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For most of my life, my Uncle Oscar was a young soldier who had died in a war long, long ago in a place far, far away. We had never met; he died in the War to End All Wars, and I was born 27 years later, near the end of the War After the War to End All Wars.
All I had of him was an official photograph in uniform, encased in one of those elaborate elliptical frames so popular a hundred years ago. He was best represented, I suppose, by the stone figure of a soldier atop a cenotaph near my home. His name was engraved on the monument.
A few years ago, I inherited a cardboard box crammed full of letters written by Uncle Oscar to his mother (my grandmother). The collection embodied the fulfilment of a promise made by a teenager going off to war. I'll write to you, Mom. Promise. And he did.
The letters are addressed to Mrs. Samuel French, Waverley, Ontario. Always. Never to his father. The letters were written about every two weeks, whether there was any news or not. They covered a period of time from his enlistment in 1915 and early training until April 8, 1917, the day before he died.
If you know your Canadian First World War history, you might guess that he died in the attack on Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. You would be right.
Vimy Ridge. We're going to hear a lot about Vimy Ridge and other battlefields over the next four years as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great War, also known as the First World War, the horrific struggle that did not end all wars.
Vimy was a battle within a diversionary attack within a larger struggle, but it planted the seeds of Canada's political independence. Strategically it had some local military value, but I doubt if any other nation grasps or celebrates its true meaning for us.
I transcribed Oscar's letters, intending to make them available to the family and others who might be interested. It was an exercise in historical research, not much else. Then I began thinking about this guy Oscar.
Gradually, that war long, long ago and far, far away wasn't so distant. We were blood relatives, a generation apart. He was my father's brother, and he spoke fondly of "little Elmer" (my dad) in his letters. If he had survived I would have known him, had dinner with him, walked with him, listened to his stories, maybe have been treated with a candy or two from his pockets.
I started feeling I had to know more about him, about how and where he died. I had to go and see him.
And so what began as an exercise in personal family history evolved into a pilgrimage to the battlefields of Europe. This fall, my sister Pat and I, with our spouses, found Uncle Oscar – Pte. O. French, Canadian Machine Gun Corps – buried in Nine Elms Military Cemetery between a turnip field and an expressway. His little patch of France lies within sight of Vimy Ridge.
There are a lot of pilgrimages to these obscure and isolated cemeteries scattered around northern France. There will be many more over the next four years. No wonder: There are so many fallen soldiers to remember.
Sixty-six thousand Canadians did not return from the First World War; Oscar was one of 3,598 Canadians killed on the slopes of Vimy Ridge. The hill was captured at a high price.
And that was only one battle. When you see the numbers of markers in the cemeteries, or the 55,000 names of missing soldiers on the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, the death toll of the entire war becomes astounding.
At Passchendaele, where my wife's distant cousin went missing, Canadian and British forces captured the town at an appalling price. The distance from the current Canadian memorial to the cathedral can be walked in 10 minutes. It took the Allies four days and 16,000 casualties to travel that distance into the teeth of enemy gunfire. Sixteen thousand!
Lest we forget that the other side also suffered, we visited a German cemetery near Vimy that contained 45,000 graves marked with iron crosses.
Against these overwhelming numbers, you have to reduce the war to a simple act to bring it home to yourself. Uncle Oscar went to war. He was killed by shellfire. I went to his grave, maybe the first of the family in a hundred years. But maybe not. Somebody had attended Oscar's grave site before us. We found a small Canadian-flag lapel pin on the soil in front of the stone.
We decorated Oscar's grave with contemporary Canadian flags, a poppy and a photo of him engraved on a metal plate. We had a little graveside ceremony, accompanied by gunfire from the turnip field. Frenchmen like to hunt birds on Sundays.
Oscar's grave lies near the back of the cemetery, which lies at the end of a winding country lane. Traffic whizzes by on the four-lane expressway outside the wall, but otherwise it is a quiet rural resting place, not unlike the Ontario farm on which he was raised. Not so long ago, not so far away.
Orland French lives in Belleville, Ont.