August 4, 2014 marks 100 years from the start of World War 1.
by Pamela M. White, Clayton, ON
Twice in the past two years I have been to the WW1 gravesites in France and Belgium. On my first visit, nothing I had experienced previously, not even Dieppe with its imposing cliffs, narrow stony beach and graveyard filled with over 800 young Canadian men all of whom died within 24 to 48 hours of one another, prepared me for the silence of the Somme and the seemingly endless list of names inscribed on the Vimy Monument and in Ypres on the Menin Gate Memorial.
After my 2013 trip, I returned to Canada feeling profoundly unsettled by what I had experienced. The physical imprint of the Commonwealth and German graveyards and memorials on the landscape of the Western Front is so overwhelming that one loses sight of who were the people buried and memorialised there. I found myself at a loss to put a face or a life story to the names I saw inscribed on the row upon row of gravestones and listed at Vimy and the Menin Gate. Yet, all these men and a few women were sons and daughters, brothers, uncles, husbands and fathers. But I could not see nor grasp this web of memory from my vantage point as an incidental visitor.
On reflection, three events helped me decide my course of action should I ever return. The first occurred the day we visited the National Vimy Memorial and Vimy Monument which commemorates over 11,000 Canadian servicemen who have no known gravesite.
My husband, daughter and I were invited to join a student group tour of the Vimy trenches. The energy of these Calgary senior high-school students stimulated the university-aged guides and filled the Vimy Memorial trenches and tunnels with the sounds of youth. It struck me that these young Canadians were close in age to the Canadian soldiers who had built, lived and died there nearly 100 years ago.
We caught up with the Calgary students once again when we reached the Vimy Monument, located about 10 minutes walking distance from the main reception centre and site of the reconstructed front-line trenches. Clustered around one side of the Vimy Monument, the teacher had gathered her students together for a commemorative service. She played the bagpipes. One student told the story of the soldier whose name was inscribed on the wall and another student laid a wreath. The identity of this serviceman listed on the Vimy Monument passed into the living memory of these students. He became once more a person who had relations, a family and a home.
My second denouement occurred at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme battlefields. This imposing structure is dedicated to the 72,194 British and South African servicemen who died in the Somme battle sector before 20th March 1918 and have no known grave.
A UK school group occupying the computer terminals at the Thiepval Memorial interactive centre reinforced the lesson I had learned at Vimy. Each UK student had been asked to research the battle history and background of a soldier memorialised at Thiepval. I peered over the shoulder of one student and listened to the exchange between the student and the history teacher. The student had chosen the youngest soldier listed on the Thiepval Memorial. Again, a life journey of a young infantry man emerged from the names inscribed into the limestone plaques.
These two experiences contrasted with my experience of the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. The Menin Gate Memorial bears the names of 54,389 officers and men from United Kingdom and Commonwealth Forces (except New Zealand and Newfoundland) who fell in the Ypres Salient before 16th August 1917 and who have no known grave.
Every evening at 8 o’clock (20.00 hours) Last Post is played at the Menin Gate Memorial. This was started in 1927 and it has been played almost every night since except for a period in the Second World War when Ypres was occupied by German Forces. At this ceremony which now attracts several thousand people, students, individuals, community associations and veterans lay wreaths. It is a place of collective daily memory.
Canadian casualties are listed by regiment on the walls of the Menin Gate Memorial. The panels go up the stairs and along three walls. Commemorated are the names of people who once had a relationship with family and friends, and to the farms, towns and cities of Canada. In 2013, when I went to the Menin Gate Memorial nothing linked me to the people recorded there. I knew of no one. I saw only names.
When I returned home, I came to understand that the Canadian and UK students I had met were creating memory by linking place. I decided that the next time I went to the WW1 gravesites, I would try to find on the Vimy Monument, the Menin Gate Memorial and at the Commonwealth gravesites the names of those listed on the Almonte and Clayton memorials. Last summer, I copied these names, and using the information found on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
http://www.cwgc.org/ and free app ‘the Fallen’ http://www.thefallen.org/
I located where each person was buried or memorialised.
My husband and I had the opportunity to return to the Vimy Monument and to the Menin Gate in April, 2014. With the help of friends and neighbours I was able to create a living memory of some of the WW1 soldiers listed on our Almonte and Clayton cenotaphs. Over the upcoming weeks, I will share these connections with the Millstone.