Re­mem­ber­ing the war dead

Regina Leader-Post - - FRONT PAGE - BILL WAISER

I first vis­ited the Cana­dian Great War bat­tle­fields in the spring of 2006.

My part­ner Mar­ley and I, to­gether with our good friend Jim Miller, em­barked on a mini-war tour in Bel­gium and France fol­low­ing a con­fer­ence in Great Bri­tain.

We all had an­ces­tors who served in the Great War and never re­turned home.

In fact, we were the first fam­ily mem­bers to visit their memo­ri­als.

Jim’s ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther John Rodger died in the 1915 Bat­tle of Loos and is re­mem­bered to­day in Dud Cor­ner Ceme­tery.

He has no known grave — just his name listed on one of the ceme­tery walls.

He left a wife and eight chil­dren in Scot­land.

Mar­ley had two great un­cles who died in Flan­ders: James Herbert English at the Sec­ond Bat­tle of Ypres in April 1915 and David Ge­orge Read at the Bat­tle of Mont Sor­rel in June 1916.

They, too, were never found and their names are among 54,000 Bri­tish and Com­mon­wealth dead com­mem­o­rated on the Menin Gate in Ypres.

Mar­ley’s fa­ther James Ge­orge English was named in their mem­ory in 1925.

But the re­ally spooky part is that pho­to­graphs of Jim English’s two un­cles, in uni­form, loomed over Mar­ley’s mother’s locker at Peter­bor­ough Col­le­giate Vo­ca­tional School in On­tario — be­fore Barb met her fu­ture hus­band.

My great un­cle on my mother’s side, Wil­liam Stu­art Ritchie, was a mem­ber of the 4th Cana­dian Mounted Ri­fles.

He per­ished dur­ing the Bat­tle of the Somme on Sept. 15, 1916, co­in­ci­den­tally the first day that the Al­lied forces used tanks on the west­ern front.

Ritchie was buried in a makeshift ceme­tery, but his body was never lo­cated again — prob­a­bly blown up — be­cause of the con­stant shelling of the area.

The bod­ies of more than 50 per cent of the Somme fa­tal­i­ties re­main miss­ing to this day.

I have since learned that other Cana­di­ans have sim­i­lar sto­ries of loss and that our fam­i­lies’ ex­pe­ri­ences were not unique.

Part of our April 2006 bat­tle­fields tour in­cluded a trip to the Vimy Mon­u­ment.

I never re­al­ized at the time that my great un­cle’s name was on the memo­rial.

I had al­ways as­sumed he died dur­ing the Great War, given his year of death, but knew few of the de­tails.

Un­like Mar­ley ’s fam­ily and their sto­ries, my mother Jean never once talked about her un­cle Bill, who died the year of her birth.

Nor had I done any re­search into his war record nor both­ered to look for his at­tes­ta­tion pa­pers through the Li­brary and Ar­chives Canada on­line ser­vice.

Our trip to Vimy on a lovely Sun­day morn­ing was es­sen­tially a bonus af­ter vis­it­ing Loos and Ypres to lay flow­ers and of­fer a few mo­ments of quiet re­flec­tion for our fam­ily’s dead.

But Jim, Mar­ley and I never did get to see the mon­u­ment. It was un­der­go­ing a ma­jor restora­tion in time for the 90th an­niver­sary of the bat­tle in April 2009.

This res­cue work was badly needed.

By the late 1990s, the mon­u­ment’s stone base was erod­ing in sev­eral places, the sculp­tures were dis­coloured by an un­sightly mould and many of the names of the dead had be­come un­read­able from cal­cium leach­ing out of the stone fac­ing.

The Cana­dian gov­ern­ment was even­tu­ally shamed into ac­tion and ap­proved funds in 2002 to save the memo­rial.

The multi-mil­lion-dol­lar restora­tion ne­ces­si­tated clos­ing the site to the pub­lic so that the mon­u­ment could be lit­er­ally taken apart, stone block by stone block, and re­built.

For much of this work over the next four years, the memo­rial would be, as the French say, “en cache” or cov­ered.

We just chose the wrong time to visit.

I still didn’t know much about him — es­pe­cially why he en­listed shortly af­ter the death of one of his three young chil­dren — but was glad to see his name.

The fa­mous mon­u­ment was hid­den un­der a rect­an­gu­lar can­vas shroud that from a dis­tance looked more like a prairie grain el­e­va­tor.

Dis­ap­pointed, we vowed on the spot to come back when Vimy was once again open to the pub­lic and we could ap­pre­ci­ate its re­newed grandeur.

The pledge to re­turn to Vimy prompted me to do some home­work about the mon­u­ment, and more im­por­tantly, learn about my great un­cle Wil­liam and his fate.

I had wit­nessed how Mar­ley and Jim had been per­son­ally af­fected by vis­it­ing the memo­ri­als to their fam­ily mem­bers and won­dered if my rel­a­tive had been sim­i­larly re­mem­bered and how I would feel vis­it­ing the site.

That’s when I made the con­nec­tion to Vimy.

Wil­liam Stu­art Ritchie en­listed on Aug. 25, 1915. His “ap­par­ent age,” ac­cord­ing to his at­tes­ta­tion pa­pers, was 28 (born 1887).

But that wasn’t true.

The cen­sus lists his year of birth as 1883 — a fact con­firmed by a fam­ily ge­neal­ogy tree.

Why he de­clared him­self to be younger is not clear.

By that stage of the war, af­ter Cana­di­ans had been badly mauled in Flan­ders, the Cana­dian Ex­pe­di­tionary Force was ac­cept­ing men in their 30s or older. Per­haps he be­lieved that he’d have a bet­ter chance of be­ing ac­cepted if he pre­sented him­self as younger.

Born in Elm­vale, Ont., Wil­liam had lived in the east end of Toronto since 1904 and worked as an elec­tri­cian.

He mar­ried Agnes Lyon, a seam­stress, in 1910, and the cou­ple had three chil­dren, Harry ( born 1912), Jean (1913), and Lil­lian, who died shortly af­ter birth in 1914. Maybe that’s why he signed up. Pri­vate Ritchie was a mem­ber of the 83rd Bat­tal­ion, re­cruited and mo­bi­lized in Toronto.

On reach­ing Eng­land, he was se­lected to serve with the 4th Cana­dian Mounted Ri­fles, badly in need of re­in­force­ments af­ter its bat­ter­ing at the Bat­tle of Mont Sor­rel.

Ritchie joined the fight near Courcelette, part of the larger Somme of­fen­sive.

On Sept. 15, 1916, his bat­tal­ion was or­dered to at­tack the heav­ily de­fended Fabeck Graben trench and came un­der fierce Ger­man shelling as it moved for­ward.

That’s when Ritchie was re­ported miss­ing. He was found dead shortly there­after and buried next to the road be­tween the vil­lages of Courcelette and Pozieres. The of­fi­cial ca­su­alty sheet for Wil­liam says “Body not re­cov­ered for Burial” and is stamped at the bot­tom in cap­i­tal let­ters, VIMY MEMO­RIAL.

The Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion also lists my great un­cle as be­ing “re­mem­bered with hon­our” at Vimy.

But why was his name at Vimy, es­pe­cially when he was killed at the Somme, seven months be­fore the as­sault on the ridge?

In 1920, Toronto ar­chi­tect Wal­ter All­ward won a com­pe­ti­tion to de­sign a na­tional war memo­rial.

The Cana­dian gov­ern­ment ini­tially planned to erect the mon­u­ment in the Ypres Salient in Bel­gium, but then de­cided to place it at Vimy, France in hon­our of the Cana­dian tak­ing of the ridge in April 1917.

Work on the mon­u­ment started in 1922 on what was known as Hill 145.

It would take two years to clear the bat­tle­ground and com­plete a road be­cause un­ex­ploded shells pre­cluded the use of heavy equip­ment.

All­ward spent more than a decade painstak­ingly over­see­ing con­struc­tion of the mon­u­ment, en­sur­ing that the grace­ful de­sign that had come to him in a dream was re­al­ized at the site.

One of the crit­i­cal as­pects was the choice of stone.

All­ward searched through­out Eu­rope — at con­sid­er­able ex­pense and pre­cious time — be­fore set­tling on Seget lime­stone from a closed quarry near Split, Yu­goslavia (now Croa­tia).

This de­lay added to the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment’s frus­tra­tion with the glacial pace of the project.

All­ward, in turn, was shocked when the sec­re­tary of the Cana­dian Bat­tle­fields Memo­rial Com­mis­sion in­formed him in 1926 that his mon­u­ment had to dis­play the names of those Cana­di­ans who died in France — not just Vimy — with no known grave.

All­ward re­sisted the pro­posal, sug­gest­ing that there was the “dan­ger of hav­ing it look like a huge sign board.”

But the com­mis­sion was not swayed, and af­ter con­sid­er­ing whether to en­grave the names on the mon­u­ment’s two py­lons or the floor of the base, All­ward agreed to place them on the walls.

At the of­fi­cial un­veil­ing on July 26, 1936, presided over by the for­mer King Ed­ward VIII, those in at­ten­dance greeted the memo­rial with a mix­ture of sor­row and pride.

And what made the mon­u­ment such a poignant re­minder of Canada’s great loss were the 11,285 names, in al­pha­bet­i­cal or­der, that ringed the base in con­tin­u­ous lines across the stones.

The cen­tral statue of the mourn­ing woman, known as Canada Bereft, was weep­ing for them.

Mar­ley and I re­turned to Vimy on a sunny fall day in Oc­to­ber 2013.

The trip was part of a small Euro­pean hol­i­day to mark our 60th birth­days.

I now knew from my re­search that my great un­cle was memo­ri­al­ized there and that his name would be among the Rs, or­ga­nized by last names in al­pha­bet­i­cal or­der by rank.

It did not take long to find him, on a row of names at eye level, to the right side of the steps lead­ing up to the top of the mon­u­ment base.

I picked up a fallen red maple leaf, from one of the trees that had been planted at the site, and stuck it next to his name, while Mar­ley took my pho­to­graph. I also placed a lit­tle wooden cross against the wall be­low his name.

I still didn’t know much about him — es­pe­cially why he en­listed shortly af­ter the death of one of his three young chil­dren — but was glad to see his name.

I also thought of my mom’s fam­ily and what they and tens of thou­sands of oth­ers went through at the time, es­pe­cially when the dead had been re­ported miss­ing.

This con­nec­tion to fam­ily brought me back less than two years later, this time with my sis­ter Gail and brother Tom and his wifeirene.

Mar­ley and I had told them about our past vis­its to the Great War bat­tle­fields in France and Bel­gium, and we de­cided to re­turn to­gether in April 2015.

We stood at the Brood­ing Sol­dier mon­u­ment at Van­cou­ver Cor­ner in Flan­ders, 100 years to the day af­ter Mar­ley’s great un­cle James English was killed at the start of the Sec­ond Bat­tle of Ypres.

A spe­cial cer­e­mony, in­volv­ing the king of Bel­gium, was held to mark the first use of chlo­rine gas on the West­ern Front.

Later that day, we at­tended the An­zac Day com­mem­o­ra­tion at the Menin Gate and solemnly stood with Aus­tralians and New Zealan­ders as they re­mem­bered their dead.

At the end of the ser­vice, the sound of the haka re­ver­ber­ated through the memo­rial.

We also spent a morn­ing at Vimy and took a fam­ily pic­ture near my great un­cle’s name among those ring­ing the base of the memo­rial.

It was all quite mov­ing, even for Mar­ley and I, who had been there be­fore.

There’s an over­whelm­ing sad­ness when you visit ceme­tery af­ter ceme­tery and look out upon the maple leaves on the head­stones.

Thou­sands more Cana­di­ans have no known grave — are still some­where out there.

My on­go­ing search for more in­for­ma­tion about my un­cle Wil­liam’s war ex­pe­ri­ence has greatly ben­e­fit­ted from Li­brary and Ar­chives Canada’s de­ci­sion to scan the per­son­nel records of the Cana­dian Ex­pe­di­tionary Force and put the ma­te­rial on­line in 2018.

I now know, for ex­am­ple, that Wil­liam trained at the Toronto Ex­hi­bi­tion grounds, that he sailed from Hal­i­fax in late April 1916, and that he landed in France six weeks later.

The record-keep­ing was a model of ef­fi­ciency.

The file in­cludes a card in­di­cat­ing that memo­rial crosses were sent to his widow Agnes and his mother, Janet Ritchie.

The Ritchie fam­ily has had lit­tle more to add. It was so long ago, and many are now dead.

But I did get a pho­to­graph of the Ritchie fam­ily head­stone in the Elm­vale Pres­by­te­rian Ceme­tery.

Wil­liam’s name and death in France are in­scribed on one side of the stone pil­lar mark­ing the grave of his par­ents, who lived into the 1920s and would have known the heart­break of los­ing a son to war.

What I couldn’t find, though, was a pho­to­graph of Wil­liam.

That was re­cently re­solved thanks to a No­vem­ber 2017 no­ta­tion at the end of Wil­liam’s en­try on the Cana­dian Great War Project web­site.

Wil­liam at­tended St. John’s Pres­by­te­rian Church on Broad­view Av­enue in Toronto. His pho­to­graph is among 32 con­gre­ga­tion mem­bers who per­ished dur­ing the war.

I vis­ited the church dur­ing a trip to Toronto this past Au­gust and found his pic­ture on a wall in the stair­well to the sec­ond floor.

Some, like Wil­liam, are in uni­form, oth­ers in street clothes.

The same men — this time, just their names — are hon­oured on a bronze plate in the chapel.

There is also a framed, han­dlet­tered scroll for 1916-17, list­ing those from the church who served dur­ing the war.

The scroll is care­fully wrapped in plas­tic and leans against a wall in a church store­room.

Be­side Wil­liam’s name is a red dot, de­not­ing killed, that has faded over the years and is barely dis­cernible.

It’s not the fate Cana­di­ans ex­pected when they marched off to war. Nor was it the fu­ture fam­i­lies ex­pected for their loved ones.

And if we can do any­thing 100 years later, it is to re­mem­ber peo­ple like Wil­liam Ritchie, John Rodger, James English, and David Read.

Their mem­ory should not be re­duced to a name on a list or mon­u­ment.

They de­serve bet­ter.

His­to­rian Bill Waiser lives in Saska­toon. His fa­ther served in the Bri­tish Columbia Reg­i­ment dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.


A sea of maple leaf-adorned head­stones line the rows of graves at a Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion ceme­tery in France.

Wil­liam Stu­art Ritchie, a mem­ber of the 4th Cana­dian Mounted Ri­fles, per­ished dur­ing the Bat­tle of the Somme on Sept. 15, 1916.


Bill Waiser found his great un­cle’s name on the Vimy Mon­u­ment, which was so mov­ing he re­turned just a few years later with other fam­ily mem­bers to show them.

Mar­ley Waiser, cen­tre, at the An­zac Day cer­e­monies. Her two great un­cles, never found, are memo­ri­al­ized there.

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