I don’t think much happens in the tiny village of Wanquentin.
The sleepy French village is much like any other with its ubiquitous church steeple, boulangerie and scattering of neat brick houses. Rarely do I see any inhabitants.
Located 160 kilometres north of Paris and 12 kilometres west of Arras, the area was just far enough behind the British front line during the First World War that it was spared the devastation that made a ruin of nearby Arras and a lunar landscape of the Vimy Ridge high ground to the north of that historic city.
Wanquentin holds no great historical significance, yet for me, it is a sacred place and one that I have visited many times.
The familiar green metal gate of a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery is the only clue that there is some connection to the Great War here. If you were not looking for it, you would likely miss it. Most do.
Tucked in behind the centuries-old village cemetery, a newer plot known as a “military extension” is found. It is common to find this type of cemetery in villages like Wanquentin. Their presence this far behind the old front line is evidence that some sort of medical treatment centre was once located here.
During the First World War, a wounded Canadian soldier would be treated in a complex chain of care that processed the wounded from the front line to a rear area hospital. The first line of medical treatment occurred at a Regimental Aid Post (RAP) located in, or very near to, the front line. Those with more severe wounds would then be moved further behind the battle area to an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS). Further still were the Casualty Clearing Stations (CCSs) situated in towns and villages, like Wanquentin, with good rail and road access. Finally larger Field Hospitals, often located near the coast and England, offered the final stage of treatment.
The more seriously wounded would make their way along this chain of care but, of course, men died of their wounds throughout the process. As a result you will find Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in France and Belgium situated where these various medical services operated. Perhaps the most famous was the Advanced Dressing Station at Essex Farm near Ypres in Belgium, where John McCrae performed surgeries on broken bodies almost continuously for 17 straight days in April and May 1915; it was at the Essex Farm ADS that McCrae, lamenting the death of a close friend and during a break from surgery, wrote In Flanders Fields.
Today, the old ADS is the site of Essex Farm Cemetery and contains 1,200 burials, including 15-year-old Valentine Strudwick, one of the youngest battle casualties of the war.
Cemeteries associated with the rear area hospitals are among the largest. The cemetery at Etaples, on the French coast, contains a staggering 10,816 soldiers and airmen. The men buried here are almost 80 kilometres from the closest Great War battle site. They survived their respective battles but not their wounds.
My visit to Wanquentin is a private one. Few visit this place, ever. The register suggests less than two dozen in the last year.
The 222 burials are almost all either British or Canadian. All but eight are from the First World War. Most of the burials were men wounded in the fighting in the nearby Arras sector of the front, who were then evacuated along the medical services chain until they arrived at the 41st Casualty Clearing Station located in the village.
Wanquentin proved to be their last stop as they “died of their wounds” and were buried by the medical staff in the most logical area, behind the existing village cemetery.
The last row of headstones is unique.
There, buried side by side, as if still lined up on parade, are the headstones of 23 men, all from the same unit, all killed on the same date: Sept. 24, 1918. These men were from the 3rd Canadian Machine Gun Battalion and were killed when a German aircraft dropped a bomb on their billets in the nearby village of Warlus.
The 3rd Canadian Machine Gun Battalion diary entry for Sept. 24 states: “Clear and cool. At 10:00 am a bomb was dropped in camp from an aeroplane, killing 33 O.R.’s (other ranks) outright and wounding 35
O.R.’s: all being in ‘A’ and ‘C’ Batteries. Of the wounded, 15 O.R.’s died later at C.C.S. (Casualty Clearing Station).”
It is this row of burials that brings me here.
Twenty-three of the 48 men killed on that single day are buried here at Wanquentin. One of them was a 23 year old from Saskatchewan, a “livery man” by trade, killed just weeks before his birthday and the end of the Great War. His name was Charles Goheen; he was my great uncle.
Regardless of how often I visit, the lump in the throat and the butterflies in the stomach are the same. It is a hard and powerful thing, almost overwhelming, to see your family name etched on a headstone so far from home.
I am reminded of Kipling’s epitaphs: “From little towns, in a far land, we came, to save our honour and a world aflame; by little towns, in a far land, we sleep, and trust those things we won to you to keep.”
While his story and visiting his grave are important to me, I am ever mindful of the other stories and other families represented by each of the other headstones and names on memorials to the missing.
More than a million Canadians left their homes and loved ones to fight in wars in the last century and in the first decade of this one.
My great uncle was just one of more than 100,000 who never came home. All of them never realized “those things we won.”
But you have. Your freedom and the peace, by which you choose to live, came as the result of the sacrifice of others.
Monday is Remembrance Day. It is a time for all Canadians to think, to respect, and to honour; it’s a time for all of us to remember.
Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?
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