War seen through a writer’s eyes

By Stephen Shaw

This story was originally published in the Haliburton County Echo on May 2, 1995. 

“I only wish that all men who dream of war, who talk of glory or the grave, who aim at conquest through killing might see these charnel fields of Normandy.”
Frederick Griffin
Toronto Star, August 24, 1945

Proudly sifting through a bag full of yellow, fading newspaper clippings, wartime photos from the frontlines and long-ago wire messages, Mary Ferns recounts the lengthy, late night discussion she had with her father in December, 1945.

The three-hour “interview” in the hallway of her parents’ Toronto home would be the first, and last, meaningful discussion the two would have.

“I can remember he was just so interested in hearing about me.  We just stood there and talked and talked and talked.  He was questioning me about my course at university and other things and it was really like an interview when you stop and think about it.  He was genuinely interested,” says Mrs. Ferns describing the conversation just a few months after the fall of Germany in World War II.  “It was really the only time I ever had a long talk with my dad.”

Her father was the legendary Toronto Star reporter and war correspondent Frederick Griffin. Two weeks later, on Jan. 15, 1946, he died of what was then termed a coronary.

But, looking back almost 50 years later, only weeks away from the half-century anniversary of VE Day, Mrs. Ferns says it was the stress of being in the warzone that ended her father’s adventurous 56-year life.

The Irish-born Griffin, the oldest of six brothers, was recognized for his influence on a generation of journalists. He was inducted into the Canadian News Hall of Fame in 1977 for his standard-raising accounts of newsworthy events.

From his detailed and gripping first-hand reports from the trenches of WWII battlefields to his in-depth coverage of the Halifax ammunitions explosion and Churchill’s visit to Washington in the 1940s, “Griff”, as he was known by his peers, was the eyes and ears for a nation.

His passion and devotion to his work, which took him on a never-ending train ride around the globe following his rise from a Star library clerk to first-rate reporter, was what distinguished him from others in the field.

The respect and admiration Griffin garnered among his colleagues and readers were overwhelming. “No one will ever realize what Frederick Griffin’s example meant to young newspapermen.  His zest, accuracy, colour, his ability to get facts, set a high objective for youngsters trying to make newspaper work a career, “wrote journalist and friend Gregory Clark in an obituary.  “It will be another whole generation before the influence of Frederick Griffin on Canadian newspaperdom will ever be forgotten.”

Mrs. Ferns digs deep into an envelope of newspaper clippings and photos and pulls out cherished memories – many which take her back to the family cottage on Devil’s Lake (today the Highland Trail Lodge on what’s now known as Salerno Lake).

“I remember when I was really young sitting with him outside on this big rock at night and him singing Irish songs to me,” she says recalling a short weekend visit he would frequently make to Haliburton during the summer months. (They lived in Toronto during the rest of the year.)

Each Saturday afternoon at 4:00 p.m. Griffin would take the train to Kinmount where he would meet his wife Luella and their young daughter Mary for a 25-hour weekend. On Sunday at 5:00 p.m. he would catch the return train to Toronto and work.

“He used to love coming up to Haliburton. He’d always sneak out and go have some drinks with his friends behind a barn,” says Mrs. Ferns, who now calls Irondale home.

Griffin was dispatched overseas for what would be a five-year assignment covering the horrors of war, an experience which exacts a high toll.

“He came home in 1944 and he wasn’t well but he wanted to go back to be in France because he knew the war was ending.”

“When you’re terrified it contributes to exhaustion.  Especially when you’re over 50 years old. He was thin and drawn and just exhausted when he came back,” says Mrs. Ferns, who was in her early 20s at the time. Even though he was due a three-month vacation, Griffin was called back after just three weeks and sent to Windsor for a six-week assignment.

“They sent him to doctors to be checked out but three weeks later he died. This man died so young as a result of the war.

“We later found out that he had a heart attack while in Dieppe, but he hid it from the Star because he would have been brought home.”

While readers became familiar with his daily reports, there was little time for the father and daughter to get to know one another as she was growing up, Mrs. Ferns says without any trace of bitterness.  “As a child he was always gone.  He would be away six months of the year but it was his job; it was what he did. He was a wonderful man.”

Griffin’s chillingly descriptive reports from the frontlines of the battlefields painted a crystal-clear picture of the horrors which he witnessed.

“I drove for miles through the most fearful cemetery that Western Europe has ever known and only saw a fraction of it. This was the cemetery of the 7th German Army, or that considerable portion of it which was trapped in the Normandy gap and slaughtered. There died an army. There died Hitler’s last hope of holding the Allies. It lies rusting and rotting in the byroads and fields, in lanes and orchards with a horrible finality.”