A poet’s moving tribute to his father’s war experience

Richard Outram’s graduating class – Leaside HS,1949. Photo courtesy of Susan Parr.
Richard Outram’s graduating class – Leaside HS, 1949. Photo courtesy of Susan Parr.

Few people know that one of Canada’s most respected poets, Richard Outram (1930-2005), lived in Leaside as an adolescent and young man. 

Fewer still know about his father, Alfred.

Alfred Outram, an engineer by profession, moved his family here in the early 1940s after purchasing a house on Rumsey Rd. He and his wife Mary remained in Leaside for nearly three decades and were active community members. Alfred served as a Leaside municipal councillor in the 1940s, while Mary joined the Women’s Auxiliary at Leaside United and served on the Leaside Home and School Association. 

During World War II, Alfred contributed to Leaside’s war effort by organizing bond drives, joining the local air-raid precautions service, giving blood, and growing a victory garden. 

After the war, his son Richard attended Leaside HS, graduating with honours in 1949, and then the University of Toronto, graduating in 1953. Afterward, he worked for the BBC and CBC as a television production worker – until retiring in 1990. But his real passion was poetry. During his lifetime, he published nearly two dozen volumes of poetry and prose – receiving the Toronto Book Award for Poetry in 1999. His works are the subject of numerous academic articles and studies.

One of Canada’s most respected poets, Richard Outram (1930-2005), lived in Leaside as an adolescent and young man. Photo via Wikipedia.
One of Canada’s most respected poets, Richard Outram (1930-2005), lived in Leaside as an adolescent and young man. Photo via Wikipedia.

Richard deeply respected his father, who saw intense action in France with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during World War I. On Remembrance Day 1992, Richard published a moving tribute in the Globe & Mail. Entitled “My Father: Lest I Forget,” it described how Alfred fought and survived both the Battles of the Somme and of Vimy Ridge and was blinded by mustard gas after being blown into a crater at Ypres. He was only 21. After his sight was restored, he volunteered with the Canadian Field Artillery for duty in northern Russia. There, he and his comrades almost starved during the Russian winter. To survive, they ate the remains of horses, and perhaps – suggested Richard – even those of human beings, killed by the brutal weather. 

Richard wrote that his father rarely talked about his ghastly war experiences. But he seldom missed a Remembrance Day service either.

Alfred Outram died in 1974. Years later, his son wrote these lines in his honour, excerpted from his poem Cenotaph: 

He stood in his beret

and ribbons, with the same

faces, less a few,

each autumn. We became

accustomed in the night

to his muffled screams;

it was, my mother said,

“only his war dreams.”

He fought at Vimy Ridge,

the Somme, at Ypres was gassed, 

and more or less survived

the horror of his past…*

Alfred Outram, like so many Canadians – from Leaside and across Canada – made immense sacrifices in the service of their country. Some survived “the horror of [their] past.” Many did not. May we remember them all this Remembrance Day – and every day. 

This article was guest contributed by Ted DeWelles, Leaside Heritage Preservation Society.