Richard Van Neste was 35-years-old, married and had six kids when he volunteered for the Canadian Army on Jan. 4, 1916.
As a native of Belgium, he no doubt wanted to help liberate his homeland, a neutral country that had been invaded by Germany at the outset of the First World War.
“Through his correspondence, Richard was well-acquainted with the situation in Belgium and this evidently played on his mind,” Van Neste’s grandson, Hubert Verbruggen, writes in a self-published biography of his grandfather.
Van Neste had left Belgium for North America in 1911 to look for better opportunities.
“I think he had difficulties with his superiors and he moved around a lot,” Verbruggen said in an interview. It’s fair to describe Van Neste as a restless soul — maybe a bit of a “rolling stone,” he added.
Van Neste’s youngest child, Firmin, was born in May 1915 and Van Neste and his wife, Marie, settled down on Aulneau Street in St. Boniface, Manitoba.
Few would have thought less of Van Neste if he stayed to support his family. It must have been difficult to feed the growing family. He was working as a gardener at the St. Boniface hospital and Marie was a cleaner.
“I think it was financial reasons that pushed him to enlist,” said Verbruggen.
Verbruggen’s mother, Angelique, was the oldest child of Richard and Marie. When Marie passed away in 1956, she gave all the family’s documents to Angelique, including a trove of documents that Verbruggen used to write his book.
“I had all the elements to write this story,” he said. “I was the only one who could do it.”
The rest of the family appreciates the work Verbruggen has done.
“We didn’t know all the details of the story; we didn’t have all these details that he was able to pick up,” said Martial Van Neste of Quebec City, another grandson of Van Neste and the son of Firmin.
When Van Neste left Belgium for North America by himself in 1911, it was an exploratory trip. He returned to Belgium in early 1912. Then in March 1912, Van Neste and Marie left Belgium together, but left the children behind with family. In the interim, Van Neste became a Canadian citizen.
In the fall of 1914, Van Neste boldly reunited the family by travelling to war-torn Belgium to rescue the kids, who were staying with Marie’s parents. On that trip, Van Neste went into occupied Belgium and snuck the children out through France to England and boarded a ship for Halifax that arrived in January 1915.
“We’re just flabbergasted at the life he had,” said Jean Van Neste of Courtenay, B.C. He is the grandson of Richard and the son of Jules, the oldest son.
Christmas 1915 was the only one the entire Van Neste family would spend together. The First World War had been raging in Belgium for almost a year and a half and the Germans were drawing the ire of the international community.
“Many horrible things happened,” Martial Van Neste said. “He thought, ‘I must do something, I should go there.“’
When Van Neste volunteered in 1916, he was assigned to a reserve unit, the 100th Winnipeg Battalion. By that summer, things changed and he wrote his soldier’s will on August 25.
He sailed from Halifax on Sept. 18, bound for England on the SS Olympic.
After 10 months of training in England and France, and being folded into the 27th Canadian Infantry Battalion, Van Neste headed for Ruitz, France, and saw his first front-line duty. German artillery bombardments and gas attacks took their toll on Van Neste’s regiment. He also served at Vimy Ridge, then in Canadian hands after the successful assault in April that year.
The Battle of Passchendaele began July 31, 1917.
“It was an absolutely insane type of warfare,” Steve Douglas of Salient Tours, a company that offers guided visits to the historic battlefields in Flanders, said of the First World War. “Just living in the mud for years and years.”
Intense shelling and torrential rains turned the fields into a muddy quagmire. Canadian soldiers relieved Australian and New Zealand troops, who had relieved British troops. By the time Van Neste and the Canadians arrived, the ground was so treacherous it would swallow up a wounded soldier if he was unable to move.
“It’s just crazy when you think about the total slaughter and waste of life in battles like Passchendaele,” said Douglas, a Kitchener, Ont., native who moved to Belgium in 2003 to open up the British Grenadier Bookshop on the main street of Ypres.
Van Neste fought at Passchendaele. He was part of the attack to seize the village on Nov. 6, 1917 and suffered a gunshot wound to his right thigh. He stayed at his post in the muddy fields of Flanders with no medical attention. Two days later, he was taken by field ambulance to the casualty clearing station at Lijssenthoek.
“The wounded had to wait one or two days before they could get rescued,” Verbruggen says.
On November 10th, 1917, four days after he was shot, Van Neste died. “It was a problem of care; it’s a little sad,”
He had been away from home for much of his youngest son’s life. His eldest, Angelique, was just 13.
At Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, right next to the site of the field hospital where he died, Richard Van Neste lies with 10,786 others.
Marie moved back to Belgium with the children in 1921, but never spoke to any of the grandchildren about Richard.
“(He’d) been dead for a long-time and had been erased from her memory,” Verbruggen says.
Jules and Firmin moved back to Quebec in 1951, which is how the Van Neste clan still maintains a connection between Canada and Flanders, a bond strengthened by Verbruggen’s efforts.
As he says goodbye at the end of his interview, he is overcome with emotion. He suddenly realizes all the work he’s done documenting his grandfather’s life has been a fruitful exercise.
“I am just so glad that people will know about my grandfather and remember the sacrifice he made,” he said, with tears in his eyes.Report Typo/Error