World War One vet inspires generations of service

Little Current’s Jeff Marshall shares the story of his father’s role in World War One. photo by Warren Schlote

The Marshall family has served the Canadian Armed Forces for generations, beginning with John Marshall in the First World War. He returned to serve in the Second World War and inspired three of his sons to enlist in military service. His great grandson Neil Mannion is currently enlisted in the air force in Manitoba.

“My dad was so proud, and well he should have been,” said Jeff Marshall, John’s son. “It was all because of him that my brothers and I joined.”

In the First World War, John joined a contingent of troops from Manitoulin to fight overseas. He was born in England and had been working for Henry Skippen on his farm in Green Bay.

“My dad was wounded and sent back to England to recoup. Then, he went back to Europe. He was wounded again and returned back to England. Then he went back to England again and fought at Vimy Ridge,” said Jeff.

John was part of the team that won Vimy Ridge, one of the most celebrated and bloody Canadian military victories in history.

“He was awarded a military medal at the bottom of the hill there; 23 of them got it,” said Jeff. “Quite a few from the Island got that medal at the same time.”

After the war, John came back to Manitoulin to work on the farm. There, he fell in love with the girl across the road, John Skippen’s daughter Gertrude (Skippen). The two ran Marshall’s Restaurant in Little Current; Jeff said it was located where the pharmacy now stands.

In that time, the couple also started their family which included Jeff, born in 1932. Despite the sense of honour that military service usually carries, Jeff said his father did not spend much time discussing his life in the army.

“My dad was very reluctant to talk about the experiences he went through,” said Jeff, a common ideology among veterans, many of whom live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After the turmoils of wartime, Jeff’s parents had begun to settle down. His dad was a “wonderful cook; he made the best pastries,” according to Jeff. Business was doing well at the family restaurant and it would have taken a great force to disrupt the lives they had built.

“Then along came 1939,” said Jeff. “My dad just couldn’t stand it. He had to go back into the army.”

John was placed into the Veterans Guard of Canada, a unit that served within Canada and oversaw services such as prisoner of war (POW) camps.

“My dad was stationed at the camp in Niagara-on-the-Lake, but got a transfer to the camp in Espanola,” said Jeff. The mill in Espanola was converted into a POW camp in 1940.

“I had quite the time; I was just a youngster,” said Jeff. “I’d go spend my holidays with my dad, stay in the barracks there and play games with the prisoners.”

Jeff described getting a friend to buy baseballs and bats, which he brought to the POW camp to play baseball with the prisoners.

“I still kept in touch with some after the war, after they were transferred back to Germany. Some even came back and settled around here,” said Jeff.

During the war, the family’s business proved too much for Jeff’s mother to handle so she sold the restaurant and became a dietician. The military heritage of the family only began to grow from there.

Jeff said his oldest brother Jack fought in the U.S. Army, his second oldest brother Cyril Rosslin fought for the Canadian army and Jeff’s sister Elizabeth Ann married Len Woods who fought in the Second World War.

“All three went overseas and everyone came back. Mind you, my second oldest brother was not in too good of shape,” said Jeff, his brother having sustained injuries while driving a motorcycle for the army.

It was Jeff’s turn next. He joined the Royal Canadian Navy in 1954, followed by his next-oldest brother Ralph who joined the army’s signal corps in 1955.

“I saw the world through a porthole, as the saying goes,” said Jeff. “I had a wonderful life in the Navy. I really enjoyed it, it was a great experience.”

Jeff joined the Royal Canadian Navy during the Cold War. He was stationed as an engineer on a destroyer performing escort services.

“I got a medal from the Cold War era and got three medals from the Netherlands that the Queen of the Netherlands sent to me,” said Jeff.

After serving in both World Wars, Jeff said his dad went on to help found the Little Current Legion, first by holding meetings in the basement of the restaurant.

“It was a great honour to go in the service, to come home and be able to talk to my dad. He started to open up more after I had enlisted; that was one of the things I really enjoyed,” said Jeff.

He added that the first time he heard his dad speak about his wartime experiences was at a Legion dinner in his honour, where he described the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

After his tour in the Royal Canadian Navy, Jeff came back to work as an engineer, eventually becoming Manitoulin Health Centre’s director of engineering and maintenance.

Jeff said he is looking forward to this year’s Remembrance Day ceremony.

“I am the only veteran in the Manor right now. We lay a wreath in the dining room. This year, my son and grandson will escort and carry the wreath to its stand and I’ll place it.”

Just like his father, Jeff is extremely proud of his service to the country and says it provides countless opportunities for young people, even today.

“I had no trouble getting a job because I was so well-trained,” said Jeff. “It’s just a wonderful experience. It’s well-paid and all your health benefits are paid for. There’s no way you can go wrong.”

“I would go back in a minute,” said Jeff with a smile.