“Killed At Vimy Ridge”

ARRAS, France – Tom Spear dabbed away a tear and said, “You’ve caught me at an emotional moment.” So it was for the First World War veteran, and others as well. In a concert in Arras, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Band had just finished playing Amazing Grace and Nightfall in Camp, two songs old soldiers know well.

But then, the pilgrimage of veterans to France, marking the 80th anniversary of the end of the Great War of 1914-1918 has often been emotional — never more so than this past weekend, when the veterans returned to Vimy Ridge.

Saturday morning, hundreds gathered at the foot of the great marble monument that dominates the surrounding French plain. It was almost certainly the last ceremony some of the soldiers being honoured would attend. One of them, Tom Spear, a spry 102-year-old, read the Act of Remembrance. It was a remarkable moment in an astonishing life.

Mr. Spear was a telegrapher with the Canadian Pacific Railway until he joined the army during the First World War and spent 3 1/2 years in France, Belgium and occupied Germany. Speaking to him, any pretense of journalistic detachment dissolves. This is a man who lived and fought in a world before the H-bomb and Hitler, before the Depression and the dustbowl. This is a man from the world of empires, of Czars and Kaisers and Kipling. The only possible feeling looking into Tom Spear’s brilliant blue eyes is awe.

But awe, as historians know, does not lead to understanding. So the dilemma: How can Mr. Spear and the other veterans be seen as more than frail objects of veneration, holy relics of a hellish century? The answer, for me at least, is in the stone of the Vimy Ridge monument.

As a Canadian military band warmed up for the ceremony by playing The Maple Leaf Forever, I scanned the high walls at the base of the soaring monument. What looks at a distance like fine decoration are names, rolling on and on, one after another. These are the Canadians killed in France with no known graves — 11,285 in all.

I was looking for two names which the Commonwealth War Graves Commission — which oversees Commonwealth military graves around the world — told me I would find on the monument. The first was Robert Nelson Crawford. I first saw his name on a tombstone in a little cemetery beside my parents’ farm near Parry Sound, in central Ontario. Crawford’s body isn’t there, though. After the war, even identified remains were not returned to Canada. The tombstone is a family marker and Crawford’s mother added his name to the back for solace alone. “Pte. Robert Nelson Crawford, killed at Vimy Ridge, May 3, 1917, aged 26 yrs.” From this spare description, I wanted to uncover a life.

Research led me to Letters Home. Compiled by Parry Sound historian John MacFie, it’s a collection of the correspondence of his father and two uncles written when they served in the First World War. Two of the brothers returned. The third, John — the author’s namesake — did not. John McKenzie MacFie’s name, like that of Robert Crawford’s, was also somewhere on the Vimy monument.

These were Tom Spear’s comrades, young men who, to paraphrase the Act of Remembrance, did not grow old as those who were left grew old. They are wholly typical of their generation. Know them and you know a little about the young Tom Spear and over 600,000 other Canadians who served in the First World War. Both Crawford and MacFie joined up in the spring of 1916. Crawford was 26, MacFie had just turned 19. Both were from pioneer farm families — the MacFie farm, in fact, was not many miles from that of the Crawfords. They were a tough breed that logged in winter and farmed in summer, their chances in life only as good as their backs were strong.

MacFie was tall, six feet one inch, blond, pink-cheeked with a boyish face. There is no photograph of Crawford that I know of but his image takes shape in the terse words of his military records: Five feet, seven inches tall. 138 pounds. A dark complexion. Black hair. Blue eyes. His enlistment form was obviously filled out by someone else, and in his wobbly signature he misspelled his middle name as “Neltson.” He was illiterate, or nearly so.

MacFie and Crawford sailed from Halifax in October 1916. In England, they, like most Parry Sounders, were assigned to the 1st Infantry Battalion — the Western Ontario Regiment. Both men went to France in the spring of 1917. Both were killed that year on May 3. Their remains were never found.

The date had puzzled me when I first read the Crawford family tombstone. The famous battle of Vimy Ridge was almost a month earlier, April 9, 1917. But the Canadians, I learned, had launched an attack from positions on the ridge on May 3. The 1st battalion was assigned to take a little forest by the hamlet of Fresnoy.

In broad daylight, the Canadians attacked across an open field, struggling toward the trees. How Robert Crawford was killed on this field is unknown. But decades later, John MacFie, the author, tracked down a soldier named Charles Shea, who was with his uncle John at Fresnoy. Shea told the younger MacFie what happened to the uncle he never met, the man Shea knew as “Jack” MacFie: “Jack and my brother were together [when I got up to the line] … this big shell came over. It was a big one, shrapnel, a nine-two. I was buried and got a few scratches but it got my brother, he got 72 wounds. When I picked myself up, I spoke to my brother, and he says, `Where’s Jack?’ I said, `Jack’s gone.’ I says, `You’ve got him all over you.’ He never knew what hit him, he just disintegrated.” It was the 19-year-old’s first battle.

The attack was a success, Fresnoy was taken. But days later, the Germans counterattacked and took it back. Whatever was left of Crawford and MacFie would have been burned by the Germans in piles of corpses. This is why they have no known graves. This is why their names are engraved above Vimy Ridge.

I found the names, one on the side of the monument, one on the front. The very old men sitting on the reception stand in wheelchairs, their legs covered with blankets, may be fragile relics to others, but to Crawford and MacFie and the 11,000 other young men whose names are preserved on the monument, they are comrades in arms.

The military bands, the spectators and the dignitaries assembled. A light fog lay over the ceremony, making the air wet and cold. A Frenchman of the Second World War generation walked among the crowd shaking hands and thanking anyone wearing a maple leaf pin or poppy.

For a few minutes, the sun flashed through the fog, making the monument’s white Dalmatian marble gleam. Tom Spear spoke into the microphone, his steady voice intoning the Act of Remembrance. The last words echoed off the marble and rolled across the thick grass that covers the battlefield of Vimy Ridge: “We will remember them.”

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