As we come together to mark Remembrance Day for the 102nd time since the end of the First World War, we face an uncertain moment. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be at the forefront of most discussions, while conversations about equality, justice and climate change also dominate. Just as in 1919, with the world recovering from the devastation of war, there is one universal truth: people will need to come together to solve the issues of today to rebuild and build a new and better world.
A collective of individuals will make the difference and we can look to our veterans and their sacrifices for guidance. We are grateful to have several veterans among our residents and we are constantly inspired by their selflessness and dedication to doing the right thing. This Remembrance Day, we want to share one of their inspiring stories.
“As we face the challenges of today, it is necessary to reflect on experiences of those who contributed to the solutions of the past.”
Paul Watley is a resident at The Williamsburg Retirement Residence in Burlington, Ontario and recently celebrated his 100th birthday. Mr. Watley, who was born in Belgium, was 18 years old when the Second World War broke out. As the Nazis advanced, he fled to France with hopes of escaping to England to join the British army. However, he never made it that far as the Germans quickly overran the French defences.
Mr. Watley took action and joined the resistance to the German occupation distributing anti-German pamphlets dropped by the Royal Air Force. His group was betrayed and he was arrested by the Gestapo for his actions. He was beaten and tortured for three months even being subjected to mock executions, but he never gave up any information. After being transferred to a prison in Belgium, he escaped with the help of the French Resistance as well as some of the Belgian guards, who loosened the bars on his window allowing him to slip through and climb down using bed sheets tied together. Once on firm ground, Mr. Watley was met by his fellow members of the resistance and his work continued. “Over the years I had seen what the Germans had done to my people and those around me,” he said. “I wanted to help free my country and others under Hitler’s control.”
Now a wanted man, Mr. Watley had to conceal his identity from the Gestapo who were hunting him and the best way for him to do so was to hide in plain sight. The Germans were recruiting civilian truck drivers. Mr. Watley could drive a truck and also spoke five languages which made him a valuable recruit. His new role also allowed him to watch as the Germans built up their forces along the Atlantic sea wall and his mobility as a driver allowed him to pass that information on to his contacts in the Resistance as well as the Office of Strategic Services, an agency of the Unite States’ government with the purpose of sabotaging the enemy’s military efforts during the Second World War.
Mr. Watley continued to share vital information with the Allied forces for two years before joining with the 7th Fusiliers Battalion, 2nd Canadian Arm Group in 1944. He later joined the Belgian army in liberating the Netherlands. “As we entered a village, the villagers did not come out as they didn’t recognize our uniforms,” Mr Watley said. “We then spoke to them in their own language which brought them out into the streets. The children were still afraid. We all kept chocolate for the kids. One child took the chocolate and within few seconds a huge smile appeared on his face. That smile, I will remember forever because it was the smile of liberation and hope. Everything I did and went through up until that moment was worth it. It was like seeing a light at the end of a tunnel.”
The period following the end of the war was full of decisions to be made as Europe needed to rebuild. His time spent with the Canadian army influenced Mr. Watley’s decision to immigrate to Canada in 1948. “I had enough of the war, with all the things that I had done and gone through at that time,” he said. “I had enough of it.” His fresh start in Canada began in New Brunswick where he worked on a farm. After gaining some experience and settling into his new country, Mr. Watley began a career as an electrician and eventually moved to Hamilton, Ontario to work at one of the steel mills in their electrical department. He later worked on the St. Lawrence seaway building bridges and ports. It was at this time that he met his future wife, Betty, and raised a family.
In their retirement, the couple moved to Nipissing and they began to design carousels. Mr. Watley would buy and sculpt stone into the shape of the horses and then would work together with his wife to paint them and add the finishing touches. A little more than five years ago, they moved to Burlington, Ontario to be closer to their family and made The Williamsburg their new home.
Mr. Watley says that his experience during the War influenced his entire life. His time serving in the resistance and in the army shaped his volunteering efforts later in life with the Red Cross. On Remembrance Day, he is flooded with memories of the people, friends and fellow soldiers who were lost during the War. “It brings back sad memories of going into the hospital and seeing many soldiers and the wounded from my regiment. I would try to help them any way I could,” he said. More than anything, however, Remembrance Day is a time for him to express his gratitude. “It allows me to reflect that I am still alive and active.”
As we face the challenges of today, it is necessary to reflect on the experiences of those who contributed to the solutions of the past. Their perseverance to overcome adversity, dedication to their fellow citizens, and moral compass to do what was right should inspire us to forge a path to a brighter future for all. And so, on November 11th, at the 11th hour we will remember them and honour their sacrifice by committing to continue their legacy of cooperation and determination for a better world.
Paul Watley’s experiences during the Second World War inspired his dedication to serving others when he immigrated to Canada.
A resident at The Williamsburg Retirement Residence in Burlington, Ontario, Paul Watley recently celebrated his 100th birthday.