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Facts & Arguments

Unknown no more

A forgotten photograph set Bettyanne English in motion, who was that man? And what did he see at the Somme?

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My husband and I had always thought we had no known family that served in any of Canada's wars, but it was still our tradition to attend Remembrance Day ceremonies. We stand in the crisp fall air listening to the children's choir and watch veterans parade by – their shoulders squared and faces tight with emotion. It always makes me wonder what these once-young men had experienced more than 50 years ago.

But two years ago, after we'd returned home one Nov. 11, I began looking through my grandmother's albums. I had a vague memory of seeing a photograph of a young soldier. And I was right: A darkened postcard of a young man dressed in a First World War uniform fell out. He gazed out rather pensively from the picture. On the back, written in his mother's handwriting, were the sad details of her son's short life and death:

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Lance Corporal Reid Crossley Watson, 49th Battalion, Loyal Edmonton Regiment Canadian Expeditionary Force … Reid left home for Edmonton: Jan. 5, 1916; Edmonton for overseas: April 21, 1916; England for France: June 7, 1916; wounded: Sept. 15,1916; died, age 23: Sept. 16, 1916; buried: Sept. 17, 1916; … Albert, Mill Cemetery, France.

I had never heard of Reid Crossley Watson, son of Emeline and John Watson, but he was my grandmother's cousin, my first cousin twice removed. I began an online search that night and, by morning, I knew he was born in Portage la Prairie. At 19, Reid worked as a bank clerk in Selkirk, Man., bought a land grant for $160, moved to Spirit River, Alta., and began farming there. It is probable that he read Lieutenant Col. W. Griesbach's fiery call to arms in a local Edmonton paper, it sent him to enlist with the 66th Battalion, Edmonton Guards. In April, he sailed on the RMS Olympic to England.

With this newfound information, my husband, Jim, and I decided that we would find our soldier. Reid was one of thousands of Canadians who died at the Battle of Courcelette and the summer of 2016 would be the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. It seemed the right time to go.

We joined a small tour group organized to honour the 801 Newfoundlanders who fought and died at Beaumont Hamel, the first deadly day of the Somme. It interested us, as I had a grandfather born in Newfoundland. The trip would also take us to battlefields and memorials to help us remember Reid and find his last resting place.

We discovered that Vimy Ridge is now a peaceful French countryside dotted with sheep grazing over unexploded shells still buried after 100 years. The landscape around the towering monument is harsh with huge craters from the mines and mortar shells and trenches are recreated with concrete sandbags.

Our tour also stopped at Menin Gate memorial in Ypres, and the ceremony here is something I wish every Canadian could experience. Almost every night since 1927, a service honours the 54,000 missing Commonwealth soldiers killed. According to the Belgian woman who stood beside me, they will always perform this ceremony. She took my spontaneous gift of forget-me-not flowers, held my hands and said, "Madam, we owe Canada everything … we will never forget you." I shall never forget her.

But the most impressive monument we saw was the International Memorial of Notre Dame de Lorette outside of Arras, France. We walked into a 328-metre oval structure, called the ring of remembrance, where the names of First World War soldiers who died in northern France from all nationalities are engraved alphabetically. We found Reid Watson's name immediately. We touched the letters, reflected on his sacrifice so long ago and felt connected to this young man we did not know, but were learning more about every day. The silence here was overwhelming. We placed our flags and then quietly left.

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Later, at Beaumont Hamel a bugle player performed Rouse and The Last Post as we stood on the trenches of the battlefield. Many Canadian university students work as interpreters at each battle site, and a gifted group they are – knowledgeable, friendly and determined to keep the history alive for all generations; one trip to the trenches ensures the sacrifice made by thousands of soldiers will always be remembered. Through these young men and women's vivid descriptions we were able to flesh out Reid's final days.

Now we were mere kilometres from the battlefield of Courcelette and we tried to imagine the fury and destruction that Reid had encountered on Sept. 15, 1916.

A torrential rainstorm set the sombre mood for the official 100th commemoration of Somme and Beaumont Hamel. On that July 1, we stood with veterans, royalty, French and Canadian dignitaries and hundreds of Newfoundlanders. We thought about what the soldiers endured as we stood in the trenches ankle deep in mud, our backs to the "danger tree," a petrified tree that, during battle, so many had gravitated to and where they died by the hundreds, cut to pieces by machine gun fire. Some still lay there after 100 years.

The next day, our search was over as we stood by the grave of Reid Watson near the village of Albert: A young man we did not know, but who had become very real. His grave was neatly tended, a vivid orange rose bloomed nearby. As I placed his photograph on the headstone, peace and contentment washed over me. Tears were shed for Reid, and for his family who never got to mourn at his last resting place.

With our unknown soldier now a known member of our family, the soldier on the postcard has had his story told. Reid Watson was found, grieved for and now will never be forgotten.

Bettyanne English lives in Nanoose Bay, B.C.

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