Cemeteries in France and Belgium
I am somewhat in the position tonight that many of us have been when going on a trip and the good wife suggests taking along one or two extra ten dollar bills because you may run a little short. You know as well as I that a few extra ten dollar bills come in very handy in case you want to take a little further trip and in this instance when the convention program was being laid out we decided to have a few more papers in an emergency and I said to Mr. Rutherford when he asked me, "All right, put me down for Cemeteries in France and Belgium.
I spent quite a little time in visiting cemeteries in France and Belgium and I said, "If necessary and you run short I will crowd it in and if not cut me out." I will say a few words in connection with the cemeteries of France and Belgium and I will not take more than ten minutes at the very outside.
I spent two years in France. I might say that we used the term overseas France, whether we meant Belgium or France. During the years 1916-1917 and early part of 1918 we controlled so little of Belgium that for strategical reasons and for government reason we cut out the use of the word "Belgium" absolutely, because in the case of the enemy getting hold of any of our mail and the enemy finding out where certain units were located, consequently we heard so little of Belgium and heard so much of France, that the word Belgium was cut out entirely during the war and was called France and if a letter was intercepted by the enemy addressed to the 205th or 86th Machine Gun or Infantry, etc. and it was addressed "France" they would not be any the wiser whether up on the North Sea or whether in the Ypres sailent or where. I spent nine months in the Ypres sailent during all that time. I spent considerable time up on the North Sea and down on the Somme twice and as a member of the Hamilton Cemetery Board or Hamilton Cemetery Commission for a number of years previous to going overseas, I was naturally interested in cemeteries.
There was a very, very strong interest among the boys when they got into the rear areas or the heavy shell fire was over, and there was some cemetery in the neighborhood, to go and see what graves they could find; cemeteries in fields, roadsides, hillsides and everywhere; quite a few cemeteries where the clearing stations were. The casualty clearing stations were near the front line where they distributed them to the various hospitals and various sanctions further in the rear and there was a cemetery everywhere where there was a casualty clearing station, depending on the size and according to the length of time these casualty clearing stations remained there.
Naturally we Canadians always had a friendly feeling for the Yankee. We met fellows from Dixie and we used to shoot craps. We met the boys from New England and the West and we generally used to go through the cemeteries to see if we could find the graves of some of our boys. The cemeteries in France and Belgium are not of the same class that we find in this country. Only here recently as superintendent of the local cemetery I had occasion to refuse a woman's request. The woman said, "Now, I would like to place on my boy's grave a beautiful large glass case with a bird in there, a pigeon with spread wings” and she said, “I would like to place that on his grave" and I said, "My dear woman, I am very very sorry you cannot place that on the grave; it is prohibited in the Hamilton cemetery." I said. "It would not be there more than a week before it is broken." "Oh” she said, "I have provided against that; I have a wire cage to go over it.” I said, “Good night, nurse.” Worse, "this is not a museum, it is a cemetery."
Now in France and Belgium in the cemeteries in the rear areas you find wax flowers and imitation flowers and all sort of glass cases and you almost imagine you are in a museum rather than a cemetery and in almost all of those cemeteries where they had roads laid out on the side, roads perhaps that were not traveled very much; the soldiers were buried everywhere in those cemeteries, around the outskirts, that they had never anticipated using for burial purposes. The soldiers were buried everywhere around the cemeteries.
I remember once in the Ypres sailent I was hurt. I was taken to the casualty clearing station. When I was taken there I was on stretcher for 48 hours. They began to carry me into the place and I saw on the door N. Y. D. I could not understand it, the initials and the fellows were trying to carry me in. There is one saying here in Hamilton as long as you do not go feet first up York Street you are all right. York Street is the street leading up to the cemetery. They could not get me through the door on this stretcher and they said, "Take me in feet first," and I said "Good night." I said, "What is that N. Y. D.?" They said, "Not yet dead," and I thought-Well, I am going in feet first and I am not yet dead. I made inquiries after what that N. Y. D. meant and they told me it was, "Not yet diagnosed," but the fellow told me it was "Not yet dead."
From there they took me to another clearing station in France and from there to a hospital where I stayed a certain number of' weeks until I recovered and went back to my unit, and I met a large number of American soldiers that came over to the hospital and I tell you we were delighted and pleased to have the boys come over and cooperate. I remember near this hospital one day I met a few Yanks and they were as happy as they could be and I said, "Why so happy, Buddy?" and they said, "Oh, going over the top at 6 o'clock." "Why are you so happy?" He said, "The Canucks are on the left flank and the Jocks are on the right" -the Jocks are the Scotch-and they said, "We are not afraid; we are going over on the center and Canucks on the right side and Jocks on the left."
I might say a word in connection with the removal of bodies that might be of interest to you people-in regard to removing the boys back and bringing them home for burial. It is almost an insurmountable task and almost an absolute impossibility. In the early days they began to bury them in rough pine boxes. A little later on the deaths were so numerous that they buried them in blankets, and I made up my mind I would never tell the public some of the things I saw. I have seen them buried in trenches in blankets just the same as you would be piling cordwood, head to head, feet to feet and burying them.
Take the grave registration unit. I have seen them clear the fields after a battle, have had an entire battalion strung along perhaps a mile and a half or two in platoons, and as the commanding officer gave the word they took their stretcher and marched on and picked up their dead and carried them to a certain spot-Germans buried in one big long trench and Allies in another, but every spot marked by their charts and maps, and yet it would be an absolute impossibility to identify these people. Why, in the construction battalion I was transferred to later on, when we were putting our roads up there to take up ammunition and take up guns, why, many a time in putting our roads in there we ran across chaps who had fallen in the fray, chaps who had been shot down by either high explosive shrapnel or machine gun fire, and all we could do was simply remove from their wrist the identification disk and bury them where they were and make a wooden cross and put it up, and there were thousands buried on the roadsides and everywhere, and we find in France that there have been occasions where a cross was put up "Unknown French soldier buried here," and later on they found there was a German buried in that grave.
I will tell you why the French Government and our British War Graves Commission are opposed to removing these bodies. It would be unfair to the thousands of people who are unable to have that body exhumed and brought back, and in many instances they may bring back some body that may not be the right body. Consequently our War Graves Commission and the French Government is absolutely opposed to the removal of those bodies. I have seen some cemeteries, large and small that were shelled up. Talk about trenches and shell holes: you would be surprised. Without exaggeration, some of those very high explosive shells would put a hole there that, I was going to say, you could put this building inside. I have seen them try all sorts of things to try and fill up these shell holes, and finally had to build around them in order to get our ammunition or our supplies up, and I have seen cemeteries so thoroughly shelled, so thoroughly broken up, that it would be an absolute impossibility to exhume and remove these bodies to this country.
After fourteen months in France I got my first leave, and to some of you here who don't know me, I for many years was what was known as a labor organizer. I know the United States pretty well and have handled strikes in all parts of the United States as well as Canada in the last twenty years.
When President Gompers was in London-I know Sam pretty well-I have been to his home in Washington and he has been to my home here. I was on leave from France and I went down to the hotel to meet President Gompers. He said that Admiral Sims is here and I went with Sam Gompers and he introduced me to the Admiral himself and to Mr. Page----not the Page who was Ambassador to Britain, but the Ambassador to Italy. He said, "Mr. Page, I want to introduce you to Sam Landers, American Canuck," and the Ambassador took a step or two back and he said, "American Canuck, what do you mean by American Canuck?" "Well" I said, "I have a father in Brooklyn, New York; I have a brother in Boston, a brother in Los Angeles and my wife was in Seattle and I was born in New York City." He said, "You are not a Canuck, you are a Yankee. What are you doing in the Canadian army?" "I have been in Hamilton, Ontario, for thirty-five years." I was born in the United States, although I lived in Hamilton long enough to be a Canadian.
I want to say one thing about this convention in conclusion: You have one man to thank for the success of this convention. That man has a pull with old Sol, he is a man in touch with the meteorological department, and we appointed him as a committee to look after the weather and if you want good weather, look for Fred Rutherford.
From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 34th Annual Convention held at Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
September 7, 8, 9 and 10, 1920