Adrian Watkinson is no London cabbie, but it’s clear something’s at work as he shuffles his little car in and out of traffic along the narrow, congested streets of the city’s East End. As it turns out there’s an inherited line of “cabbie blood” in Adrian’s veins.
Benefitting from his acquired sense of direction is his partner, Diana Beaupré, who only recently changed her name from Baldwin to Beaupré after discovering a box hidden in her mother’s closet that revealed who her real father was: a French-Canadian soldier named Paul who met her mother during the Second World War while she was married to a Royal Air Force serviceman.
The personal nature of this wartime affair, which will be expanded upon later, is crucial to our little storyline as it intersects both life and death. It will show how a deep, dark secret spilled onto the floor and gave rise to a personal campaign to create a comprehensive ‘memorial’ to the 3,893 Canadian casualties sustained in the United Kingdom during the First World War.
Moving forward with the soothing voice of ‘Tim’ riding shotgun on a dash-mounted GPS, Adrian and Diana accept the built-in redundancy of a technology that could assist them on their morning adventure. Both Brits are approaching 70, but you would not know it from their energy—akin to a couple of teenagers en route to a splash park.
Diana—a former self-employed dog groomer—and Adrian, who owned and operated a large boarding house for cats, burn brightly as they lay out the day that will unfold on the north side of the Thames. Indeed, if Diana’s ardour could be converted into sunlight, it would be radiating out of her eyes and fingertips. Such utility would certainly cast a welcoming light on how both of them spend most days—walking among graves and talking to dead people—or at least the spirits of dead people.
The dead are mostly men—the majority in their 20s—buried in small to large cemeteries at some 853 locations in more than 88 counties and nine far-flung islands across the United Kingdom. Most of these soldiers and their graves are long forgotten, as are their families and stories of service. And some of them would still be a name on a memorial wall if Diana and Adrian hadn’t trudged through overgrown cemeteries to find and mark lost or hidden graves as part of their Far From Home project.
Their aim is to record—for posterity—all of the graves and as much as possible about the soldiers in them. And while this volunteer work is amassing valuable information on Canada’s wartime experience in the U.K. it should give Canadian and British researchers—not to mention genealogists and the relatives of First World War servicemen—a more complete and personal narrative. For starters, it is a little known fact that some two-thirds of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) had immigrated to Canada from the British Isles before the war, which explains why so many of these men and 15 women are found in obscure churchyards and private cemeteries from Shorncliffe on the English Channel to the wind-swept Isles of Orkney off northern Scotland.
“Diana and Adrian are in the midst of accomplishing something quite unique,” offers Glenn Wright, a former archivist and historian with Library and Archives Canada. “The basic information on these soldiers is available from the Canadian Virtual War Memorial, but Diana and Adrian are going beyond that by visiting every gravesite and documenting, through meticulous research, every soldier. Their dedication…is exceptional…”
Recently, the couple has been working to locate the burial places for Canadians whose names appear on the Brookwood (United Kingdom 1914-1918) Memorial Wall in Surrey. The graves of these men are listed as unknown, but Diana and Adrian have found the graves of 10 by purchasing the soldier’s death certificate and then determining the most logical cemetery or churchyard where their remains may be. “Before hitting the road, we write letters or send emails to churches, cemeteries or local authorities requesting a burial check,” explains Adrian. “Through a process of elimination, graves can be found this way, but it takes time, effort, patience and tenacity. The results are passed to the CWGC (Commonwealth War Graves Commission) for their records and for a war grave headstone to be ordered if one is not present.”
As of mid-August, more than 3,500 graves throughout Britain and Northern Ireland have been visited. In 2012 alone, Diana—assisted by Canadian volunteer Lyette Brochu—visited 226 locations in England, Wales and Ireland. Next June the couple will embark on their sixth month-long road trip which will take them to 306 gravesites at 160 locations throughout Scotland. “It will take us 800 kilometres just to get to the Scottish border from Canterbury and we will be covering roughly 4,200 kilometres once we’re there,” explains Adrian. By the time the entire project is completed in 2016, the couple estimate they will have travelled—by car, plane and ferry—roughly 29,000 kilometres. “That’s a lot of petrol calls at £1.32 per litre,” he adds.
To save time and money, Adrian maps out the best route, the location of entry points and the exact or probable location of a grave. Whether it is a trip into London or a longer journey, each trip has its own ‘soldiers packs’ and ‘flight plan’ detailing who it is they are looking for and how to get there.
Tucked into the boot of their car this morning—next to a thermos of tea and a box of sandwiches—is the “grave kit,” an assortment of gloves, garden shears, brushes, trowels, kneepads and water-filled spray bottles used to clear dirt and weeds from around graves. Adrian and Diana also never leave a grave without planting a small Canadian flag and saying a few words. “I tell them someone is here, remembering them,” says Diana. “I tell them it’s about the life they lived before and during the war. Sometimes I chat to them as if they are there…standing next to me in their Canadian uniform.”
“Judging by the condition of most of the private graves we visit, nobody—or very few people—visit these men, at least in the last 50 or so years,” adds Adrian. “We, in fact, may be the last people to visit them. That doesn’t worry me, it saddens me.”
Diana gives the example of a grave belonging to Sapper Ernest Stigant of Winnipeg. Although born in the U.K., Stigant served with the Canadian Engineers and died in January 1918 from wounds received at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Diana and Adrian had to cut their way through dense undergrowth in the municipal cemetery before they found the grave with a large tree growing through it.
Whatever they learn about a soldier before, during or after a visit is documented and triple sourced. Each profile draws on primary research sources in the U.K. and Canada, and sometimes further afield. “We apply the same research standards to each and every casualty,” notes Diana who earned a first-class honours degree in American and Canadian studies from Canterbury Christ Church University in 2007. “We are dedicated to trying to find the same information on all of them and this often results in new or corrected information—such as the spelling of a name.”
“This is a magnificent project that is not only meticulously researched but is also being carried out with great dedication and a very keen sense of history,” says historian Tony McCulloch of University College London, England. “Each year they have ventured increasingly ‘far from home’ themselves. Importantly, they are also making their findings accessible to all…”
The work has produced an array of stats on everything from how Canadian soldiers died, how many were buried in a given year at a particular cemetery, marital status, religion, regiment, ethic origin and age at death.
The profiles are compiled, regularly updated and then fed into volumes with each one assigned to a particular county. At last count there were 92 volumes in the couple’s “war room” situated in a cottage behind their modest bungalow near Canterbury. The binder for Kent/Shorncliffe, for example, contains 305 soldier profiles, all of whom died in the U.K. between 1915 and 1919. The highest number—112—died in 1916. Interestingly, the causes of death for the 305 were 29 by accident; 29 air raid; one at sea; 216 illness; 15 suicide; 15 wounds.
“Some of the figures are quite surprising and show unexpected results,” explains Adrian. “For instance, the number of deaths through battlefield wounds was quite low compared to those for serious illness. As expected, the influenza pandemic that peaked in 1918 wreaked havoc amongst the troops, but even in the earlier years of the war, meningitis, tuberculosis, pneumonia, measles and alcoholism claimed their share, with a dramatic number of deaths through accidents or suicide.”
Lieutenant Ewen McLachlin of Arnprior, Ont., was the first Canadian suicide Diana and Adrian learned about. On the night of Aug. 19, 1917, the 29-year-old officer was on a shingle beach near Shorncliffe and after staring out to sea fired a bullet into his head. “Learning about his death opened a window on my psyche,” says Diana. “I wondered how many more there were and why. It is the suicides that get to us more than anything because they died alone. This officer had spent the afternoon golfing with his friends and while he was sitting on the beach that night he would have heard the guns in France.”
In Scotland, the couple will visit the grave of Private Antonio Hébert who served in the Canadian Forestry Corps. On April 30, 1918, the 22-year-old left camp and wandered into the woods with a piece of rope in his hand. He picked out a birch tree along the River Findhorn and ended his life without anyone knowing. Three years later, two young men hiking through the forest decided to stop for a rest on a crag some 100 feet above the river. One of them noticed a boot containing the remains of a foot. Soon a skull was found, then the rope still dangling from the tree with two vertebrae. A later search uncovered buttons from a Canadian tunic. “It is really sad to know that he hung there for an indeterminate period of time before his body disintegrated,” says Diana. “When we visit his grave we will spend a quiet time there talking to him.”
The fatal accidents listed in the files include everything from falls to road mishaps to the discharge of firearms. Private Duncan McLean of Charlottetown, who had served in the South African War and enlisted in the CEF in 1915 at the age of 36, was struck by a truck. Private James Brown of Montreal died Aug. 24, 1915, after a train severed both feet and crushed both arms. Another soldier died after falling off a Martello Tower and breaking his back.
The discovery of such facts coupled with the opportunity to visit each grave is what energizes the project. Between Adrian and Diana is a shared tenacity for chasing down details. They are known for knocking on all doors—sometimes loudly—in their quest for information. It’s a commitment that makes them vulnerable to frustration, but also open to reward—or as Diana says—“eureka moments.”
“It isn’t a project for the faint-hearted,” she explains. “The month-long road trip we did last year was able to take place only after four months of detailed preparation as it is simply impossible to turn up at a cemetery and hope to find a grave, particularly a private one. Unlike cemeteries I have visited in Canada, where there appears to be order and every section is clearly marked, it is only the military cemeteries here that have order whilst the rest, to use an old saying, is like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
This morning’s adventure in London’s East End could go that way. However, there is a strong sense of optimism in the car as they arrive and begin to zero in on the missing graves of Canadian Sergeant Joseph Clark and Private Frederick Ludeman. Hours of research has pointed them to Tower Hamlets Cemetery, one of London’s oldest and largest burial grounds.
However, locating two missing and unmarked graves in the 33-acre cemetery won’t be as simple as walking in, grabbing the register and finding them by row and plot. Diana and Adrian have a strong ally in Ken Greenway who manages what for decades has been a closed cemetery within a nature reserve. In addition to Millionaires Row with its towering, vine-covered monuments, the ground at Tower Hamlets contains some 350,000 interments.
As if on cue, a large crow settles on one of the water-stained monuments and begins to caw in the rain just as Ken, Diana and Adrian leave the main path and push beneath a dripping canopy of sycamore interspersed with ash and large London plane trees. The wet, uneven ground is a mixture of wild garlic, sweet violets, herb Robert and blue bells—just about everything you would associate with an English woodland. There are grave markers, too; all of them chipped and stained and leaning forward and aft like deteriorating teeth. Stretched across the top of one is a dead rat.
With Ken’s assistance—and relying on information from the London Metropolitan Archives—Diana and Adrian draw reference points off two markers with names. Soon they pinpoint an empty space—the unmarked grave of Private Ludeman and some nine other people—all beneath them in the cold London clay in plot R1304. It’s what they call a public grave—for civilians who could not afford a separate plot, let alone a marker. In there with Ludeman are the remains of people who are entirely unrelated to him, including an eight-month-old infant named Grace and a 92-year-old named Sarah. “It’s a little sad that our soldier’s grave seems non-existent,” says Diana as she plants a small Canadian flag. “But it is so satisfying to find it, mark it and say a few words.”
The search for Sergeant Clark takes Diana and Adrian into a more open, but equally crowded space. They know approximately where Clark’s grave is, but they can’t pinpoint it so they will have to return when there’s more time. From Tower Hamlets, they travel to six other cemeteries where the work continues. It is evening by the time they return to Canterbury.
“Our main frustration is that we do not have unlimited resources to finish the work as quickly as we would like to,” says Diana. “This is totally self-financed, although we would like to attract some support. We are also very aware that we are both becoming older and therefore our current physical energy levels are likely to fall over the next few years. However, neither of these factors has caused either of us to diminish the mental energies we expend daily on working to get this done. We will plough on to the end.”
When she gets to the end, Diana will look back to the day she found that box in her mother’s closet. She had lived most of her life believing her father was the RAF serviceman who was married to her mother during the war. However, the box of secrets revealed that the couple had just one daughter—Diana’s older sister. She also learned that while her husband was away on war service, Diana’s mother had an affair with a Polish soldier, resulting in a second child—Diana’s brother. “By August that year my mother was hanging off the arm of a French-Canadian soldier—my dad.”
Fourteen years ago, while digging through the box, Diana vowed to learn more about her dad and what she learned she liked. Her curiosity led her to Quebec where she discovered he had died. But when she visited the cemetery she could not find a headstone for Paul Beaupré. There was none, and a fire had destroyed the cemetery’s records. A CWGC headstone—erected through the Last Post Fund in Montreal—is now located close to where it’s believe her father is buried and on the strength of her father’s wartime service, Diana proudly joined the Legion’s Pierre Boucher Branch in Boucherville, Que. “The upsetting memory of walking around that cemetery for so long—hoping to find his grave—has remained with me. It coloured my determination to complete the Far From Home project—for the boys who are here.”