begins to take on greater importance.

As Prowse speaks of his pilgramages to the headstones that dot the rural countryside in Holland and Sicily,  as he tells the story of the Dambusters or of visiting the battlefields of Beaumont-Hamel with the last surviving members of the Royal Newfoundlanders, the listener is linked to a bygone era. At time where war dead were still remembered as uncles, neighbours and friends and not merely names on a plaque. 

As we pause to remember on November 11, we should include Prowse and his work in our thoughts. For his commitment to preserving a town’s collective memory and to improving our understanding of the role Jasperities played in past wars, he deserves our thanks.

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