The pilgrimage that brought me to the gravesite of my great-uncle, Pte. A.J. Blake, began long before I found myself at a Commonwealth cemetery on the Somme, just outside Courcelette, France, this past September with my 16-year-old son, Zachary.
It began many years ago when I inherited his medals from my mother’s side of the family, obtaining them in the same broken-down box that my great-grandmother would have received them in after the Great War.
They were never displayed in our family’s homes. In fact, one of the medals had been lost.
Immediately, I thought, “How does it honour the sacrifice of my own family if we just keep these medals, and his memory, in a box?”
Over the next couple of years, I went to work replacing his lost medal from England, obtained his Great War records, and the war diaries of his unit.
Pte. A.J. Blake was in the machine-gun corps of the 7th Battalion, 3rd Canadian Division, serving Canada from 1915 until his death in the Battle of Courcelette on the Somme, Sept. 27, 1916.
I had his medals and the Silver Cross given to his mother mounted, where it now rests in a prominent place in our home.
I started to devour almost anything I could read and watch about the First World War, specifically about the Somme, in hopes of trying to find out more about who Blake was, what it was like when he served, and how he died.
While some things became clearer in my self-education on the First World War, many questions, including where and how A.J. Blake died remained a question.
But sometime in 2014, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could somehow, in 2016, on the 100th anniversary of the Somme and Blake’s death, get over to France, find his grave and pay my respects?”
To my knowledge, no one in our family in 100 years had ever visited there.
Whenever I thought of this, I would feel incredibly sad and almost guilty. Anyone who knows me knows I am ferociously proud of our Canadian men and women in our military and its history.
How could I have this patriotic pride, but ignore the grave of one of my own family who served?
It didn’t seem right.
More research, lots of saving in a tin above my fridge, and my bucket-list pilgrimage of remembrance became reality two months ago.
As it turned out, my tour arrived on the Somme, in Courcelette, the first site of tanks used in battle, on the exact day, 100 years later, that the battle that would claim my great-uncle’s life started, Sept. 15, 1916.
My tour guide, John Hetherington, brilliantly made our experience that day as personal as possible.
He took Zach and I past the Sugar Factory where A.J. Blake possibly dug in for cover; he took us to the battlefield area itself and masterfully laid out the battleground terrain; he took us to a place called the Chalk Pit where Blake would have slept a night or two before his death; and because his cemetery was a first-aid station in 1916, I know I was within a couple-kilometre radius of where he would have been struck down.
Kicking around in the farmers’ battlefields for just five minutes, I found a piece of shrapnel that had worked its way to the surface even today.
It was a surreal, exhilarating and deeply meaningful day.
But our biggest surprise was reserved for the gravesite.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to respond finally getting there – silence, emotion – I almost didn’t want to go in, but even so, was excited to be there.
A.J. Blake’s official attestation papers declared he was 20 when he died, but upon our arrival, my eyes were immediately drawn to the spot on the marker that read, “Age 17.”
I was shocked!
He, like so many other boys, lied about his age to get in for this “adventure to the Old World.”
A quick rewind of his story in my head suddenly made me realize that my 16-year-old son standing beside me was the same age as A.J. Blake when he enlisted. That stark fact brought the whole thing very close to home in a hurry.
How easily would I let my son today go off to war?
Needless to say, it turned into an overwhelming emotional moment that has stayed with me.
Our 11-day battlefield tour took us to many places through France and Belgium to recognize the cost of so many for our freedom: Vimy, Passchendaele, Ypres and Flanders, Dieppe, Normandy and the Atlantic Wall.
I wish every Canadian could see these places and feel the depth of sacrifice, and the gratitude and high regard with which Canada is still held.
I’m happy to have been able to pass A.J. Blake’s story and the story of all these great Canadians on to my son, the next generation, in an experiential way that will stay with him.
And I have never been prouder to be Canadian, and will always remember the first meeting with a member of my family I never knew, but found in the fields of France, who gave all for his country.
Lest we forget.
By Chris Woodland
Chris Woodland is a Barrie resident.