Who dropped the Silver Cross? First World War medal unearthed in Clementsport

Jonathan Riley, Digby Courier jriley@digbycourier.ca
Published on October 9, 2014

It was a lucky series of chance discoveries and connections that allowed two strangers in southwest Nova Scotia to team up and return a lost commemorative medal from the First World War to a woman living in Truro.

The soldier and his great granddaughter

Darlene Harry, didn’t know anything about a lost Silver Cross, just that her great grandfather Edward DeLong Burns died in the First World War.

“My grandfather told me he was going to visit his brother, Dr. Arthur Burns from Kentville, who was also in the war, and on the way he was ambushed by the Germans and killed,” she said.

That was Nov. 6, 1917 somewhere in Belgium. Military records show that Private Edward DeLong Burns was 38 years old when he enlisted on Dec. 14, 1915 in Kentville.

He lived in Torbrook Mines, near Kingston, next door to Tremont, where Darlene Harry grew up.

Pte. Burns served overseas with Nova Scotia Rifles, a unit made up entirely of Nova Scotians, officially the 25th Battalion with the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

The Nova Scotia Rifles had been in the Belgium trenches for a year by the time Pte. Burns got to Europe and 900 of the 1,000 men that had started with the 25th were dead, taken prisoner, missing or injured.

In late 1916, the Nova Scotia Rifles took part in the Battle of the Somme where a total of 1,000,000 men were killed or wounded.

The Nova Scotia Rifles fought at Vimy Ridge and in late 1917 they were at the Battle of Passchendaele, south and east of Ypres.

Military records show Pte. Burns is buried in plot 1.D. 19 at the Tyne Cot Cemetery, in Zonnebeke just outside Ypres.

Harry says she remembers a picture of her great grandfather in her grandfather’s home but she doesn’t know whatever happened to it.

She researched her great grandfather a few years ago.

“Just to see if the stories were true,” she said.

She found records online and even saw pictures of Tyne Cot.

She printed off the information and the picture and then stowed it all away in a box somewhere.

She says she’s always hoped she could visit his grave.

The amatuer archaeologist

Jay Stone climbs trees for a living and prunes them and cuts them down. The Bear River arborist sees a lot of wood in his work and some of the more interesting chunks, he puts on a lathe and makes them into spectacular vases and bowls, which he sells at the Annapolis Royal Farmers Market.

But Stone’s passion is detecting – running a metal detector over the ground to see what he can find.

[Digging history: a man and his metal detector, a feature on Jay Stone and metal detecting]

“You’re not going to hit pay dirt,” he says. “It’s the history, it reveals the past and it puts you in touch with that. That’s what I’m in it for. If I hadn’t become an arborist, I’d have been an archaeologist.”

This summer he was looking around a property in Clementsport.

“It turned out to be a bust,” he said. “The house was actually built in the 1950s. But then I was walking along the property line beside a fence and I got a good signal.”

He found a bunch of stuff there, old coins, toys, and a silver medal.

The medal was just slightly bigger than a Toonie, in the shape of a cross, backed by a wreath of laurel. The top end of the cross has a crown and the other three ends a maple leaf. In the centre of the cross are the entwined letters GRI.

Starting in 1919, the Canadian government has issued a Memorial Cross (commonly called a Silver Cross) to the mothers or widows of Canadian soldiers who died in active duty.

[More information from Veterans Affairs Canada]

GRI stands for King George the Fifth who ruled until 1936.

Stone’s first thought was to return the Silver Cross to the family but, he couldn’t find out much.

Even the name, Pte. E.D. Burns, and a long serial number inscribed on the back, didn’t help.

Stone told everyone about the medal, looking for help to find the family.

The guy buying vegetables at the farmers market

And one day at the farmer’s market, Stone overheard two people talking at the next stall about their volunteer work at the Cornwallis Military Museum. Stone told them about the medal.

Shawn Oliver was one of those people and he was fascinated.

“I just wanted to find out who this fellow E.D. Burns was,” said Oliver. “And the further I dug, the more interested I became.”

He checked the Canadian Book of Remembrance and then the Canadian Great War project which told him where Pte. Burns was from, when he enlisted, his marital status, his date of birth, his religion, his next of kin and much more.

Most interestingly, it told Oliver that Pte. Burns parents, Captain Amos Burns and Ruby Burns lived in Clementsport.

After weeks of online searching and endless dead ends, Oliver found the name of the pastor who performed the funeral service for the wife of Pte. Burns’ grandson.

Oliver called the pastor and asked if he could help him find any living descendants.

The pastor, who had lived on the next farm to Carl Burns in Torbrook Mines, put Oliver in touch with Harry.

“I thought, is this a prank call,” says Harry about her first reaction. “It is all so weird, it’s bizarre, it’s pretty amazing after all this time.”

Stone is returning the medal to Harry, who is still coming to grips with the discovery.

“It means quite a bit to me,” she said. “I’m just trying to figure out what is the best thing to do with it. Pass it on to my kids, or hold on to it, or share it with others?”

That’s one question.

Goosepimples

Other questions she and Oliver and Stone wonder about, is who dropped the medal? How did it get lost? Who was wearing it? Why had no one ever mentioned the missing medal?

Regardless, Stone is happy to see the cross returned to the great granddaughter of Pte. Burns.

“It gives me goosepimples,” he says. “We’re looking at a hero here. This man gave his life for Canada and it’s like he’s coming back from the past.”

jriley@digbycourier.ca