Letter from the Trenches, Passchendaele, 1917

The graveyard of Grace Episcopal Church, Yorktown, Virginia is an apt place to meditate on Veterans Day (Remembrance Day in the UK). 101 veterans from as far back as the 17th century are buried in these grounds. Lord Cornwallis’s troops used the church behind me as a powder magazine and the battleground ending the Revolutionary War is a mile yonder.

One shouldn’t feel ‘sides’ at this distance of time and can’t be blindly patriotic when you have ancestors on both sides of the tragedy and waste of war. Photos too are poignant, like a scene I know at the Third Battle of Ypres in which three wounded soldiers, one Canadian and two German, cling to each other as they wade through mud and destruction, a scene that inspired a famous poem and the tradition of wearing poppies.

.. If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, tho poppies grow

In Flanders fields

John McCrae

That battle is better known as Passchendaele for the tiny village destroyed at its center. As best I can translate Flemish it means Easter (or Passover) Valley. Winston Churchill called the battle “a forlorn expenditure of valor and life without equal in futility.”

A century later a letter came into our hands about two brothers, Leonard and Conrad, from their C/O. The address ‘From the Front’ implied it was typed in a dugout in the trenches or close to the Frontline. Imagine the scene from Sam Mendes movie, 1917. Dated this day in 1917, the day after the four month battle ended and precisely one year before the Armistice, he wrote to their mother.

My great uncles emigrated to Canada before the war, where Len got married, but they joined the Canadian Pioneers when hostilities broke out. Len was a stretcher-bearer, probably Con too as they served together. A few weeks earlier a Toronto newspaper reported that Len was commended by the C/O for saving lives at Passchendaele. Soon afterwards, a shellburst killed him instantly along with several soldiers. The letter wrote of his ‘glorious sacrifice’ (sic) and how Con was buried under debris with grievous injuries, but had the courage and presence of mind to stay to care for the injured, all the time his dead brother lying close by. Con was awarded a high decoration for valor.

I wonder what they would say if they looked down on us today as wars continue (a new one announced this week) and infighting divides us, even giving a stress test to our democracy.

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