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Canada Row on row – unknown soldiers with lives cut short

Of the 11,965 headstones that fan out over the Tyne Cot Cemetery near Ypres, Belgium, more than 8,300 of them bear no name. They carry a simple, generic epitaph: ‘A Canadian soldier of the Great War.’

Bob Weeks/The Globe and Mail

This series commemorates the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele and Canada's role in the First World War and its enduring legacy.

The last time I truly cried, I was standing in front of a grave of someone I didn't know.

The headstone was located in the Tyne Cot Cemetery near Ypres, Belgium, and carried a simple and generic epitaph: "A Canadian soldier of the Great War." At the top of the marker a maple leaf emblem was etched, in the middle a large cross and then near the bottom another lonely line: "Known unto God."

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The white limestone marker was there to mark the grave of a soldier killed in the Battle of Passchendaele, in all likelihood a boy, far from home, who has spent a century resting in a foreign land.

My tears weren't specifically for this one soldier, but for the sheer enormity of what spread out around his final resting place. This headstone was among the 11,965 that fanned over this now pastoral setting. More than 8,300 of them were like this one, with no name. They are among the 15,654 Canadians who died in one of the most gruesome battles of the First World War.

It was hard to look out over this and not be moved. I was by no means the only person to shed a tear there that day. Section after section, row after row, stone after stone. Each one a soldier, with a family and a story of a life cut short.

For me, there was also a personal connection. My grandfather Ernest Weeks was a soldier in the First World War, enlisting as soon as Canada entered the conflict, leaving Charlottetown for the horrors of the battlefields in France and Belgium. He fought at Passchendaele but was among the lucky ones, surviving that battle and many others. He came home and went on to a career in the military, fought in the Second World War, and retired as a general holding the office of adjutant general, now known as director of military personnel.

I was lucky to have my grandfather in my life for 27 years. We spent a lot of time together and talked about a lot of things, but as many who went through the horrors of those First World War battles, he rarely talked to me about the carnage or the death he no doubt saw and endured.

There were some moments, however, when he opened up, offering just a glimpse of the dreadfulness.

On one occasion he told me that when he went off to war, he had no reference of what to expect. There was no television or internet to deliver the images of what was to come. Instead, he fully expected to be charging on a horse with sword drawn as he'd seen in paintings. To him, that was war, not the barrage of shells, the trenches and the bayonets he would encounter.

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There was one story of Passchendaele – he shook his head at the very mention of that place – when he talked about a battle he and his mates had been on. Rising from their trench, they advanced quickly and caught the Germans still in theirs, not having fallen back or escaped the Canadian surge. My grandfather took the highest-ranking officer, grabbed him at gunpoint and told him to start pulling things off the walls of the trench.

I was confused until he explained that the trenches were often booby-trapped and pulling a pair of binoculars might trigger a bomb. If the officer refused the order from my grandfather, they knew where the trap had been laid. They then took the Germans, now prisoners, back to their side of no-man's land and, strangely enough, were issued a receipt for their delivery.

After his death in 1987, I began a search to know more. I dug up his military records, which showed that he'd fought at almost every major Canadian battle – Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Mount Sorrel, the Somme and Passchendaele. My son hired a researcher to find details on how he had won his medals – the Military Cross and bar (indicating that he won it twice) and the Military Medal and bar.

We learned a lot from all this including that he was wounded in the final days of the Battle of Passchendaele – which he had never revealed to anyone in our family.

Even with this information, my curiosity wasn't tamed and so my son and I decided to head to France and Belgium in 2014 to see the battlefields where the Canadians fought a century ago. We went back a second time in 2016.

We weren't alone. Every year, the town of Ypres – now known as Ieper – welcomes tens of thousands of Canadians who make the pilgrimage to see where their ancestors fought a century ago.

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According to the Visit Flanders tourism office, visits by Canadians to this area were up 119 per cent from 2014 to 2015. An even larger surge was expected this year with the 100th anniversaries of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

Some, like me, are following in the footsteps of their relatives. Others are simply Canadians interested in seeing this part of our country's history. The Belgians have done a wonderful job of preserving and honouring the history with museums, such as the excellent one in Passchendaele that gives a sense of what the soldiers went through.

The battlefields that were once filled with mud, water and waste have returned to quiet farmland although every year, there is the Iron Harvest, as shells fired 100 years earlier continue to rise from the earth in the spring thaw. They are taken away by Belgian bomb experts who dispose of them.

And then there are the cemeteries, which seem to be at every corner. Some are small, with just a handful of graves. Others are like Tyne Cot, massive yet just as sombre.

As I wept at the grave of that unknown soldier, I couldn't help but wonder if he was a friend of my grandfather. Why did he die and my grandfather suffered only a wound? Did his family come to look for him?

I wish I could know more about what happened. I wish I could ask my grandfather questions. The soldiers of the First World War are gone and soon, too, will be those of us who had a direct connection to them. When we pass, will there still be someone to weep at the graves?

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One hundred years later, remembering them is still important.

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