The countryside around Ypres, Belgium, is peaceful today. The spires of Cloth Hall and Saint Martin’s Cathedral dominate the flat farmland and can be seen from kilometres away. There are vast potato fields, and horses graze lazily in green pastures. Roses and rhododendrons bloom brightly in gardens next to tidy homes with red-tiled roofs. It’s a far cry from the bombed-out horror of the no man’s land that it was 90 years ago, during the First World War. The town was all but obliterated then, with only a couple of stone walls and part of the Cloth Hall tower standing above the rubble. Its citizens returned as soon as they could, and rebuilt their homes exactly as they had been before the war took over their lives.
The Ypres area was the site of four years of gruelling warfare, and it is where my great-uncle, Henry Errol Platt, fought and died. The younger of Errol’s two sisters, Kae, was my grandmother, and I grew up listening to her stories about “darling Errol.” Her voice would ring with love and pride as she spoke of him. My grandmother was just 18 when she last saw Errol, but until she died in 1993 at the age of 96, she kept him close to her heart. In sharing stories of Errol, she made him real for me, ensuring he would not be forgotten.
I have wanted to visit Errol’s grave site in Ypres for many years to pay my respects to this family member who is part of me. Family is the link through the generations that connects us with our past and our future. Without my grandmother, I would never have known Uncle Errol, so my journey to the small Belgium town was one of thanks for her love in bringing Errol and I together.
Canada is at war again, this time in Afghanistan, and our men and women have begun dying once more. Each time one of our fallen soldiers comes home, I watch the news, both saddened and proud. I think of Uncle Errol. There were no homecoming ceremonies for him and the more than 67,000 Canadians who were killed overseas during the First World War. They were buried where they fell, so many, so fast. My trip was also my personal thanks to all of our soldiers for their honour, their bravery and their sacrifice for me, for my family and for Canada.
Every Canadian student learns about the First World War, the chlorine gas attacks, the desperate fighting in mud-filled trenches, and the bravery and skill of the Canadian soldiers that distinguished them within the Commonwealth forces. But the classroom version pales in comparison to visiting the actual sites and seeing the cemeteries – more than 150 of them in the Ypres area alone.
Looking out over the rows and rows of gravestones, I realize they aren’t just numbers in a textbook. They represent real people who lived and loved and dreamed – just like my uncle Errol. The sense of loss is overwhelming, but my small gesture of being here makes me feel a part of a larger community of remembrance.
Page 1 of 4Each evening at 8 p.m., the “Last Post” – a bugle call used to commemorate those who have fallen in war – sounds at the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres. The Last Post ceremony has been conducted here since 1928, and it is no small thing for the people of Ypres to do this every night. But they do unfailingly, with kindness, dignity and appreciation.
Located just down the street from Ypres’ main square, Menin Gate is shaped like a triumphal Roman arch; on its walls are the names of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers who went missing in action. There are so many Canadian names here, nearly 7,000. On the evening I attend the ceremony, members of the Londonderry Branch of the Somme Association, a group that organizes trips to Belgium and France for relatives of those killed in the war, lay a wreath against one wall of the monument. About 300 people, young and old alike, including a few veterans, listen as the playing of the Last Post is followed by a minute of silence. I look around at the other faces assembled here and feel a connection to these people whom I don’t know, but who, like me, want to remember and pay tribute.
Just a few kilometres away, near Passchendaele, is Tyne Cot Cemetery, where the names of another 34,984 Commonwealth soldiers are inscribed on a long, curved stone wall of remembrance. It is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world, with nearly 12,000 graves; about 70 per cent of them mark the resting places of unnamed soldiers. These stones are inscribed: “A Soldier of the Great War. Known unto God."
From the rows of graves, there is a terrific view of Ypres. The air is sweet and a tremendous sense of peace pervades. Yet if I close my eyes, I can almost hear the roar of guns and the shouts of men echoing across the fields. Again, I am reminded of how real the war still feels here.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission ensures the cemeteries are carefully tended. Small Canadian flags and paper poppies dot the gravestones, proof that others also feel a need to visit. This is particularly true at the Essex Farm Cemetery at Boezinge, about eight kilometres from Ypres, where John McCrae wrote his famous poem, “In Flanders Fields." They’re evident, too, at the magnificent Canadian Forces Memorial at Sint- Juliaan, about five kilometres from Ypres, which was erected in remembrance of the 3,000 soldiers from the 1st Canadian Division who died after the German chlorine gas attack of April 1915.
Page 2 of 4Here, I read the bare facts about Uncle Errol in the newspaper clippings that reported his death. He was a graduate of the University of Toronto, with degrees in political science and economics. He was enrolled in law at Osgoode Hall when he enlisted. Prior to the war, he had six years of military training with the 2nd Queen’s Own Rifles. He played rugby and was an oarsman with the Argonaut Rowing Club in Toronto. With the rank of lieutenant, he went overseas with the 35th Battalion, serving with A Company, 3rd Battalion in France and Belgium. He was 24 years old when he died on May 5, 1916.
To my grandmother, Errol was much more. He was an adored brother. Their family lived in London, Ont., before moving to Toronto when Kae was about eight years old and Errol was 13. “Oh, he could be a devil,” my grandmother once told me. She also recalled how she had fallen one morning, while racing to hitch a ride to school on the milk wagon. Errol jumped off to pull her out of the snow bank. He was her hero long before he went off to war.
It was only after my grandmother died that I was given Uncle Errol’s letters and began to read them. Within them I heard his voice for the first time. I have the sense that while he didn’t underestimate the danger he was in, he could also see the war as a grand adventure, and brought his obvious good humour to the situation.
Errol and his fellow soldiers shipped off to England on June 4, 1915, and his letters are filled with love for his family, advice to Kae about her school exams and the details of army camp life: the fairly decent food, the training that included 7 a.m. physical drills, 10-mile marches and bayonet practice. He also writes about the boredom of waiting to go to the front, and occasional trips he made with his friend George Mackenzie to London and the countryside in Devon where they were stationed.
Page 3 of 4Soon enough, A Company was in the thick of the fighting. In a letter dated Feb. 11, 1916, Errol writes of the fear and noise of shelling in the trenches, and one fellow who came back to camp “an absolute wreck…. He was absolutely nervously exhausted from apprehension of impending danger. Myself, I find it a great help when anything comes unpleasantly close to swear fluently and sort of make it a personal matter between myself and the guy that fired the thing. Keeps up the fighting spirit don’t y’ know.”
Later, in the same letter, Errol writes: “Last night George and I went for a walk up the road that runs along about half a mile behind the line, halting every now and then to gaze over the ruined country around us wrapped in a ghostly shroud of moonlit mist, while overhead the bullets sighed affectionately after each sharp crack from beyond the ridge in front. One could imagine that the crackle of musketry every now and then was the fireworks at old Toronto Ex.… We are not always in the eye of death, except for an occasional stray bullet, which came singing angrily past us from somewhere away off...."
This letter stays with me because it was a single bullet in the head that killed Uncle Errol, fired quickly and efficiently by a German sniper.
In a letter to Errol’s fiancée, dated May 8, 1916, George describes attending Errol’s burial at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery near Poperinge, just a few kilometres from both Ypres and the French border, and about 90 minutes’ drive from Vimy, France: “The afternoon sun shone brightly and a crisp breeze rustled through the new leaves – the day was full of spring and the grain of poetry in every man’s nature was stirred by thoughts too deep for tears...."
George obviously had a wonderful heart to write that, but it broke mine to read it.
During the years I read over Errol’s letters, I came to know the many people who were part of his life, especially George, and it was important to me to find out what happened to some of them when I visited Ypres. George was killed a month after Errol, and is buried in the next row over from his good friend.
Under a cloudless blue sky, I find Uncle Errol at Lijssenthoek. I’m finally here. Kneeling next to the roses and lilies, I quietly say hello and introduce myself. I share some of the stories I have heard about him and imagine Errol smiling at the memories. I feel a sense of companionship and a link to family that is now complete and strong. “You made a difference, you know, all of you,” I tell him. “Kae – everyone – sends their love.”
Finding a loved one killed in war
Veterans Affairs Canada maintains a database of men and women killed during the two world wars. This is how writer Cathy Stapells found her uncle Errol’s grave site in Ypres, Belgium. Visit the website, www.vac-acc.gc.ca, and enter the soldier’s name for details.
For more information on Canadian soldiers buried overseas, visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission; Flanders Fields Museum; and Last Post Association. For general information on Flanders, check out www.visitflanders.us.
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