Most allied soldiers in WWI would pass through the Menin Gate to get to the trenches.
By Kathryn Stocks
Last year on Remembrance Day, my husband Robin and I shivered in the cold rain and wind on Vimy Ridge at the foot of the massive but poignant memorial to the lives of Canadian soldiers who died in World War I. We listened to the haunting notes of the Last Post and heard the words of In Flanders Fields while standing on one of the hills where so many lost their lives in battle. As the rain dripped off the sobbing statues on the monument, the war was brought home to us like nothing else we’ve experienced.
We travelled to France and Belgium to find the graves of my grandmother’s brother and her husband, who fought and died in that war. In the process of researching them, we also discovered that my grandfather fought with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was at Vimy digging tunnels leading up to the defining battle from April 9-12, 1917.
The burial locations of my great-uncle, Charles Walls, and my grandmother’s husband, James Ogilvie, were discovered through the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The war service of the two men was found in the extensive war diaries of the British Army.
Lance Corporal Charles Walls served with the Gordon Highlanders. He was killed by an enemy trench mortar bomb while in a working party in the front trenches in the Hohenzollern Redoubt section during the night of May 15-16, 1916. He was 21 years old. He was buried nearby in the Vermelles British Cemetery in France. After the visit, we drank a toast to Great-Uncle Charlie with a wee dram of Scotch at the local tavern. Then we drove to look at the farmers’ fields that would have held the British trenches manned by the Gordon Highlanders in 1916.
James Ogilvie married my grandmother on January 2, 1912. A few years later he had joined the Highland Light Infantry and was fighting in Belgium. He died during a night battle near Passchendaele on December 1-2, 1917. It seems likely that he was originally buried where he fell on the battlefield and was later exhumed and reburied at the beautiful Tyne Cot Cemetery near Ypres along with almost 12,000 Commonwealth servicemen. It was lucky that when James was exhumed he still had his wallet and could be identified. More than 8,300 of the burials in Tyne Cot remain unidentified but their names are written on the wall.
My grandfather, Edward Lane, joined the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force and arrived in France on August 11, 1916. On December 23, 1916, he was assigned to the 176 Tunnelling Company. At the Canadian National Vimy Memorial we learned that the tunnelers were vital to the Canadian success at the ridge in 1917. Some of the tunnels were for communication, others were built to move troops to the front without being killed by enemy fire. A few tunnels and trenches have been restored there but only one unrestored tunnel is available for public viewing.
On the evening of November 11, 2019, Robin and I attended the Remembrance Day Ceremony at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres (now Ieper). Most allied soldiers in World War I would head off to the trenches by marching through this gate. Many would never return. In their memory, the Last Post is played there at 8 p.m. every evening.