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Estée Preda

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

This week, First Person reflects on the pride and the heartache of Remembrance Day.

The train from Gare du Nord in Paris to Arras takes about an hour. I travel 100 years during that time. Through the window I see, but don’t really see, the French countryside, the trees, the newly ploughed and seeded fields and the farm houses. I think on how little I knew of this person, my mother’s brother, whose grave we are about to visit. I am not even sure why my wife Joanne and I are doing it, other than our son Matthew had said: “You are going to visit Grandmother’s brother’s grave, aren’t you?”

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In 1918, my grandmother, Frances Hurley, received a notice from the Canadian Militia giving details of her son’s death in France. “Private Hurley was severely wounded by enemy machine gun fire on the 27th of September 1918, while taking part with his Battalion in Military Operations near Bourlon Village. His wounds were dressed by a Stretcher Bearer and he was carried out by German Prisoners but succumbed to his wounds the same day in No 30 Casualty Clearing Station.”

The start of that awful day was described in a 1920 book about the history of his battalion, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada: "The staccato rattle of machine gun fire broke out as the swinging line of kilts swept up the rise. Under that pitiless long-range fire there was nothing to do but advance."

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I was 14 when I found a box in the basement with that cold, distant medallion that all bereaved war mothers got to replace their dead sons. With it were a few pictures together with a postcard from Japan addressed to Nell, his eldest sister. One photo was of him in the uniform of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, smiling, and written on the back, “England.” Another was of a wooden cross with his name on it; “1919” was written in pencil on the back of the picture.

He grew up in Trail, B.C., a smelter town, in a hotel owned by his parents. He worked at the smelter and in 1914, he was hired to build a smokestack for a smelter in Japan. Did he enjoy Japan? Did he want to travel? What were his hopes about life? What kind of person was he? I do not know. When he returned to Trail in 1917, he joined the Canadian Army.

In the 100 years since his death, he would have three sets of visitors. His mother wanted to see his grave and she, his father and his younger sister (my mother) were there in the spring of 1919. I asked my mother what it had been like. "It was cold and all the buildings, including our hotel, had shell holes in them," she said. My son Matthew was there in 1993 when he was 20. And now us.

We leave the train station at Arras, walk by the monument to the Glorious Dead of the First World War (with a winged angel and a poilu, or French infantry solder), rent a car and drive down the Bucquoy Road to Bucquoy Cemetery near Ficheux.

There is a pull off for one car next to the four steps leading up to cemetery. I park and step out onto the gravel. It moves under my feet and suddenly it all becomes real. He had been alive, part of a line of Seaforth Highlanders advancing with fixed bayonets not that far from where I park. Was he afraid? Were the men next to him friends? Was there pain when the German machine-gun bullets struck him (they say not at first)? How long did he lie there before help came? Did he tell himself he was not badly wounded? At the aid station, did they put him with the dying knowing he could not be helped? Did anyone hold his hand or tell him everything would be fine? I was choking up.

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A concrete and brick cupboard sits at the foot of the stairs. A visitors’ book is inside. The last entry is from three months ago. Joanne reads it: “Grandfather, I came to tell you that your daughter who was born the month after you were killed has died. You will be pleased to know that she had a good life. Love, your grandson.”

I become more emotional and start to cry.

You know that it is the young who die in wars, but as I walk by the tombstones and see the names and then the ages – 18 or 19 or 20, over and over and over – I become more and more angry. And when I see one with the rank of second lieutenant, age 19, I wonder what were they doing sending a boy to lead other boys into that slaughter, and I cry so hard I want to howl.

Then suddenly there is a marker with the Maple Leaf: 2138163 Private; W. J. Hurley; 72nd Bn. Canadian Inf.; 27th September, 1918; Age 24.

I am calm. I silently introduce myself, telling him I am his youngest sister’s son. I make the sign of the cross and say the Lord’s Prayer.

It is not a large cemetery, as military cemeteries go, about 1,800 graves. It gently slopes down from the entrance to a concrete bench at the back. Joanne and I sit there. I notice the sky, the grass, the whiteness of the marble grave markers, the trees, the fields flowing away from the cemetery. I hear for the first time the sound of birds singing and the wind rustling the bushes.

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My son Matthew kept a journal while travelling. I think about how he finished his account of visiting his great uncle's grave by writing: "On leaving I walked down the Bucquoy Road and although I knew it might be against the law I picked a poppy growing at the side of the road because I thought it appropriate. I pressed it in my journal."

We get up, not wanting to leave, and walk to the car, pausing at his grave to say goodbye.

The battalion history concluded that day by saying: “The 72nd had excelled themselves, 319 prisoners and eleven guns being the magnificent total of the day’s work (September 27). The Battalion’s casualties, though numerically high, were not excessive when the work done is considered. They amounted to five officers and 228 other ranks.”

I wonder what Private W. J. Hurley would have thought of that?

When my grandfather died in February, 1926, and Jimmy, my grandmother's last son, was killed in a car crash two months later, she buried them in the graveyard in Trail. Her soldier son was in a cemetery in France, but for my grandmother, all of her men belonged together. She put all their names on a single tombstone.

Bill Sullivan lives in Vancouver.

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