by Dan Black
Wally Smith stands next to the Danger Tree at Beaumont Hamel.
From the road near the Belgian village of Passchendaele, you look across a recently ploughed field to find a row of young kilted reservists from the Nova Scotia Highlanders standing shoulder to shoulder along the crest of a gentle ridge. They appear to be stock-still against the clear morning sky, but as you get closer you notice how they all seem to be looking at the brown earth that surrounds the seven-tonne memorial a few metres to their left.
Every one of these young men and women is aware of the fact they are standing on sacred ground–soil that in their view is as much Nova Scotian as it is Belgian. You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices when they talk quietly amongst themselves about how much of an honour it is to be here–on Oct. 31, 2001–to help unveil a new memorial to the 85th Battalion, a highland regiment raised up in Nova Scotia in 1915 to fight in World War I.
The unveiling of the privately funded memorial was one of many formal ceremonies held in Belgium and France to commemorate Canadian and Newfoundland involvement in WW I. Organized by Veterans Affairs Canada, the Oct. 29 to Nov. 4 tour included a stop in Ypres for the 25,000th playing of the Last Post at the Menin Gate Memorial.
The delegation, led by Carmen Provenzano, parliamentary secretary to Veterans Affairs Minister Ron Duhamel, also participated in major remembrance ceremonies in France at the Vimy Memorial and at the bronze caribou monument in Beaumont Hamel Memorial Park. It placed wreaths at Tyne Cot Cemetery, Passchendaele Memorial, Hill 62 Memorial near Ypres and the towering St-Julien Memorial. Located next to the main road from Bruges to Ypres, the latter memorial stands as a sentinel over those who died during the war’s first gas attacks.
The delegation included Wally Smith, dominion chairman of The Royal Canadian Legion, as well as representatives from the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada, the National Council of Veterans Associations, the Merchant Navy Coalition, Aboriginal Veterans Association and the Nursing Sisters Association of Canada.
The ceremony for the new 85th Bn. memorial began when Steven Kempton, chairman of the Nova Scotia Highlanders’ Heritage Society, welcomed everybody and then quoted a letter written in April 1919, shortly after the original memorial was erected. “It has been a melancholy satisfaction for us to be able to erect, near the village of Passchendaele, a memorial to our comrades who gave their lives there,” wrote the battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel J.L. Ralston.
Kempton explained that it was on the morning of Oct. 30, 1917, that the 85th Bn. attacked over this very ground toward a small cluster of houses. He said as the men went over the top they were met by a storm of machine-gun fire so intense that anyone who attempted to stand was cut down. “To slip or fall into a shell hole or crater often meant death for wounded soldiers” who could not keep their head above the water and mud.
Many men drowned and their remains –loaded down by thick globs of mud–simply disappeared in the morass. Still, the 85th managed to break through enemy lines and hold their positions against shelling and counterattacks.
The series of attacks by the Canadian Corps to capture Passchendaele began five days earlier–on Oct. 26, 1917–when 20,000 soldiers inched their way forward under heavy fire. The cost of victory for the corps was extremely high: more than 16,000 casualties. The 85th Bn. lost 148 members, all within a 500-metre radius of where the memorial stands.
The statistics speak of the horror that took place on the battlefields 84 years ago, but to get a more poignant picture of the sacrifices and how the war shattered individual lives you have to learn about the men who make up those losses. “John and Donald Thompson grew up together, played together, worked together and joined the 193rd Bn. of the Nova Scotia Highlanders together,” explained Kempton. “They were sent over to serve in the 85th together, and they were killed together. John was killed on Oct. 30, 1917, and is buried at Tyne Cot Cemetery. Donald was mortally wounded the same day, and died of his wounds the following week. He is buried at Poperinge, 20 kilometres away from the brother he had done everything with.”
The stone used to make the memorial to these men is Nova Scotian granite, quarried from the Annapolis Valley where Kempton says many of the men came from. “It seems fitting that, much as the men of the 85th came over to Belgium and left many of their comrades in the land beneath our feet, we, the descendants and friends of the 85th have come to Belgium again, this time to leave behind a piece of our land from beneath our feet, as a lasting token of respect.”
Kempton thanked individuals and groups for supporting the creation of a new memorial. He acknowledged the presence of the dominion chairman and thanked Nova Scotia Command and its branches for “tremendous support” to the heritage society. Numerous branches and individual members helped raise money for the project.
Provenzano told the gathering that the rededication of the memorial will ensure that their sacrifices and legacy are perpetuated for many years to come.
For Wally Smith, 77, and others, the visit to the cemeteries and memorials were poignant reminders of the Great War and its human toll. “Getting to Vimy and looking out over the Douai Plain was my most impressive moment during the tour. I won’t forget the opportunity I had to stand there below the twin towers and look out over the landscape, and wonder what our uncles, fathers and grandfathers must have thought in the hours before the massive offensive on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917.”
Smith had three, possibly four uncles who fought at Vimy Ridge. His wife’s father also fought there. “My wife has always had a closer relationship to Vimy than I have. She would have liked to have been here with me to see this, but I will take my memories and thoughts back to her and to my fellow Legionnaires in Peterborough, Ont.”
“I feel very privileged….to have the opportunity to visit the areas where nursing sisters have served during war,” said Norma Fieldhouse of the Nursing Sisters Association of Canada…. “The losses–all of the names that are carved in stone over here–make you realize the enormity of the sacrifice that was made for Canada.”
The ceremonies at Beaumont Hamel, St-Julien and in Ypres at the Menin Gate emphasized the grim reality of war, but underscore a collective will to remember. The gate and its impressive Memorial Arch commemorate, by name, nearly 55,000 soldiers of British Commonwealth armies who died in Belgium, most of them in the Ypres Salient, but who have no known grave. Of these, 6,940 are Canadians.
Every evening, the dead are remembered in a simple ceremony run by volunteer firefighters. Traffic is halted and buglers–usually two–sound the Last Post from beneath the stone arch. They have been doing it faithfully every night since 1927. The one and only break with tradition occurred during WW II when Ypres was occupied by the Germans.
On the evening of Oct. 31, 2001, a large crowd witnessed wreath placings by royalty and the 25,000th playing of the Last Post. During the ceremony, Sergeant Karen MacLean of the Nova Scotia Highlanders played the lament, Flowers of the Forest. Tears flowed, especially when thousands of poppies flutter down from the top of the arch.
Bugler Raf DeCombel said the playing of the Last Post is the only thing “we can still do for those who lost their lives during WW I. It is important for us to continue every day because war is not far away from us–it is in many places of the world. It is terrible that so many people have to die.”