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Unknown but not Forgotten

by Stephen Lautens


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 cenotaph.

And remembers, as we all should.


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