The lost and found war monument: Why a Clarenville man is telling his great-uncle’s story

Ron White’s great uncle Alexander Gilbert served in the First World War. He was killed in action in France in 1917. (Submitted by Gilbert Family Descendants/Facebook)

Before 1986, Alexander Gilbert was just a name to Ron White.

Since then, he’s been the subject of fascination, and is at the centre of a war monument that was lost and then found. 

“He was a salmon fisher on the Come By Chance river,” White told Weekend AM. “I have a picture of him going fishing with my grandfather.”

White’s great-uncle, Alexander Gilbert, lived in Cooper’s Cove, and was the only person from the community to be killed in action during the First World War.

Gilbert went overseas to France to fight at the age of 20, and was killed a year later, in 1917.

White learned about Gilbert through his great-uncle’s sisters, although they never told him about the war.

“The big part of the story is that none of this was ever shared,” White said.

“It was in a trunk in our home and it was never talked about, it was never shared. And when my grandmother passed away and I learned of it, well, I started gathering up this information about him.”

It started with asking questions and “finding out just little bits of information.”

In time, he learned a great deal more about the Gilbert family.

Returning to Cooper’s Cove

White met with his grandfather, John Gilbert, in 1986. White was 31 at the time. His grandfather, 89. The visit took them through Sunnyside, Come By Chance and Alexander Gilbert’s home of Cooper’s Cove. John Gilbert had left there in 1928.

“He got out of my car and he stood there,” White said. “And he just looked around, and the next thing tears start rolling down his cheeks. So my tears started to flow too.”

His grandfather revealed that houses had been there, and a wood shed. 

“But there was nothing left there by this time.”

Ron White (right) has done a lot of research into his family’s history. He presented a book of his family’s history to the Come By Chance Heritage Commitee. (Submitted by Gilbert Family Descendants/Facebook)

Through his grandfather, White learned of a monument that had been ordered in 1958 from the Department of Veterans Affairs honouring Alexander Gilbert.

John Gilbert knew the monument had been delivered. He just couldn’t remember where.

“The last he heard a friend of his, Thomas Coffin, went to the train station [and] picked up the monument,” White said. 

“He got it out to the beach area and got it in the dory. Took it across the gut and got it over to the foot of the hill. That’s where he had to leave it cause it was just too heavy for him to get up to the graveyard.”

The search for the monument

After learning about the monument, White says his grandfather asked him to find it.

His search was put off for a while. Then in 1991, his aunt living in Texas returned to Newfoundland for a visit.

“I asked her about the monument and she didn’t know anything about the monument,” White said. “But she did want to go the next day and find [it].”

The group decided to retrace the steps of their grandfather’s friend, Thomas Coffin. White, his aunt, and his uncle Fred borrowed a boat to go across the gut to the monument’s last known location.

After searching around the graveyard for close to an hour, White said he and his uncle were ready to give up. But his aunt was hot on the trail.

“She was determined she was going to find that monument before she left the graveyard that day,” White said.

Before the day was over, White would find the monument in the graveyard his grandfather had talked about.

 “It was tipped at about a 45-degree angle. And we cleaned the moss off it,” White said. 

The monument for Alexander Gilbert now stands in Come By Chance. It was ordered in 1958, and not found by the family until 1991. (Submitted by Gilbert Family Descendants/Facebook)

It would be well into the 1990s before White approached the Town of Come By Chance about moving the monument into the community.

“I wanted to make sure the monument was going to be moved, was going to be done in a proper way,” White said. 

Today, the monument stands next to the church in Come By Chance.

White continues to honour veterans in the area. He and the town are working on a new monument site, which will include all servicemen and -women from Come By Chance. He expects the new site to be ready by next July.

A retired schoolteacher, White now leads guided walking tours on trails around the Come by Chance area, including Cooper’s Cove. He dedicates the Cooper’s Cove hike to his great-uncle.

He attends Remembrance Day ceremonies in Come By Chance, and on Monday will lay a wreath with his grandchildren in Alexander’s honour.

He hopes his walking tours, along with the new monument site, will teach people about the sacrifices Gilbert and others have given.

“Hopefully by the time I depart, my grandchildren, my children and the communities around, and even the province will know about Alexander Gilbert and what he did.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

The lost and found war monument: Why a Clarenville man is telling his great-uncle’s story

Aggregated from: CBC | Newfoundland and Labrador News

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