'I was not prepared for the flood of emotion': Remembering Canadian soldiers lost in Belgium
'Imagine Hell in its worst form. You might have a slight idea what it was like'
Every night they come. From around the world. For relatives they never knew.
At 8 p.m., buglers sound The Last Post and it begins. It is a sombre gathering.
Since opening in 1927, and only interrupted by the Second World War, the Menin Memorial Gate in Ypres, Belgium has been the site of a nightly ceremony. It remembers almost 55,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed at battles in the Ypres salient between 1914 and 1918 whose bodies were never identified or never found.
The current site of the memorial gate was originally a gap cut through the defensive rampart surrounding Ypres, with an accompanying bridge over the old city moat. It was over this bridge that thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers marched on their way to battle. For many, including two great uncles of mine, it was a march to death.
Family members never known
Growing up I knew that my Dad had two uncles who fought in the First World War. In fact, Dad was named James George after his father's brother, James Herbert English, and his mother's brother, David George Read.
At Peterborough Collegiate Vocational Institute in Ontario, where both my parents were students, photographs of former students killed in the First World War hung above the lockers. Above my mother's were the photos of my father's two uncles. At 15, my mother had no idea that she would become related, by marriage, to these two men.
James English, a canoe builder, was lively and creative with cosmopolitan and eclectic interests. His one surviving possession, a scrapbook, reflects these interests. Between its weathered black and brown covers are pasted poetry, short stories, jokes, articles about painting and sculpture, crossword puzzles and clippings from Scientific American.
Eerily, there is even a poem entitled Saskatoon, a city where I have lived for over forty years.
Although James accidentally lost the sight in his right eye, it did not prevent him from passing the army recruitment eye exam. When asked to cover his left eye he covered it with his right hand and when asked to cover his right eye, he covered his left with his left hand.
I know less about George Read, a student at the time of his enlistment. From the few remaining pictures he appeared to be quite the outdoorsman, clad in a fur vest and sporting snowshoes. He had a shock of light brown hair, curling at the front, full lips and an aquiline nose.
The names of both men appear on the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium. James was killed at the Second Battle of Ypres on April 24, 1915 at St. Julien. He was 24. It was during this battle that the Germans first used chlorine gas. Sergeant William Miller described this battle:
"Imagine Hell in its worst form. You might have a slight idea what it was like."
In less than a week this first major Canadian battle claimed half the infantrymen who had trained together in England for more than six months. Despite these losses, the Canadians held their position and prevented a German breakthrough.
David was killed the following year, in June 1916, at the battle of Mount Sorrel. He was 19. According to my father, the shock of his death was so great that David's mother's hair turned white overnight. The surprise probably stemmed from the fact that most thought the war would be over quickly. "Home by Christmas" was the refrain.
Additionally, any news from the front was highly censored by the Canadian government. Most families in Canada had no idea of the horrors their sons were facing at the front. During the Battle of Mount Sorrel where David was killed, unprepared Canadian troops came under a withering German artillery attack described by some as "a day of obliteration."
According to First World War historian Tim Cook, "Trenches caved in; communications were obliterated and Canadian defenders were buried alive or dismembered."
My personal interest in the First World War stems not only from my family history but also from reading Vera Britten's gripping autobiography, Testament of Youth. Told through the lens of youth, she recounts the loss of her brother, her fiancée and numerous friends as well as her experiences as a battlefield nurse.
'Equal in death'
My husband Bill also lost a great uncle at Vimy. Like my great uncles, he has no known grave. In 2006, after researching the great uncles attestation papers online and finding out where they were memorialize, we made the trip to Belgium.
Having been at the centre of so many battles, Ypres was totally destroyed during the first World War. Winston Churchill thought that the ruins should remain as a testament to the depravity of war. The people of Ypres, however, had a different opinion. They were able to retrieve the original plans for the city and it was rebuilt.
Today, the bustling cobbled town square is anchored at one end by the cloth hall which now houses The Flanders Field Museum. Restaurants, cafes, chocolate stores and bars line the north and south sides of the square. There is a cat festival every spring.
At the east end of the square, heading down the road about two blocks, is the magnificent Menin Gate. As Bill and I headed toward the gate during the spring of 2006 I noticed a flower shop. I stopped in and purchased two roses: one white, one pink. We were able to find the names of my two great uncles quite quickly, thanks to the online research we had done
I was not prepared for the flood of emotion.
I was the first member of my family to visit the gate. I thought about their immediate families receiving the terrible news that their young sons and brothers had been killed, not knowing exactly where and under what horrible circumstances. Then never seeing them again.
It was too much. I spent a few quiet moments and then laid the roses directly under their names.
More than 60,000 Canadians who enlisted during the First World War were killed — more than the Second World War — with 5.5 of every 10 Canadian soldiers either killed or wounded. About 4,400 Saskatchewan men were killed, which was ten percent of those who enlisted.
None of the dead were repatriated home. They were treated equal in death, buried close to where they fell, if their bodies were found or identified. Rank did not matter. All were given the same headstone.
Rudyard Kipling, who lost his son Jack in the war and who also sat on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, had the idea that the cemeteries should resemble an English Country garden.
Last spring we made our sixth trip to Belgium and France, taking some of Bill's family. Once again we all walked to the Menin Gate for the 8 p.m. ceremony. On that particular night there were Australians and New Zealanders were there for Anzac Day commemorations. One of the more moving moments was the Haka performance by the Kiwis.
It was April 24, 2015, exactly 100 years after my great uncle James was killed. Along with family members I laid a wreath during the ceremony. It was a sombre moment, as always. As the buglers played the Last Post lament, I could not help but think of the words of John Macrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.