Monday, November 10, 2008


It's Monday Nov 10, the day between Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day. It's always a poignant time of year, but perhaps especially so on the 90th anniversary. It's amazing that there are still 3 surviving WW1 veterans who are planning to be at the Cenotaph tomorrow, so it feels like we are close to the last living link with the horrors of that war.

A lot has been made this year of the family links with those who served. With millions mobilised between 1914-18 and 885,000 dead from the UK and Ireland, few families were not affected. in 1989 I visited the Somme area looking for two things: the memorial for my grandmother's first husband and also some idea where my actual grandfather (her second husband) served with the Canadian Army.

The search for Horace Heath, my grandma's first husband, took me to Thiepval, where the massive memorial to the British and South African dead is located. However, he died in March 1918, so having looked in some other locations, I visited the South African memorial at Devil's Wood, where there were English speaking staff (no web search back then). They were very helpful, and I eventually found him at Pozieres cemetery on the road from Albert to Bapaume on one of the panels listing the missing. He was also listed in the register in the cemetery. It has always been odd to think of his death as the reason I exist.

Meanwhile I found where the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought in France, and there were some preserved trenches there, as well as many undulations in the ground left over from the battles. Whether my grandad fought just there I don't know. He said precious little about his experiences, although he once said he had gone over the top 11 times. As one not prone to exaggeration, I trust his word, although the odds of survival must have been slim. The Canadians were better tactically, so it may have been lucky for him that he emigrated out there in 1906, rather than sign up in Lincolnshire for the British Army.

Amazingly, I downloaded his sign-up papers online in the Canadian archive. My dad sent off for a lot more stuff, which included his medical and all sorts of other information. Maybe technology will ensure that all these men - those killed and the survivors will never be forgotten. It's only by remembering that we stand any chance of avoiding anything like that again.

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