Guardsman Herman Edward Burke (1918-1944) – An Ordinary Man and his Extraordinary Sacrifice
Herman Edward Burke was born on December 12, 1918, the third of nine children born to Eddie Burke and Blanche Dupuis. He spent his youth in Thurso, a small town in western Quebec. School, chores and play filled his early days. By all accounts, Herman had a very ordinary childhood.
Herman loved to work. His parents had a farm and he always gave a willing hand to help them with the demands of daily life on a farm. In time, Herman secured paid employment in Ottawa shoveling coal and driving trucks. Hard work held no fear for him.
There is no clear record of where or when Herman met Edna Binette, his future wife. Edna’s older sister, Alice, was a good friend of Mary Burke, one of Herman’s four sisters. It is believed that the close friendship between Alice and Mary led to the introduction of the couple at either the Burke farm or the Binette farm.
Herman was an active member of the Governor General’s Foot Guards in 1941, the year of his next important life decision. Herman looked very handsome and proud wearing his army uniform, when he married Edna on May 16, 1941. Their happiness grew with the birth of their daughter, Evelyn, in March 1942. Herman was now a husband and father. He had completed his journey to adulthood.
Canada joined the Second World War on September 10, 1939. Thurso’s sons did not hesitate to answer their country’s call. Every man or woman who joins the armed forces is required to take an oath of service. In taking this oath, Herman understood that, if necessary, he would give his life for the greater good of humanity.
Herman’s last post in Canada was in Debert, Nova Scotia. He journeyed to Thurso to visit Edna, Evelyn and his family in August 1942. It would be his last journey home.
Herman left the safety of Canada in September 1942 and set off to do his duty on foreign soil. His thoughts on that long journey, and the difficult months and days that followed it, were surely of the small Quebec town where his loved ones waited for his return.
Guardsman Herman Edward Burke was shot by a sniper on August 14, 1944. He died shortly after his crew took their injured comrade from the tank. He had lived 25 years, 8 months and 2 days.
A letter of condolence written by his childhood friend, Norman Cavan, provided an account of Herman’s last day and his final moments of life. It gave Herman’s heart-broken wife, parents and siblings comfort to know that he did not suffer and did not die alone. Sergeant Cavan’s letter is dated 27th August 1944.
“Herman lost his life on the drive on Falaise, it was by this drive that we closed the gap and captured the greatest part of Hitler’s army in France. It is a pity that those who fell on the way are unable to know now that by their hard work and great sacrifice the battle was won.”
On that fateful day, Sergeant Cavan’s tank had been knocked out of service and he and his crew were able to secure a second tank. As they continued their mission, they passed Herman’s tank which was sitting at the side of the road. It had been knocked out too.
Sergeant Cavan could not find his friend in the encampment and heard reports of heavy casualties earlier that day. The next morning, he returned to the spot where he had seen Herman’s tank. It had not moved. He found Herman and two of his comrades lying on the ground near the tank.
“I got an R.C. Padre who took charge and we buried Herman and two other chaps along side their tank in a lovely Cloverfield. I learned from one of the crew of his tank, who escaped uninjured, that Herman did not suffer at all, but died shortly after they took him out of the tank, with a smile on his face.”
Sergeant Cavan also speaks of the respect that Herman’s crew had for him and his skill,
“He was well liked by his crew, and they after spoke highly of him to me, they had great faith in his good shooting, and he was one of our best gunners.”
The letter closes with a profound statement on the impact of our wars on families,
“I must say that bravery is not only found on the battlefield, but in the homes where people face the loss of their loved ones with a brave heart.”
Guardsman Herman Edward Burke rests in the Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery, in Calvados, France.
His daughter, Evelyn, his two granddaughters, his four great-grandchildren, his surviving sibling Marcella and sister-in-law Hazel, and his extended family will always remember him with love. Each of us is grateful for and proud of an ordinary man who made an extraordinary sacrifice for our freedom and for peace in the world.
Nous nous souvenons d’Armand Edouard Burke avec amour, gratitude et fierté.
August 14, 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of Guardsman Herman Edward Burke’s death in France.
A tree in his honour has been donated and will be planted along the Highway of Heroes in 2019.
Written by his niece, Beverley Binette, with input from Herman’s granddaughters, Nikki and Louise.