By Gord Yakimow
Special to The Progress
There was misty drizzle in the air of the Somme as we made our way past the scores of graves and headstones to the final resting place of Piper James Richardson, recipient of the Victoria Cross for valour, the highest honour that can be bestowed on a soldier from any of the Commonwealth countries. Killed at age 20.
Piper Richardson lies in Adanac Cemetery. It is not large in comparison to other World War I and World War II cemeteries … of which there are hundreds in France and Belgium and Holland … and elsewhere. It contains almost 3200 burials; just over half are “Unknown Soldiers.”
Not far away, in Belgian Flanders, is the Menin Gate at Ypres which has etched onto it the names of 54,000 soldiers who were killed on the Western Front and whose remains were never found or identified.
The spires of the cathedral in Ypres can be seen in the distance from near the entrance to the Tyne Cot Cemetery, not far from Passchendaele. It is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world: 12,000 soldiers lie buried here, and another 35,000, their remains never identified, have their names carved onto the memorial wall. Among the graves of Tyne Cot are those of Canadian Victoria Cross recipient Private JP Robertson, and Australian Victoria Cross recipient Captain CS Jeffries. “On fame’s eternal campground their silent tents are spread,” reads the inscription on Jeffries’ final resting place.
Not far away is the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial and trenches, recognizable because of the large bronze caribou which looks out over a quiet peaceful field laced with trenches; one hundred years ago that field was a charnel house of death and destruction: 90% of the Newfoundland regiment was wiped out on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
They were among 20,000 allied soldiers who lost their lives that day: July 1, 2016. Those were the years when young men from Newfoundland served under their own unique flag, the Newfoundland Red Ensign: 814 Newfoundlanders are commemorated on the memorial – soldiers and sailors and merchant mariners whose bodies were never found. Nowadays in Canada that date is celebrated as “Canada Day.” In Newfoundland the day is also a day of remembrance; it is called “Memorial Day.”
Not far away is the Thiepval Memorial. It is to Great Britain what the Vimy Memorial, 50 km to the north, is to Canada. What is poignant about Thiepval is that the memorial at the site has inscribed onto it 72,000 names – young men killed in the Somme, most between July and November of 1916 … their remains never identified.
The Canadian Memorial on Vimy Ridge near Arras has on it the names of 11,000 Canadians who still lie somewhere in the fields of Flanders or the Somme or the Ypres Salient – either in a grave marked “An Unknown Soldier from the Great War,” or somewhere beneath the dirt and clay of what was once the Western Front.
Some 350 km to the south-west in Normandy are many more resting places of soldiers who died thirty years later – in the Second World War. [The “War-To-End-All Wars” turned out not to be the “war-to-end-all-wars.”] One is Beny-Sur-Mer near Caen, where Canadian casualties from the D-Day Invasion are interred … just over 2000.
Within easy range of a prairie boy’s slingshot rock is near-by Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery where three thousand lie buried, of which 89 are “unknown soldiers.”
• • • •
Now in my seventies, I have been retired for over ten years, living a charmed life, checking off one or two “bucketlist” items each year … and I intend to carry on until the Fates and Mother Nature tell me I can travel no more. My father fought with the Canadian forces in Normandy in World War II. Although wounded, he survived … physically. I grew up with his cryings-out in the dark of the night … my mother calming him from whatever haunting dreams caused those outbursts. Not an uncommon story. He had met her while convalescing in London. They married, and she crossed to Canada on a War Brides’ ship. I am the result.
I followed the early trail of my father’s regiment following the D-Day Invasion. Before they moved on to Belgium and Holland and Germany, they rebuilt an airport (destroyed by allied shelling and by retreating Germans), and a Bailey bridge, both near Caen.
[Hidden and obscure in the undergrowth beneath a near-by new bridge, a single cement footing of that bridge remains, a rusting steel support piling stretching upwards. With the help of my guide, I found it. The names and serial numbers of four soldiers are scratched into its four surfaces. Young men who served with my father: MR Chabman (#C30344), W Kwiozak (#K50640), EE Kang (#H195281), T Fairlie (#B28707). Each added RCE (Royal Canadian Engineers) beside his name.]
After four days of visiting World War II sites – battlefields and monuments and museums and cemeteries – I traveled to Arras in northern France in order to do the same involving World War I sites. I had arranged my trip through a Canadian company which specializes in Commonwealth WW I and WW II site visits.
My guide was Jim Smithson, an affable Englishman, and like me, a retired teacher. Smithson has a passion for and an encyclopedic knowledge of the events of the Western Front of WW I, and of the D-Day landings and the aftermath in the Normandy of WW II.
[He lives in Arras, a lovely little city in the gentle rolling hills of the Artois region, and has just published a book on
the WW I Battle of Arras which raged in the area one hundred years ago. He is now working on a follow-up.]
He took me to the site of the very rudimentary advance field hospital of John McCrae, famous for the poem In Flanders’ Fields. To the Vimy Monument (“… the most impressive of all the war monuments,” asserted my guide). To the Menin Gate in Ypres, where every evening at 8 PM there is a moving sunset ceremony. To Passchendaele Ridge where in October of 1917, in the mud and rain of a bloody battle, 16.000 Canadians were killed or wounded and where nine Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross for their exceptional bravery. To “Hill 70” where six Canadian were recipients of the Victoria Cross. To many other places associated with Canada and WW I.
On one of the days we drove past a Commonwealth War Graves Commission facility: warehouses, worksheds, lorries. Here headstones are carved and inscribed, some for new burials in that the remains of soldiers are found on an ongoing basis as roads and buildings are constructed in the area, others for replacement, the originals having been worn down by time and the climate. Work crews head out daily to maintain the many cemeteries and memorials from WW I.
[The planned killing of young men is a large and lucrative industry – then and now – employing thousands of people – especially in the manufacturing of war machinery and weapons before they are killed, and then in the maintaining of showplaces afterwards.]
• • • •
I had mentioned to Jim Smithson that somewhere in the Somme there was the grave of VC recipient Piper Richardson, who at the time of his enlisting had been living with his parents in Chilliwack, where I taught for fifteen years. Hence my interest. At the old city hall in the centre of that Fraser Valley community there stands a bronze statue of Piper James Richardson: garbed in his kilt, bagpipes in his arms. Those actual bagpipes, located in the mud of a field in Flanders and brought home by a Scottish chaplain, are now on display at the legislative buildings in Victoria. It did not take Smithson long both to locate the cemetery where the remains of Richardson were buried, and to determine where in that cemetery stood his headstone.
We went there.
To Piper Richardson’s right lie the remains of “A Soldier of the Great War” – an unknown soldier. One of thousands such graves in the cemeteries of both wars. To his left lies Private T.E. McLaren, a fellow Canadian.
McLaren’s age is obscured behind a small bush of yellow roses. But there are few in these war cemeteries who lived beyond their twenties. Many were still teenagers. Not far from the grave of Piper Richardson in Adanac Cemetery lies another VC recipient – Serjeant (sic) S Forsyth, a New Zealander. Samuel Forsyth was age 25 when he was killed.
In the hundreds of cemeteries in the battlefields of both Great Wars, there lie the remains of tens of thousands of soldiers: Canadian, British, French, Belgian, German, American, Newfoundlander, others. Young men like Piper James Richardson … killed before they had really had a chance to begin their lives.
Acknowledgement: with appreciation to War Sites guide Jim Smithson of Arras, France, for his assistance and sensitivity during our eight-day tour, for his research in locating the movements of my father’s WW II regiment, and for his fact-checking for this article.
Gord Yakimow is a retired teacher, having had stints in Manitoba, Ontario, Great Britain, the Yukon Territory, and British Columbia. He now lives in the Fraser Valley, about an hour east of Vancouver. Before his retirement, he was head of the English Dept at Chilliwack Senior Secondary for fifteen years.
READ MORE: Column: The pipes of James Richardson