PEI·Point of View

Remembrance Day: A journey to Flanders, retracing a grandfather's route

CBC reporter Laura Chapin uncovers her grandfather's time at Passchendaele, one of the deadliest Canadian battles during the First World War.
The 110th battalion from Stratford, Ont. Lt. Robert Steele Frame is on the far right. Pte. Robert Steele Frame is in the back row, third from the right. (Submitted)

I'm standing on the edge of a farmer's field on a sunny spring morning, looking across the four kilometres my grandfather and other Canadian soldiers were ordered to cross. I can see the church spire in the distance in the village of Passchendaele.

The route is slightly uphill, but I think I could walk it in an hour, across the fields dotted with red-roofed stone houses, through the woods, past the village.

It took the Canadian troops two weeks to cover this ground, and 4,000 of them would lose their lives trying. Another 12,000 were injured. My grandfather lasted one day.

No man's land

He and thousands of other Canadians stood where I am 98 years ago, but it looked nothing like it does today.

It was mid-October 1917, after the worst rains in decades. After months of being pummeled by shells, what had been farmers' fields were pock-marked with huge craters filled with water, sometimes three meters deep. The no-man's land was grey, devoid of buildings and trees. The troops faced a sea of knee-deep mud, heading directly into German machine-gun fire. 

Mud and barbed wire through which the Canadians advanced during the Battle of Passchendaele. (William Rider-Rider/Department of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada)

I have come to Belgium to retrace the route my grandfather, Robert Steele Frame, took during the First World War.

He was 20, five foot seven inches tall, 161 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes, and a dark complexion.That's how his enlistment papers describe him. 

He listed his occupation as student, he wasn't married, and had never served before. His father was listed as his next of kin, at the address my grandfather shared with his parents in Stratford, Ont.

Followed his uncle's footsteps

My grandfather signed up in January 1916 so he could follow my great-great-uncle, also Robert Steele Frame, to war. The elder Frame was a lieutenant who led a battalion in Stratford, Ont.

He was 47 — too old to go to the front — but he lied, saying he was 42 on his declaration papers. 

But he would never see the front. He developed a serious heart condition during basic training in England and was shipped back to Canada in December 1917, landing in Halifax two weeks after the devastating explosion. My great-great-uncle died from his heart condition in January 1918. 

A page from the diary Robert Steele Frame kept while he served. (Laura Chapin/CBC)

My grandfather hadn't shared a lot of detail with my mother about his time at the front. She didn't know where he'd served until she found his diary, a military-issued, brown leather book with day-by-day entries for 1917. 

"Over the top at 5:45 a.m.," is the entry on Oct. 26. A quick search leads me to Passchendaele. 

His notations are sparse. Only the occasional word reflects the horrors he and others faced. 

Conditions at Passchendaele were so horrible some of the Canadian commanders wanted to abandon the mission, but the British wanted to take the ridge just beyond the village before the snow flew.

'Laying low'

"Shelling all day," he wrote on Oct. 23. "Laying low." 

That shelling started on Oct. 21 and would continue until the morning of Oct. 26.

Some of the Canadian commanders asked to delay the start of the offensive until Oct. 29 to give time for the shelling to reduce the German lines. Advance shelling had been one of the keys to Canadian victory at Vimy, but the delay at Passchendaele was denied.

Thousands of Canadians, including my grandfather, headed across the muddy fields of Flanders two hours before dawn on Oct. 26.

His diary says "rain, mud, etc.," then "caught in Fritz's barrage." 

His battalion made it a quarter of a kilometre that day before German machine-gun fire stopped them from advancing any further. 

Wounded in battle

"Wounded at pill box," is scrawled sideways on the edge of the page. A pillbox is a concrete defensive structure German gunmen used.

"Dressing station at night," is written on another edge of that day's entry. My grandfather doesn't say how he was wounded, but the next day he was "on his way to Boulogne through Poperinge." Boulogne was where the Canadian field hospitals were.

Robert Steele Frame's diary from 1917 as he fought in the First World War. (Laura Chapin/CBC )

What my grandfather's diary entries leave out is that, despite being wounded, he had to make his own way back from the front to get medical help. It was a 20-kilometre journey from Passchendaele to Poperinge, where the medical clearing station most likely was located.

My grandfather made most of this journey by himself. One of the stories he shared was how a pair of Salvation Army volunteers picked him up and drove him the rest of the way. For the rest of his life, he made a donation at Christmas to the Salvation Army in thanks.

Wounded soldiers walking

Why would wounded soldiers have to walk back from the front? I learned it could take up to a day for ambulances to move injured soldiers from the battlefield, so you were advised to get yourself to medical care if you could. 

My grandfather told my mother he had open sores on his lower legs from mustard gas. I'm not sure if he was gassed during the battle. The Germans did use mustard gas at Passchedaele, but it's also possible gas from previous battles seeped out of the mud as my grandfather crossed the field that day. 

By Oct. 28 he was at a field hospital in Boulogne-sur-Mer, and three days later he was on a boat to England, or Blighty as he called it in his diary, heading for treatment at a hospital in Brighton. 

According to my grandfather's stories, a doctor there would wipe the compound ether up and down the sores on his legs, and then tell him to walk to keep his circulation up.

Mom says granddad always had trouble with his legs — but he got to keep them, unlike the soldiers who got gangrene from the sores.

My grandfather survived Passchendaele. Others in his battalion weren't so lucky. 

"Lt. Paton killed," and "Lt. Moore killed," read two of his other entries from Oct. 26. 

William Ambrose Moore, 38, was a farmer from Listowel, Ont., killed leading a platoon that day. 

Edgar William Galbraith Patten, 26, from St. George, Ont., also died that day. 

Tyne Cot cemetery is the Commonwealth's largest war burial site. (Laura Chapin)

Honouring the dead

I walk the rows of white headstones, reading the names in the nearby Tyne Cot cemetery, the Commonwealth's largest war burial site. Twelve thousand men are buried there, many of them 'unknown soldiers.'

My grandfather's troop mates, William Moore and Edgar Patten, are not buried there. Their names are engraved on the Menin Gate in nearby Ypres, a monument that lists 55,000 Allied troops whose bodies were never found after the First World War battles in this region. It's thought the bodies sank quickly into the mud, buried deep now below the surface of the fields I had been walking on. 

Every night at 8 p.m. since the Menin Gate was completed in 1927 the Last Post has been played, and the mayor of Ypres shares a story of one of the soldiers listed there. 

A new appreciation

The night I am at the gate, crowds of high school students are among the hundreds who have come to see the ceremony. 

Two buglers dressed in long, black woolen military coats walk to the middle of the white marble arch and begin playing. The haunting notes echo off the walls. As the last note fades, the crowd remains silent. The mayor steps forward and begins to recite.

Menin Gate in Ypres, where the names of 55,000 Allied troops are listed. (Laura Chapin/CBC )

"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old."

My eyes well up. 

"Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn."

Tears are rolling down my cheeks. 

"At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them."

The days retracing my grandfather's steps here have changed my understanding of war, deepened the losses for me, made it more real. 

I will remember them.