Sunday, March 20, 2011

Moreuil Wood Saga (Part 1)

The day dawned clear and bright as French farmer Jean-Paul Brunel prepared for a day’s plowing. He drove his tractor to a field atop a ridge near Moreuil Wood. To the south was the forest, still pockmarked amongst the beech trees by remnants of shell holes from seventy years before. Just visible to the northwest, the city of Amiens caught the early morning light. Rolling hills of the Picardy countryside stretched away east; to the west, the land sloped downhill to the broad, shallow valley of the Avre River and the village of Moreuil. The pastoral scene belied the blood-soaked history of the area for it was here that the Canadian Cavalry Brigade fought a desperate battle in World War One. History was about to intrude on M. Brunel.

Something caught his eye. He stopped his machine and climbed down. A boot, partially rotted and battered, but clearly a boot, was exposed. With a bone still in it. Jean-Paul marked the spot and returned later with a shovel and mattock. It was not unknown for the detritus of war to be heaved to the surface of French fields after spring thaws. Unexploded shells, fragments of weapons, shrapnel—all are regularly recovered and tossed aside by the farmers. Sometimes even bodies.

But this time would be different.

On October 2nd, 1986, Jean-Paul’s mattock clanked against metal, and his searching fingers brushed mud off the remains of a change purse and small collection of coins. American, French, and Canadian coins. Further excavation turned up .303 ammunition, a spur, and buckles. Next came the skeletal remains of a body, along with a metal shoulder badge and identity disks. The remains now had a name—John James Willoughby. The shoulder badge identified Willoughby as a trooper of Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), one of three regiments that made up the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. Jean-Paul stood and gazed west, the direction from which Willoughby and the rest of the Brigade would have approached the ridge. He was taken off guard by a tear that trickled down his cheek.
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