June 2, 2000
Last weekend a Canadian came home.
The body of an unknown man was buried in Ottawa
last weekend after laying in the soil of France for eighty years.
All we will ever know about him is that he was Canadian and died
in 1917, when the Canadian Corps finally took Vimy Ridge.
That battle cost 3,598 Canadian lives, and
is considered a turning point in our history, where we won our
nationhood through the sacrifice of soldiers barely old enough
to be considered men.
The moving ceremony in Ottawa made me think
of three other men.
The First World War was over 40 years before
I was born, but I've always felt a special affinity for my great
uncle, Harry Elwood George. He signed up in 1914 and served with
the "Little Black Devils" Winnipeg's 8th Battalion.
He was at Vimy Ridge in 1917, and "went over the top"
three times that week before standing on the summit of Hill 145.
Great uncle George was also at Ypres, the
Somme and Passchendale, and was even declared dead once. Miraculously,
he came through The War To End All Wars, wounded but alive.
His letters home speak of the death that took
his friends and fellow soldiers one by one, or sometimes in whole
groups. The rats, the cold, the mud, the disease he wrote
about them as causally as a letter home from summer camp.
This in a war as savage as anything seen anywhere
at any time. Fighting was often done hand to hand with knives
and homemade clubs. Rifles, he said, were useless when attacking
a trench. You just threw as many grenades as you could carry
and hoped you killed everyone who might kill you.
My wife's great uncle was also in World War
One. Even though he had suffered a debilitating childhood accident
and could barely fire a rifle, we sent him anyway. He came back
with horrifying stories about soldiers going mad in the trenches
and nightmares that woke him for years after.
My friend Rob's great uncle served in the
trenches in France. Private Brown served in the local the Essex
County regiment. Even more than my own relatives, I thought of
Rob's uncle while I watched the ceremony of the return of the
unknown soldier. He too never came home.
While serving in a trench in Ypres, the enemy
dug underneath his whole platoon and packed the tunnel with explosives.
They never knew what hit them, and no bodies were ever found.
He was listed as missing, presumed dead.
It will never be known if his body was found
but not identified, or if that grassed over trench in the French
countryside is his final resting place. His name is on a memorial
there, but for a moment Rob indulged in the thought that maybe
it was his great uncle they had brought home to rest.
Rob takes care to honour his memory
a great uncle he never met every November 11th he quietly
places a small grainy photo of a man younger than him at the
And remembers, as we all should.