Posted by: Bob Fisher | August 11, 2014

An Unknown Soldier

1917 Paul Evan Gillespie, 34rd Division, Canadian Armed Forces

Paul Evan Gillespie

I would recognize his face if he came up to me in the street. I know his full name and the precise dates of his birth and death. I have seen a photograph of the rather ordinary wooden cross bearing the essential information — including the undistinguished block letters “RIP” — that marks the spot in France where his body lies.

But to me Paul Evan Gillespie, the son of a certain “Aunt Maggie” and my grandmother’s cousin, is still in many respects an unknown soldier. And with the relentless passage of time and the death of living memory it seems to me that he, like all soldiers killed in the Great War — or any war — may remain forever unknown soldiers.

When the much-used shoe box of odds and ends of family photographs sent by a cousin arrived finally — having been misdirected by Canada Post — it contained a jumble of what initially seemed to be the residue of the lives of three generations of people directly or indirectly related to me. My penchant for putting things in order was the only real motive for attempting to make some kind of visual and archival sense of them. Sifting through the bits and pieces of unremarkable lives lived, I re-arranged in protective plastic images of my father, his siblings, my grandparents and great grandparents, and their sundry friends.

The third photograph definitely takes me by surprise because it is the grave of Private P.E. Gillespie. His name is very prominent, juxtaposed with the blunt inscription “KILLED IN ACTION.” As if directing someone to the grave, the sentence fragments on the back of the photograph indicate “Position of Grave Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery Arras Nearest Railway Station Arras.”

A wooden cross

I look at the photo again. It is an image of a simple, almost banal, wooden cross with four connecting supports each bearing official information; the kind of marker that could be put up quickly and often. The lettering is a rather old-fashioned typeface, obviously hand-painted, and done by someone who has had considerable practice. The spacing is accurate and even; a few minor stylistic flourishes attempt to embellish this common wooden cross. Thrust into rough dirt with clods of earth and spindly pieces of grass around it, the grave marker has been photographed by someone who knew consciously or subconsciously how to suggest perspective because behind it, rows of similar but not identical common crosses march silently off into the mists. There are no flowers, no carefully tended lawns. This place of the dead is one of utility and some haste; the war still has two months in which to run its course. There will be others to bury, other crosses to erect — not as many as in previous years, however, because attrition has slowed down the killing. Paul Evan Gillespie is one of the “next to last,” among those who perhaps were the unluckiest. He was nineteen years old.

The National Archives

The reading room of the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa is well-lit, appropriately library-quiet with long wide tables on which a few other silent individuals have spread various documents, letters, and maps. I have sent a fax a month ago requesting access to Box 3541-69, which must be cleared through the Canadian Government’s Freedom of Access and Information Act.

I wait patiently while the archivist locates my request, which had gone astray because my registration number had been pre-assigned and differed from that on my day pass. Paul’s regimental number 329064 in the database also differs by one numeral from that on the cross in the photo. But fortunately it is only a minor discrepancy — that one digit might have led to the proverbial ships passing in the dead of night.

Some time passes during which my thoughts wander to more immediate plans during my visit to Ottawa. And then I am slightly startled when a librarian approaches me from behind and hands me a modern, pristine, brown cardboard box. The label identifies it as an “Interim Container”; it has also been archived with the help of a barcode.

Potpourri

I put the box on the table in front of me and look at it almost nonchalantly. And then with the simplest of gestures on my part I open the box that contains the only other records of Paul Evan Gillespie that I have found. Inside there is a potpourri of common-looking official documents and annotated index cards — almost haphazard but innocuous — like old school records, all giving off that musty smell of old paper.

I learn that Paul Evan Gillespie was born on January 9, 1899 and “died of his wounds” at Arras on September 7, 1918. Strangely, one of the documents in the box notes that this expression “is cancelled & the following substituted: Killed in Action.” An “authorized” letter was sent to his “widowed” mother Mrs. Margaret Gillespie on September 20, 1918. Another document indicates that a telegram was sent on the day he died. Perhaps the letter gave some kind of explanation of the events of that day, the final events in Paul’s life; the kind of “fleshing out” of the event that a terse official telegram simply could not communicate.

Paul enlisted in the “Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force” on February 16, 1917 in Guelph, Ontario. His Attestation Paper affirms that he solemnly declared that he was “willing to fulfil engagements by me now made, and I hereby engage and agree to serve … and to be attached to any arm of the service therein, for the term of one year, or during the war now existing between Great Britain and Germany should the war last longer than one year…”

He also swore allegiance to “His Majesty King George the Fifth” and on the form a magistrate appended his signature attesting to the fact that the “recruit” understood each question that was read to him. On a separate official form, the medical examiner — following the printed instructions “*Insert here ‘fit’ or ‘unfit.’” — certified Paul as “fit” and noted that he had “transverse scars 3″ long middle of anterior aspect right thigh. Large mole 1″ to right of middle line Lumbar spines.” Paul’s hearing and vision were “normal.” On the “Casualty Form – Active Service” it indicates that Paul was posted to the ninth regiment of the Canadian Army Medical (Ambulance) Corps, even though he listed himself as a “banker.” Under “Theatre of War,” is entered in careful script “France.” A rubber stamp on the document declaring “Embarked Halifax 12-4-17, Disembarked Liverpool 29-4-17” confirms he had gone to war. An official record of his movements informs me that he was later “Taken On Strength … as water detail” in Étaples, France.

Another standard form tells me a little bit more about him. Paul had a fair complexion with brown eyes and auburn hair and was a Presbyterian. He was 5 feet 8¾ inches in height, weighed 137 pounds and had a “minimum chest measurement” of 32 inches although his “maximum chest expansion” was 35 inches. His “apparent age” was “18 years 2 months”when he left Canada and he had no “congenital peculiarities or previous diseases.” In several other documents he is again declared “fit.” Handwritten comments on an index card state that he was “not elig. for 1914-15 Star” but that a P.& S. and a C. OF S. were forwarded to his mother as was $570 in back pay, although further payments to Aunt Maggie were “suspended” because Paul was not the “sole support” of his mother. This final payment, following the instructions in Paul’s Form of Will he signed on April 12, 1917 was sent c/o the bank of Commerce in Iroquois, Ontario. “Aunt Maggie” I discover later was my grandmother’s aunt. Paul and I might qualify as what in my family has been referred to as “shirt-tail cousins.”

The Unknown Soldier

A few hours later — a brilliant October day, the fall colours still very much in evidence — I am standing before the recently inaugurated Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the base of The National War Memorial in Ottawa, Canada’s national capital. It seems to me that from an aesthetic, conceptual, and historical point of view the Memorial is now finished. The three levels complete the thematic “flow” from the lofty symbols of honour, glory, and victory over death at the top, to the mid-level sculpture of soldiers in battle struggling to make some headway, and finally to the ground level where the exquisite and poignant granite sarcophagus containing the physical remains of a soldier of The Great War simply but emphatically confirms the hard truth. Here lies a real soldier, a true — although unknown — Canadian soldier who has finally been brought home.

Paul Evan Gillespie is not the soldier in this tomb but despite the few additional traces I have discovered of his existence and of our very tenuous connection, in many ways he could be because, for all intents and purposes, he is still unknown to me. I do not know how he lived his 19 years, what he liked or disliked, whether he was happy or sad, or if in his short adolescence he had achieved a strong sense of himself. I can speculate about him and imagine his hopes and certainly his fears. I realize that if he had lived and even managed to reach a very old age, he would today be over 100, but such a speculation seems quite futile. The full life he might have had, his full potential is what is eternally unknown because Paul was and forever will be only 19. The realization depresses me.

Matthew

Having done all that it seems there is to do, I return to my hotel feeling what I can only describe as vacant. Fortunately, that evening I have arranged to have dinner with Matthew, a former student of mine now enrolled at the University of Ottawa. A bright, compassionate, and very sensitive young man, Matthew is also 19 and already has demonstrated — through his desire for truth and self-determination — the covenant of youth that we attribute to each new generation.

I show him the photographs and photocopies of the archival material and we talk about Paul Evan Gillespie, as if he were somewhere about. Matthew understands intuitively what I have sensed in this brief excursion and is able to reflect and augment my thoughts and feelings. Having recently begun the next big passage in his own life, Matthew understands the enormous transition that was forced upon Paul Evan Gillespie — and the consequence. Talking this through with Matthew, the sense of disembodiment, disconnectedness, and dispersal that my “encounter” with Paul Evan Gillespie elicited begins to abate. As has been the case so often with so many of my former students whom I have come to know well, Matthew’s fresh presence of mind and youthful perspective create a generational connection, an understanding that underscores why I have attempted to realize this belated bond with Paul. The regeneration induced by honest and timely communication with young people replenishes my need for a belief in innocence, hope, and humanity.

Life is full of ironies; dramatic, prophetic, and otherwise. Little did I know that before re-discovering Paul, in all likelihood I had walked past his grave in the Canadian cemetery in France when my wife and I were travelling there and following the First World War route from Vimy to the Somme.

Regret

Paul, if we have forgotten you, I regret deeply that senseless neglect. If we were not able to control events so that you became your full self and lived a complete existence, I am deeply sorry. I mourn your loss which ultimately of course is our own. I can only hope that you will now be a little less unknown and that those who lived and died as you did will not have done so for nothing.

Visiting the Front

Many travelers re-trace the history and events of both world wars by re-visiting the actual places that have become engraved in our collective memories.

(a) If you are planning such a trip, the website www.firstworldwar.com is a very useful and comprehensive first guide:

(b) A number of companies such as Somme Battlefield Tours Ltd offer organized tours of the battle fields and memorials of the First World War. Specialized battlefied tours are a niche market in themselves. Bartletts Battlefield Journeys Ltd. is one example.

(c) For more information on Canada’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier click on the preceding link.

(d) The last Canadian soldier of the First World War

(e) See also Rain in Hiroshima.

Paul Evan Gillespie before he left for the First World War; he was only in Europe for three weeks before he was killed.

The following has been contributed by Bruce Leeming, a direct descendant of Paul.

“On the night of September 7, 1918, Paul Evan Gillespie left the Hôpital St. Jean to go to the YMCA to buy a coffee. His unit, the 9th Field Ambulance, had recently moved there from not too far away in order to take over other duties.

The Hôpital St Jean was built in the 12th century and in WW1 was taking in wounded from the front lines just a few miles away. By early September 1918, they were being swamped with men suffering terrible afflictions from gas attacks.

Today the Hôpital St. Jean is gone, torn down after the war.

What is left is only the statue and maybe some trees you see in this 1909 photo.This statue would have faced Paul Gillespie as he left that night in September. The statue is that of the Abbot Halluin who served the area with distinction, and lived here between 1820-1895.

To find the YMCA Paul Evan Gillespie had to walk through the Grande Place, which was not too far away. His overall distance would have been under two kilometres. The photo below is of the Grande Place February 1919.

Paul was walking through this town square when a German long range shell came in. It killed several people and wounded others. Paul was one of the people killed (or perhaps just wounded); but there is no doubt that he died of his wounds late that night. His family was told he was killed by a single bullet. His mother died believing this was what had happened. Many families were told the same thing, in hopes that they would believe that their loved ones suffered as little as possible.

Paul is buried In Arras at Faubourg D’ Amiens Cemetery. A cemetery which also has 35,000 names of men lost in the battles around Arras; and who have no known grave.There are many Canadian Field Artillery in this cemetery too.”

Jim Wilkinson and his son Paul at Paul’s grave. Paul Harold Wilkinson is named after his two great uncles, both of whom were lost in WW1.

Victory at Vimy

The War to End All Wars

In 2008, the world remembered the 90th anniversary of “the war to end all wars.”

Today, a great deal of the travel market, in one way or another, emphasizes historical travel — especially travel related to war.

At first, this may seem strange or incongruous, but only if “travel” means a vacation or some other form of escapism.

Battlefield tours are not new; travellers have been revisiting famous battle sites and other remnants of war for a long time. In many cases, former “war zones” have become major “tourist” destinations; this of course includes the famous sites of both world wars as well. Even tours by former Vietnam veterans to that country have become a way in which these men and women (and others) gain some kind of perspective, perhaps even some kind of reconciliation with the past.

John Babcock was the last surviving veteran of the First World War; he died at the age of 109. Many families around the world, like Babcock’s have connections to many wars, especially through a member of the family, either living or dead. Much oral history has been preserved about the realities and first-hand experiences of war, but eventually those prime sources of historical recall are silenced.

As Holocaust memorials and museums teach us, the very worst of history must be preserved and not forgotten.

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Responses

  1. My sister, daughter and myself were recently (July 9th, 2012) at the St Roch Cemetery in Valenciennes to honour Harold Marsh Wilkinson, William J Trickey and RH Brewster – after some research we discovered that they were the 3 men who were killed in the same blast which seriously wounded our grandfather (Charles David Grimshaw). He proceeded to spend 5 months in hospital overseas before returning to Guelph, Ontario. We noticed that both JR Wilkinson and Paul Harold Wilkinson had signed the guest book on Oct 29, 2011.

    Please forward them our regards,

    Sue Broden


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