I first visited the Canadian Great War battlefields in the spring of 2006.
My partner Marley and I, together with our good friend Jim Miller, embarked on a mini-war tour in Belgium and France following a conference in Great Britain.
We all had ancestors who served in the Great War and never returned home.
In fact, we were the first family members to visit their memorials.
Jim’s maternal grandfather, John Rodger, died in the 1915 Battle of Loos and is remembered today in Dud Corner cemetery.
He has no known grave — just his name listed on one of the cemetery walls.
He left a wife and eight children in Scotland.
Marley had two great uncles who died in Flanders: James Herbert English at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, and David George Read at the Battle of Mont Sorrel in June 1916.
They too were never found and their names are among 54,000 British and Commonwealth dead commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres.
Marley’s father, James George English, was named in their memory in 1925.
But the really spooky part is that photographs of Jim English’s two uncles, in uniform, loomed over Marley’s mother’s locker at Peterborough Collegiate Vocational Institute — before Barb met her future husband.
My great uncle on my mother’s side, William Stuart Ritchie, was a member of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles.
He perished during the Battle of the Somme on Sept. 15, 1916, coincidentally the first day that the Allied forces used tanks on the western front.
Ritchie was buried in a makeshift cemetery, but his body was later never located — probably blown up — because of the constant shelling of the area.
More than 50 per cent of the Somme fatalities remain missing to this day.
I have since learned that other Canadians have similar stories of loss and that our families’ experiences were not unique.
Part of our April 2006 battlefields tour included a trip to the Vimy Monument.
I never realized at the time that my great uncle’s name was on the memorial.
I had always assumed he died during the Great War, given his year of death, but knew few of the details.
Unlike Marley’s family and their stories, my mother Jean never once talked about her uncle Bill, who died the year of her birth.
Nor had I done any research into his war record, never bothered to look for his attestation papers through the Library and Archives Canada online service.
Our trip to Vimy on a lovely Sunday morning was essentially a bonus after visiting Loos and Ypres to lay flowers and offer a few moments of quiet reflection for our family dead.
But Jim, Marley, and I never did get to see the monument. It was undergoing a major restoration in time for the 90th anniversary of the battle in April 2009.
This rescue work was badly needed.
By the late 1990s, the monument’s stone base was eroding in several places, the sculptures were discoloured by an unsightly mould, and many of the names of the dead had become unreadable from calcium leaching out of the stone facing.
The Canadian government was eventually shamed into action and approved funds in 2002 to save the memorial.
The multi-million-dollar restoration necessitated closing the site to the public so that the monument could be literally taken apart, stone block by stone block, and rebuilt.
For much of this work over the next four years, the memorial would be, as the French said, “en caché,” or covered.
We just chose the wrong time to visit.
The famous monument was hidden under a rectangular canvas shroud that from a distance looked more like a prairie grain elevator.
Disappointed, we vowed on the spot to come back when Vimy was once again open to the public and we could appreciate its renewed grandeur.
The pledge to return to Vimy prompted me to do some homework about the monument, and more importantly, learn about my great uncle William and his fate.
I had witnessed how Marley and Jim had been personally affected by visiting the memorials to their family members and wondered if my relative had been similarly remembered and how I would feel visiting the site.
That’s when I made the connection to Vimy.
William Stuart Ritchie enlisted on Aug. 25, 1915.
His “apparent age,” according to his attestation papers, was 28 (born 1887).
But that wasn’t true.
The census lists his year of birth as 1883 — a fact confirmed by a family genealogy tree.
Why he declared himself to be younger is not clear.
By that stage of the war, after Canadians had been badly mauled in Flanders, the Canadian Expeditionary Force was accepting men in their 30s or older.
Perhaps he believed that he’d have a better chance of being accepted if he presented himself as younger.
Born in Elmvale, Ontario, William had lived in the east end of Toronto since 1904 and worked as an electrician.
He married Agnes Lyon, a seamstress, in 1910, and the couple had three children, Harry (born 1912), Jean (1913), and Lillian, who died shortly after birth in 1914.
Maybe that’s why he signed up.
Private Ritchie was a member of the 83rd Battalion, recruited and mobilized in Toronto.
On reaching England, he was selected to serve with the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles — badly in need of reinforcements after its battering at the Battle of Mont Sorrel.
Ritchie joined the fight near Courcelette, part of the larger Somme offensive.
On Sept. 15, 1916, his battalion was ordered to attack the heavily defended Fabeck Graben trench and came under fierce German shelling as it moved forward.
That’s when Ritchie was reported missing.
William was found dead shortly thereafter and buried next to the road between the villages of Courcelette and Poziere.
The official casualty sheet for William says “Body not recovered for Burial” and is stamped at the bottom in capital letters, VIMY MEMORIAL.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission also lists my great uncle as being “remembered with honour” at Vimy.
But why was his name at Vimy, especially when he was killed at the Somme, seven months before the assault on the ridge?
In 1920, Toronto architect Walter Allward won a competition to design a national war memorial.
The Canadian government initially planned to erect the monument in the Ypres Salient in Belgium, but then decided to place it at Vimy, France in honour of the Canadian taking of the ridge in April 1917.
Work on the monument started in 1922 on what was known as Hill 145.
It would take two years to clear the battleground and complete a road because unexploded shells precluded the use of heavy equipment.
Allward spent more than a decade painstakingly overseeing construction of the monument, ensuring that the graceful design that had come to him in a dream was realized at the site.
One of the critical aspects was the choice of stone.
Allward searched throughout Europe — at considerable expense and precious time — before settling on Seget limestone from a closed quarry near Split, Yugoslavia.
This delay added to the Canadian government’s frustration with the glacial pace of the project.
Allward, in turn, was shocked when the secretary of the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission informed him in 1926 that his monument had to display the names of those Canadians who died in France — not just Vimy — with no known grave.
Allward resisted the proposal, suggesting that there was the “danger of having it look like a huge sign board.”
But the commission was not swayed, and after considering whether to inscribe the names on the monument’s two pylons or the floor of the base, Allward agreed to place them on the walls.
At the official unveiling on July 26, 1936, presided over by the former King Edward VIII, those in attendance greeted the memorial with a mixture of sorrow and pride.
And what made the monument such a poignant reminder of Canada’s great loss were the 11,285 names, in alphabetical order, that ringed the base in continuous lines across the stones.
The central statue of the mourning woman, known as Canada Bereft, was weeping for them.
Marley and I returned to Vimy on a sunny fall day in October 2013.
The trip was part of a small European holiday to mark our 60th birthdays.
I now knew from my research that my great uncle was memorialized there and that his name would be among the Rs, organized by last names in alphabetical order by rank.
It did not take long to find him, on a row of names at eye level, to the right side of the steps leading up to the top of the monument base.
I picked up a fallen red maple leaf, from one of the trees that had been planted at the site, and stuck it next to his name, while Marley took my photograph.
I also placed a little wooden cross against the wall below his name.
I still didn’t know much about him — especially why he enlisted shortly after the death of one of his three young children — but was glad to see his name.
I also thought of my mom’s family and what they and tens of thousands of others went through at the time, especially when the dead had been reported missing.
This connection to family brought me back less than two years later, this time with my sister Gail and brother Tom and his wife Irene.
Marley and I had told them about our past visits to the Great War battlefields in France and Belgium, and we decided to return together in April 2015.
We stood at the Brooding Soldier monument at Vancouver Corner in Flanders, 100 years to the day after Marley’s great uncle James English was killed at the start of the Second Battle of Ypres.
A special ceremony, involving the king of Belgium, was held to mark the first use of chlorine gas on the Western Front.
Later that day, we attended the ANZAC Day commemoration at the Menin Gate and solemnly stood with Australians and New Zealanders as they remembered their dead.
At the end of the service, the sound of the haka reverberated through the memorial.
We also spent a morning at Vimy and took a family picture near my great uncle’s name among those ringing the base of the memorial.
It was all quite moving, even for Marley and I, who had been there before.
There’s an overwhelming sadness when you visit cemetery after cemetery and look out upon the maple leafs on the headstones.
Thousands more Canadians have no known grave — are still somewhere out there.
My ongoing search for more information about my uncle William’s war experience has greatly benefitted from Library and Archives Canada’s decision to scan the personnel records of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and put the material online in 2018.
I now know, for example, that William trained at the Toronto Exhibition grounds, that he sailed from Halifax in late April 1916, and that he landed in France six weeks later.
The record-keeping was a model of efficiency.
The file includes a card indicating that memorial crosses were sent to his widow Agnes and his mother, Janet Ritchie.
The Ritchie family has had little more to add.
It was so long ago, and many are now dead.
But I did get a photograph of the Ritchie family headstone in the Elmvale Presbyterian Cemetery.
William’s name and death in France are inscribed on one side of the stone pillar marking the grave of his parents, who lived into the 1920s and would have known the heartbreak of losing a son to war.
What I couldn’t find, though, was a photograph of William.
That was recently resolved thanks to a November 2017 notation at the end of William’s entry on the Canadian Great War Project website.
William attended St. John’s Presbyterian Church on Broadview Avenue in Toronto.
His photograph is among 32 congregation members who perished during the war.
I visited the church during a trip to Toronto this past August and found his picture on a wall in the stairwell to the second floor.
Some, like William, are in uniform, others in street clothes.
The same men — this time, just their names — are honoured on a bronze plate in the chapel.
There is also a framed, hand-lettered scroll for 1916-17, listing those from the church who served during the war.
The scroll is carefully wrapped in plastic and leans against a wall in a church storeroom.
Beside William’s name is a red dot, denoting killed, that has faded over the years and is barely discernible.
It’s not the fate Canadians expected when they marched off to war.
Nor was it the future families expected for their loved ones.
And if we can do anything 100 years later, it is to remember people like William Ritchie, John Rodger, James English, and David Read.
Their memory should not be reduced to a name on a list or monument.
They deserve better.
Historian Bill Waiser lives in Saskatoon. His father served in the British Columbia Regiment during the Second World War.
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