Data crunch reveals untold stories of Toronto’s WW2 fallen

Collaborative community news site OpenFile.ca dug through the City of
Toronto’s archives for information about local soldiers killed during
World War 2. After crunching the data, they found a wealth of untold
stories.

During the war, newspaper ads instructed citizens to send in the names of Torontonians killed in battle. The city of Toronto compiled each soldier’s info on a typed index card. In the end, 3,224 cards — enough to fill 12 boxes — were filed in the city’s archives.

Earlier this year journalist Patrick Cain (the man behind the Toronto Star‘s “map of the week” blog) filed an access-to-information request and subsequently paid many visits to the archives to enter each card’s details, including the address of next-of-kin, into his laptop. He writes that “It turned out that I was committed to what ended up being 55 hours of data entry, working steadily through box after box. Letters and scraps of personal information were a helpful reminder that I was dealing with records of real people, and that the grief over their deaths had once been fresh, and in some cases life-destroying.”

Cain geocoded each address and turned the mound of data into an interactive map dubbed The Poppy File. The effect is a bit unsettling: thousands of poppies overlay a Google map of the city, each one representing the next-of-kin address of a fallen solider. I checked out my neighbourhood and found dozens of poppies, effectively turning the nameless dead into, well, neighbours. How many of my neighbours are currently serving in the war in Afghanistan?

Click on a poppy at random — say 249 Richmond ST. W — and learn that William Manzel, rank Able Seaman, died on February 10, 1942 aboard the SS Victoilite. Army sergeant Joesph Douglas of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry died in France on July 22, 1944 — his next of kin lived on 10 Victor Ave in Toronto. Each poppy also links to the soldier’s entry in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which tells me that Manzel was 21 when he died and is buried in the Halifax Memorial Cemetary.

So why The Poppy File? Cain writes:

“A map overlay joins two kinds of knowledge: our existing picture of the familiar city and some new knowledge superimposed on it. Overlays can take many forms but one of the most powerful, and sometimes disorienting, kinds has to do with history. (The author Simon Schama wrote that the attraction of history for him was in the intersection of the familiar and the unfamiliar.)”

Some poppies represent more than one solider, which means that household lost more than one person. And as the data is reorganized, stories start to emerge. Cain explains:

“The map is an exercise in recovered local memory. For example, it must have been well known in the neighbourhood west of Queen St. and Spadina Ave. that five local men had died at Dieppe but that experience is hard to reconstruct now except through this kind of project. One was from Cameron St., one from Vanauley St. and three from Augusta St., numbers 20, 26 and 44.” 

That some of the addresses listed no longer exist gives “a quick tour of how dramatically parts of Toronto were redeveloped after the war,” he writes.

“From the spreadsheet, we ordered the full service files of four people, which led to the stories that OpenFile‘s Jane Armstrong will share this week:

    -Private Frank Egerton, killed in Italy, and his brother Sergeant George Egerton, killed at Caen in Normandy. They lived at 8 Foxley St., near Ossington Ave. south of Dundas St. W. A third brother, also in the infantry, survived the war.
    -Army Lance-Corporal Kenneth Jackson, whose widow lived at 356 Jones Ave., north of Gerrard St. E. Jackson was captured at Hong Kong and survived years in a Japanese prison camp only to die, weakened by malnutrition, on the American ship taking him home.
    -Naval telegraphist Gregory Clancy, from 72 Woodside Ave., near Runnymede Rd. and Annette St., killed as HMCS Esquimalt was torpedoed off Halifax toward the end of the war.”

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