Epitaphs of the First World War

“Faithful Unto Death”

Epitaph of Private John Derry, Service Number 2005364, of the 78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers) Battalion. John Derry was married and working as a teamster when he enlisted in Regina, Saskatchewan with the Canadian Engineers in January 1917. On 29 December 1917, he joined the 78th Battalion in the field as a reinforcement. He died of shell wounds to both thighs just 18 days later on 16 January 1918 and is buried in Anzin-St.Aubin British Cemetery, France.

Image Courtesy: Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 2018.

Epitaphs of the First World War
Part III

“Would some thoughtful hand in this distant land please scatter some flowers for me”

Epitaph of Private Edwin Grant, Service Number 703562, B Coy., 47th (British Columbia) Battalion, 26-28 October 1917 (age 33).

Private Edwin Grant.
Credit: Canadian Virtual War Memorial, Veterans Affairs Canada 2017.

A steel worker from Aberdeen, Scotland, Edwin Grant enlisted in Vancouver in 1916. His medical examination details his identifying marks, which included tattoos of a butterfly and bird on his left arm and a butterfly and Geisha girl on his right. Edwin was killed during the opening attack on Passchendaele, with his date of death only determined to have taken place at some time between 26 and 28 October 1917. He left behind his wife, Bella, who after the war had moved from Vancouver to live with Edwin’s parents in Duluth, Minnesota.

Forms from Edwin’s service file indicate his eligibility for posthumous service medals, including two Memorial Crosses, to be sent to both his widow and mother, who were then living together in Minnesota after his death.
Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 3727 – 20, Item Number: 429315, Record Group: Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), p. 11.

Epitaphs of the First World War
Part II

“I genitori inconsolabili villa S-Lucia, Caserta”
(The inconsolable parents Villa S-Lucia, Caserta)

Epitaph of Sapper Glorio Mita, Service Number: 2497765, 9th Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops, 19 October 1917 (age 20).

Glorio Mita enlisted in July 1917 as a reinforcement with a Railway Construction and Forestry draft. On 3 October 1917, he joined the 9th Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops in France. Only 16 days later, he died of severe wounds, suffering shrapnel injuries to his head and right shoulder, as well as a compound fracture of his femur. A young, single immigrant from Italy, Glorio had worked as a labourer in Toronto, Ontario before enlisting, making his will out to his parents, who still lived in Santa Lucia, Caserta, Italy.

Sapper Glorio Mita is buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Belgium.

CWGC 100th Anniversary – Part VIII

“Canadians attending to a chum’s grave at the Front.”
Credit: W.I. Castle / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-000969.

In his annual report of 1926, Sir Fabian Ware, the founder and Vice-Chairman of the Imperial War Graves Commission, explained the reason behind maintaining the numerous, small, isolated Commonwealth cemeteries that are found across the battlefields of the First World War:

During the war certain authorized sites were selected, some close to the trenches, where the dead could be buried, and the soldiers were promised that, if they brought back their dead comrades to these, which they not infrequently did at the risk of their lives, they would rest there permanently undisturbed. This promise has been kept in all cases, except a few where the site originally selected has been found altogether unsuitable.” (Ward, Gibson, Courage Remembered, p. 49-50).

During our Vimy Pilgrimage Award program, great distances are covered in the effort to allow each student to visit the grave of a soldier they have researched.

If you know a student aged 14 – 17 years old, encourage them to apply today for our 2018 Vimy Pilgrimage Award and be part of the commemoration. Apply here: http://bit.ly/2f1ur7m

The 2018 Vimy Pilgrimage Award is made possible by the sponsorship of Scotiabank, and by the continued support of Canada’s History.

Epitaphs of the First World War
Part I

For our upcoming Wednesday posts, we will begin sharing epitaphs from Canadian First World War headstones. Many of them come from the new book “Canada’s Dream Shall Be of Them”

“Spirit in heaven, body in France, memory in Canada.”
Private Earl Orington MacKinnon, 10th (Canadians) Battalion, 9 April 1917 – St. Catherine British Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France.

Credit: McGeer, Canada’s Dream Shall Be of Them, p. 26.

Earl MacKinnon, of Scotch Settlement, New Brunswick was with the 10th (Canadians) Battalion just 16 days before he was killed in action at Vimy Ridge on 9 April 1917.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/Personnel Records of the First World War – CEF 531398a, Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 7001 – 20, Item Number: 166537, Record Group: Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).
Earl MacKinnon’s epitaph was requested by his father. (See Row 1202/1D in this Headstone Schedule from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission).
Credit: Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 2017.


Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Blog – 16 August 2017

Notre Dame de Lorette, Ablain St.-Nazaire French Military Cemetery.
Credit: Hanna Smyth, Vimy Foundation 2017.

Today the BVP2017 students visited the Lens 14-18 Museum, and numerous cemeteries including Cabaret Rouge, Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, and Givenchy-en-Gohelle. After spending some time at the incredible Ring of Remembrance, they departed the Arras region and travelled to Bernières-sur-Mer to begin the Second World War portion of the program.

(Please note: the students blog in their language of preference)

Notre Dame de Lorette, Ablain St.-Nazaire French Military Cemetery.
Credit: Hanna Smyth, Vimy Foundation 2017.

Today the BVP2017 participants were privileged to visit the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette French Cemetery and the Ring of Remembrance. The early hours of the day were very foggy, and the ground was consequently covered with a thick coat of mist. As we entered the cemetery, the thousands of crosses peering out from the layer of fog was a sight I will never forget. It gave the place a feeling of true eternal rest for the more than 40,000 French soldiers buried there. Besides the fog, the sheer number of crosses was shocking. There were thousands upon thousands of crosses in front of me. And then I looked behind me, and there was an equally gigantic number. Behind the central church, I saw even more including the numerous mass graves in the forms of burial pits often holding over 1,000 soldiers. The cemetery was certainly beautiful and it definitely honoured the soldiers well, but I also found that the huge number of graves in front of my very own eyes was nothing but shocking and saddening. Beside the cemetery was the Ring of Remembrance. Its purpose was to list every soldier who fell during the First World War in Northern France alphabetically. There was no order by rank, nationality or allegiance. Only the names of every single man. With nearly 600,000 names listed, the monument actually gave me a feeling of hope and unity, and I ultimately departed feeling very positively moved by it.

Cole Oien, Calgary, Alberta

Private Frederick Joseph Belliveau lived a quiet life; Born and raised in Joggins Mines, Nova Scotia, he became a bookkeeper. His life was peaceful and quiet until the First World War broke out in August 1914. Frederick enlisted with the 42nd battalion in River Herbert, Nova Scotia, on May 29th, 1916 and he was killed in action on April 9th, 1917 during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

I couldn’t comprehend how I could properly commemorate a fallen soldier. What could I say to someone who gave everything for their country? All I can say to Private Frederick Joseph Belliveau is thank you. Thank you for being brave, thank you for fighting for your country, thank you for the risk you took and in the end, thank you for offering the ultimate sacrifice. You gave your today for our tomorrow. That sacrifice, your remembrance and your legacy is ours to hold high and never let die.

Before we parted I left two gifts: The first, a Canadian penny, because a penny is symbolic that I visited the soldiers’ grave. Le deuxième cadeau, un drapeau de l’Acadie; le drapeau de notre patrie. Never did I believe that I would be able to meet Frederick Joseph Belliveau, but I’m so thankful that I was able to. I now know that no matter what happens to us, we’re strong and can get through anything.
Nous sommes toujours Acadie fort.

-Claire Belliveau, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

At the Noyelle-sur-Mer Chinese cemetery, row upon row of CWGC headstones are inscribed with the date of death: 1917. The graves are not for typical soldiers on the Western Front, they are for the Chinese labourers who worked behind the scenes clearing battlefields, digging trenches, and building roads and railways. They struggled with language and were separated from family and home yet they got barely any recognition for their service. From a Western perspective, they died unglamorously, mostly from the Spanish Flu. It’s possible their families never received the news of their deaths. Even if they did, the words would have been incomprehensible, much like how the epitaph is meaningless to the average person visiting these graves. The translations are nowhere near perfect. One of the four different types of inscriptions reads “a noble duty bravely done” when in fact, I would translate 勇往直前 (yong wang zhi qian) as “continued courage and perseverance even in the face of great adversity”. Proper recognition of the contributions and bravery of these men is lacking. They travelled long distances from the ports of Qingdao to the Western battlefields, and it may be an even longer road to reconciliation, recognition, and understanding of a truly global picture of the World Wars.

-Alisia Pan, North York, Ontario

Ring of Remembrance.
Credit: Hanna Smyth, Vimy Foundation 2017.
Noyelles-sur-Mer Chinese Cemetery.
Credit: Hanna Smyth, Vimy Foundation 2017.
Noyelles-sur-Mer Chinese Cemetery.
Credit: Hanna Smyth, Vimy Foundation 2017.
Juno Beach, Normandy, France.
Credit: Hanna Smyth, Vimy Foundation 2017.

Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery

This weekend our Beaverbrook Vimy Prize group has been visiting a large number of cemeteries and memorials in the Ypres Salient, as well as the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial on the Somme. Visits such as these underline the extent of the work undertaken by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but also the emotional impact of the cemeteries and memorials. In respect of this, for today’s post we are sharing another video that was initially broadcast live by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission from Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery as part of their  #Passchendaele100  commemorations.   

Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery has a very interesting history to its origins, with a moment of war-time romance that ensured its future care. In addition, there is a unique commemoration of modern art built alongside it, that helps visualize the dates on which those interred within the cemetery died. 

Follow the link to watch the video in the second largest CWGC cemetery in Belgium: 

Live from #CWGC Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery. #Passchendaele100

Posted by Commonwealth War Graves Commission on Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Essex Farm Cemetery

Today, the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize group is visiting Essex Farm Cemetery, the Passchendaele Memorial and taking part in the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. In May 1915, it is believed Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Army Medical Corps wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” while operating at Essex Farm Cemetery. To mark the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission historians broadcast a series of live videos while visiting CWGC sites. Today we share the recording made at Essex Farm Cemetery.


Live from #CWGC Essex Farm Cemetery

Posted by Commonwealth War Graves Commission on Friday, July 28, 2017

CWGC 100th Anniversary – Part VII
27 July 2017

Today we continue our series on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, looking at the labour required to collect the dead amidst the destruction and utter desolation of the battlefield.

(Read last week’s post here: http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/cwgc-100th-anniversary-part-vi/ )

Following the constitution of the Imperial War Graves Commission by Royal Charter in May 1917, the Commission was officially charged with the care of the dead from all of the British Empire’s armed forces. The scope and magnitude of such an undertaking was and still is perplexing. Even the seemingly “simple”, (though it never was), task of collecting the bodies represented an astronomical amount of required manpower. An example of the scope of work facing the Commission can be found in the description of Lorette Ridge by Corporal Becker, 75th (Mississauga) Battalion, who observed the area while in the Lens sector during the build up to Hill 70 in July 1917:

A field grave exhumed by a Graves Registration Unit. Such hurried burials and scattered remains would have covered battlefields like Lorette Ridge by the time the Commission could reach them.   
Credit: IWM, Q 100630   © Jeremy Gordon-Smith .

“It was said that the bones of at least 40,000 men were bleaching on that hill… British Labour Battalions were now at work gathering up the remains, identifying them from the discs found here and there among the bones, bundling such personal articles as remained and tagging them for French authorities who would subsequently forward them to next of kin… The memory of that great battlefield is with me yet. I wandered through the shell pitted area frequently in those two weeks and even now can see the white bones, fragments of red pants and blue coats, the small caps… the grey of the German uniforms, the leather boots with foot bones in them, the broken rifles, the rusty ammunition, the skulls – many with bullet holes in them – the watches, decayed leather wallets with personal articles in them, the wire and stumps and stones and trenches and shell holes. It was impossible to identify any particular skeleton… The Labour units had not made much headway on it in the two months they had been there… Here and there one would come upon a rifle stuck bayonet down in the ground with the remains of a cap on the butt – mute evidence of the effort of the soldier whose skeleton lay alongside to bring assistance to him as he lay helplessly wounded – assistance that had not reached him for two and one-half years. I wish that some of our fire-eaters at home could have seen that ground as I saw it in 1917. (Becker, Silhouettes of The Great War, p. 105).

CWGC 100th Anniversary – Part VI
20 July 2017

Today we continue our series on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, sharing the letter of a Canadian Stretcher-Bearer and his thoughts on the field burials that the fallen men received. 

(Read last week’s post here:  http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/cwgc-100th anniversary-part-v/) 

In the midst of the public turmoil being caused by the discussion of Sir Fabian Ware’s long term intentions for the Commission, the simple need for at least some sort of graves registration system was not lost on those serving at the front. In fact, it was the complete lack of such a system that was causing them distress. Canadian Stretcher-Bearer Ralph Watson lamented to his wife in a letter dated 8 July 1917: 

Stacks of crosses, Ypres.
IWM, Q 100350 – © Jeremy Gordon-Smith.

‘The dead stay where they are, with a rubber sheet or an old sandbag, to cover their faces. Later, maybe that night or the next, a fatigue party will climb over the parados and scratch a grave a few yards from the trench, cursing the flares, and flopping, as Fritz plays a machine gun casually, just on the off chance, all along the ground behind, as a man might play a hose on a lawn.’ 

‘These graves are not marked. How could they be? Some one takes all the letters and things out of the pockets; eventually, if the man who has them doesn’t get blown to pieces, they reach the Quartermaster, who sends them home. Some one writes a letter, and that’s all. No advance, no spectacular raid, not even repelling an attack. So many dead Hienies, so many dead Britishers. And so she goes. And such is a “trip in” ‘ (Watson, Letters of a Canadian Stretcher-Bearer, 1914-1917, p. 138).