by Dan Black
Gordon McArthur clutches the Canadian flag while next to his son Ian at the funeral.
They grew up in different worlds, but came from the same country. They knew different people and experienced separate joys and hardships, but went off to war sharing a common purpose and a similar fate. Indeed, no one could have guessed that privates Charlie Beaudry and George Barritt would die within a few feet of each other and that it would take more than half a century to discover their remains and give them a proper burial.
But that’s exactly what happened to the two riflemen from the Lincoln and Welland Regiment.
Charlie Joseph Beaudry was born March 22, 1916, and spent his early years near the shores of Chaleur Bay in the northern New Brunswick towns of Jacquet River and Dalhousie. He had brown eyes and black hair, played the fiddle and loved to swim. When war broke out, he was an unmarried carpenter. George Robert Barritt was born Aug. 12 that same year, in the small Saskatchewan farming community of Tisdale. His eyes were hazel and his hair brown. He played ball, loved to tinker with radios and worked on the farm and at a logging camp in Manitoba.
Both died on the morning of Jan. 26, 1945, on a muddy and mostly treeless island called Kapelsche Veer in the southern part of the Netherlands. It was there on the sodden dikes–next to the icy north and south channels of the Maas River–where their regiment fought a successful, but controversial battle to expel Germans from their position south of the Maas. The regiment suffered 183 casualties in six days of fighting. Two other regiments–the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada and the South Albertas also sustained casualties.
Held Nov. 2 at Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery, the military funerals for the two soldiers were impressive. People of all ages were drawn to the beautiful cemetery on what turned out to be a warm and sunny day. There were next of kin, World War II veterans, former members of the Dutch resistance, students and local citizens who could easily recall the war years and how Canadian soldiers helped liberate their country.
There was also a large Canadian delegation organized by Veterans Affairs Canada that included Blake Marlow, 83, of Grimsby, Ont., who served with the regiment during WW II. He was wounded at Caen in France, but rejoined his regiment and stayed with it until the end. And while he wasn’t directly involved in the fighting on the dikes, he saw some of the action at Kapelsche Veer after he was asked to go forward and “check on the men.”
Two of the most tearful moments during the funeral–for the participants and for those in the crowd–came when the Canadian flags were removed from the plain wooden caskets, folded and then presented to the next of kin. Emotion also filled the air when each casket was carried through the cemetery by six members of the Lincoln and Welland Regt., part of a 19-member regimental quarter guard.
Also paying their respects and participating in the ceremonies were members of another reserve unit–the Nova Scotia Highlanders. Earlier in the week, they had participated in the unveiling and rededication of a memorial to the 85th Battalion, Nova Scotia Highlanders of WW I.
Representatives of The Royal Canadian Legion’s colour party based in Germany were also present as were British and Dutch veterans. Each funeral included a general salute, the dipping of the colours and a three-round volley fired by the Nova Scotia Highlanders. Immediately following the services, three aircraft from the Royal Netherlands Air Force flew over in formation. “The funeral service was very beautiful,” offered Johanna A. Decker-Bol, who was a youngster during the war. “It was very emotional for me because these two boys–who were missing for such a long time–now have a final resting place. We will never forget what they and others did for us, and the sacrifice they made at Kapelsche Veer.”
Code-named Operation Elephant, the Canadian attack followed separate assaults in late December and early January by soldiers from the 1st Polish Armoured Division and 47 Royal Marine Commandos. Those attacks were rebuffed and casualties were high. The Canadian assault went in at 7:15 in the morning on Jan. 26, and was preceded by smoke rounds that came down 90 minutes before the attack.
The main screen was laid on the island just before the attack and it was thickened by smoke pots and artificial smoke generators. In addition to the ground attack, a 60-man canoe party was used, but it ran into machine-gun fire.
From personnel records obtained by Barritt’s next-of-kin, it is known that the five-foot-eight, 150-pound soldier was last seen alive shortly after the attack began. “At about 0800 hours we were advancing on our objective,” notes a statement from Pte. F.J. Bechard. “I was passing from the rear of the coy (company) up to the front and noticed a soldier laying on the side of the dike. I approached him and took a quick look…. It was Pte. Barritt and he appeared to be very badly wounded. As we were in an attack, I had to keep going….”
Beaudry, five-foot-three, 120 pounds, was last seen at about 10:15 a.m. by platoon Sergeant J.G. Kiss of A Company. “We were moving in on enemy positions and about 60 yards from our objective…. At that time I last saw Pte. Beaudry. He was with another soldier that I did not recognize. He was fighting off an enemy counterattack and was in a slit trench with this other soldier. He was a rifleman in the platoon and was not wounded….”
The exact details of Beaudry and Barritt’s final moments are not known, but it is clear both died at the sharp end of battle, within yards of the enemy. Both were listed as missing in action and presumed dead, until their remains were found in February 2000 by a crew clearing wartime ordnance from the island.
For years, their families lived with the agony of not knowing what happened. “Mother passed away in 1954,” explained Barritt’s half-brother Gordon McArthur, 77, of Port Coquitlam, B.C. “Her name was Mable and she was 73 when she died. She never knew what happened to George.”
The news George was missing came several months after one of her other sons, Duncan, was reported missing in France. He was a private with the South Saskatchewan Regt. and was killed Aug. 28, 1944. His remains were found in 1946 and buried at Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery. “I would say Mother was very close to a nervous breakdown when the news about George arrived,” said McArthur. “She was quite ill for some time, but managed to pull herself through. She worked as a midwife…going around bringing babies into the world.”
He said for years there was only disbelief on her part. “I’m sure she thought some day he’d come back, but I suppose later in life she must have thought he won’t be coming back now…. There have been many times throughout my life when I’ve thought about Duncan and George and wondered what we’d be doing if we were all together. Once in a while I dream about them coming back…about us being together…. But the dreams would only last a minute and then they’d be gone.”
Nancy Gair, Charlie Beaudry’s niece, was at work at Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital when she got the news. The medical secretary said she felt shivers up herspine and tears in her eyes. “I couldn’t work–couldn’t concentrate for the rest of the day.”
The small group of next of kin included Gordon McArthur’s son Ian, and two of Charlie Beaudry’s other nieces: Helen Baxter of Riverview, N.B., and Margaret Fure of Brampton, Ont. All said they were very pleased with the arrangements made by Veterans Affairs Canada to get them to the funerals. “There is a lot to absorb here…a lot to reflect on,” said Fure. “The cemetery itself is so calm and quiet. I will always remember the rustling of the leaves and the singing of the birds. They couldn’t have found a nicer place for these two soldiers and it is fitting that they should be laid to rest in graves side by side.”