When I went to France and Belgium for the centenary of the battle of Vimy Ridge, we visited many cemeteries. Mostly Canadian, but also German and French. When you hear mortality statistics, or recite ‘… between the crosses, row on row’, there is no preparing yourself for what row on row looks like. Some of the graves have names, many don’t. Some only have a battalion badge engraved in the white marble. Some don’t even have that. Some are known only to God.
A while ago, a friend of mine was helping to create the Soldier Information Cards at the Kitchener Public Library. Each volunteer was provided a name and as many details as there were, and the volunteers were asked to fill in as much as they could find about the soldier in 2 weeks. My friend got a card that only provided a name, and “Galt”. She asked if the Royal Highland Fusiliers of Canada Regimental museum might be able to help her. She checked the Galt churches records. But at the end of her 2 weeks, she did not make progress. She felt badly about this and asked to be reassigned the soldier again. But still, this soldier remained largely anonymous. Then, the library lost funding for the program that was gathering the information, so the outstanding cards were collected up from the volunteers and that was that.
There is an entry in the Local History and Genealogy section of the Kitchener Public Library website that advertises the information cards, and has indexes of soldiers names from WW1 and WW2. I looked at the Digital records, and there are 3250 records of WW1 soldiers. That seems like a lot. Then, I looked at the WW1 index. Some soldiers still have as little information in the index as my friend’s soldier assignment. Only name and rank, or name and residence/hometown, with missing information for regiment and the other columns. All the soldiers with last names starting with ‘A’ have a link on their name, but the links are all broken. Someone had high hopes for this project, and then the effort just stopped. I get it. When there’s no funding, there’s no funding. These cards will likely never be completed.
The people who have the information that might be added to these profiles are increasingly few. There are no parents or siblings who can share information about their loved ones. There are perhaps children or nieces and nephews with a little cache of mementos about the ravages of The Great War on their family.
A different friend had an uncle who served in the Great War. He was only there for months before he was killed. She never met her uncle, but she had inherited the remainder of his service: His enlistment papers, service record, the last letter his family received from him, the letter the military sent to his father, his death penny, medals, ID bracelet and cap brass. It was sitting in her garage because she didn’t want to just get rid of it, but she also didn’t know the man. She didn’t want it either. Child now has it. We remounted the medals, penny, bracelet and cap brass. And Child keeps it in his room – a memorial for a man from whom he is twice removed having ever known. A man hardly older than Connor is now.
This Remembrance Season, may I remember that each white grave marker and soldier card marks the life of a person. May remembrance never be reduced to just a statistic.