By R. H. THOMSON
Saturday, November 11, 2017
IN THEIR NAME, BUT NEVER WITH THEIR NAMES At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.
On Nov. 11, we think of the men and women (mostly men) who died fighting for Canada, yet they are never named. But it seems such an obvious thing to do, to name them. At the ceremony, many words are heard: How proud we are of those that serve - and we are; how well Canada did in the wars - and we did; and most importantly, that Remembrance Day is when we remember them.
Abstract nouns are also included, but I am never sure of their purpose, whereas there is a silence in the name of a dead soldier that can wear away the wall between myself and the past.
I like the two minutes of silence because words don't crowd my remembering. The wars played heavily in my family: My father was in the navy in the Second World War and his five uncles were in the army in the First World War and, in my mother's family, uncles and great-uncles served. We had no family deaths in the Second World War, but seven of my great uncles lost their lives in the First World War. I know those men (mostly young) only through the hundreds and hundreds of letters they sent home. The letters are deceptively simple because, mainly, they ask for news from home and rarely do they write about the fighting. Their sentences are also absent of abstract nouns such as freedom, valour or democracy, since soldiering for them was probably a practical, if deadly, business. In the silence on Nov. 11, I reflect not only on my great-uncles, but also on my great-grandmother, their mother, who also read the letters until the death notices arrived - usually in a telegram.
The letters cease seeming simple when you realize the context in which they were written. When a letter's date is cross-referenced with their regiment's war diary, the events of the day become clear and sentences in the letters become crowded with meaning. On Nov. 13, 1917, my great-uncle George Stratford wrote "the battalion had done the odd bit of fighting." The record in the regimental diary says that they had been fighting the battle of Passchendaele - one of the great slaughters of the First World War.
George's understatement of his war collides in my mind with our heightened remembrance language, the epitaphs on monuments and even sometimes with the architecture of the memorials themselves - all honourably intended. Yet, in my heart, I would prefer something simple.
George's remains lie somewhere near Passchendaele, although exactly where, no one is sure. He was killed four days after he wrote that letter. His soldier brothers wrote their mother not to fret since "he was killed instantly" - but he wasn't. He took at least half an hour to die after his friends had dug him out from where he'd been buried alive by a shell.
His name is one of the 54,000 on Belgium's Menin Gate. They are the names of the Commonwealth soldiers who, as with George, were never found or whose pieces were never identified. Wondering where his bones (or pieces) might lie, last spring I made a quixotic trip to Passchendaele, taking with me a pencilled map that was among the letters. It had been sent to George's mother and was a sketch of a field by the road to Ypres where his friends had dug the quick grave. I was looking for a place that had been hidden for 100 years.
I travelled with my great-grandmother (in my imagination) since she never knew his resting place. I took with me the map and George's last letters. There was the possibility that George's pieces may have surfaced one spring (because bones appear every year, heaved up by the frosts) and had been officially reburied. So I searched the Commonwealth cemeteries with their fine words and perfect headstones, but nothing. I also read wild and passionate words, written by Irish First World War soldiers, that had been chiselled into the stones in Ireland's Peace Park in Belgium. And not far from Passchendaele, I visited Vladslo cemetery, which holds 25,000 German graves. Even with so many, Vladslo doesn't display much memorial language. Instead, kneeling among the graves are two stone figures, a mother and father on their knees before the thousands.
The Grieving Parents were carved by German sculptor Kathe Kollwitz and they maintain a silence that would put our silence to shame. In the cemetery of George's enemies, the father's eyes are fixed on a grave marker a few metres away.
Seeing where his gaze lands, I read the name Peter Kollwitz - Kathe's son. At that moment, my greatgrandmother seemed even more present, since she was accompanied by another parent's grief. The deaths of sons are equal burdens to mothers, as the bodies of the sons, both enemy and friend, lie equal to their graves.
But with no known resting place, George's memories also have little rest. With the pencilled map and the help of Belgian researchers, I finally found the place in a field of young corn where his soldier friends had hastily buried him. Yet, the continued shelling had probably reworked that land, redistributing what had been quickly buried, including my great-grandmother's son. I saw a piece of cast-iron shell casing and a few balls of shrapnel that had heaved to the surface, but nothing else.
George's bones must be somewhere, I thought. Except for a light wind and the motion of the corn, there was nothing but silence around me. I stood with the quiet of the dead. No words or language of remembrance crowded my thoughts. I stood with the grief of my great-grandmother and all the mothers for their sons who we had asked to fight our wars and who had never come home.
For years I have worked on naming them by building a commemoration simply called The World Remembers. What I really wish is that on the morning of Nov. 11, our silence lasted more than two minutes - an insignificant passage of time. Twenty minutes might be a start and two hours would begin to be significant. Remembrance Day has never given us the time to remember each of them by name, although there was plenty of time for each of them to die.
Actor R. H. Thomson is the greatnephew of George Stratford, killed in 1917, and the producer of The World Remembers project, which seeks to name each soldier killed in the First World War; theworldremembers.org.
Actor R. H. Thomson has, for years, worked on naming fallen soldiers by building a commemoration called The World Remembers.
CBC/COURTESY R.H. THOMSON
Tuesday, November 14, 2017