Sunday, March 27, 2011

Moreuil Wood Saga (Part 3)

Willoughby’s solitary remains were undisturbed for sixty-eight years, until they were revealed by Jean-Paul’s plow in 1986. Having discovered the body, and knowing little about the Canadian connection, Jean-Paul duly contacted the local authorities. The body was collected and removed for reburial. The plowing and other farm chores carried on, but Jean-Paul couldn’t put J. J. Willoughby out of his mind. Who was this Canadian, so long resting in an unmarked grave on the rolling hills of Picardy?
Jean-Paul Brunel had some sense of history. His grandmother had told him stories about when she was a young woman during World War One, driving a vehicle to carry soldiers to the front. He knew the village of Moreuil had been flattened, battered to heaps of rubble by German artillery, leaving but one building barely standing. Jean-Paul had a soft spot for Canadians fostered by early travels when he met several in youth hostels. He respected the sacrifices of Canadians who had fought and died in France in two world wars to protect the French and French soil.
Jean-Paul tried to trace Willoughby’s descendants in Canada, but was unsuccessful. As the years went by, Jean-Paul got on with his life. But he kept the Willoughby artifacts close, safe in storage in his office. The regimental badge, the spur, the live ammunition tugged at him, reminding him of unanswered questions. Slowly, his interest in the battles of the First War grew.

In order to mark the spot where he had discovered the remains of trooper Willoughby, Jean-Paul set up a moving memorial. Located at the side of his field, it backs onto a corner of Moreuil Wood within feet of ancient shellholes and trenches. Facing the field are reproductions of paintings of the Canadian cavalry, mounted to form a cross. Rusted British and German helmets are hung either side, with the bulk of the installation made up of native rock and wicked-looking unexploded munitions.

In 2004 his interest accelerated. Friends and fellow amateur historians had organized a memorial to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. They erected and dedicated a cairn a mile from Moreuil Wood. In attendance were representatives of the present-day Fort Garry Horse, one of the regiments that had been part of the Brigade. Jean-Paul was invited, as the man who had discovered Willoughby’s remains, to take part in the ceremony. In a solemn and emotional moment for Jean-Paul the Garrys, walking the route of the long-ago Brigade, came upon Willoughby’s memorial at the edge of Jean-Paul’s field—and saluted.

In 2007 a Yap Films crew interviewed Jean-Paul for an hour-long documentary, “Man & Horse”, which dealt with the Canadian cavalry in general and Willoughby in particular. In the course of researching for the production, the crew discovered living members of  Willoughby’s family, including his great nephew, John James Willoughby of Drayton Valley, Alberta. Yap Films took the younger Willoughby to France to show him where his great-uncle fought and died. In an emotional scene Jean-Paul Brunel came face-to-face with the namesake of the cavalryman whose memory he had worked so hard to preserve. The film crew presented Jean-Paul with a Lord Strathcona’s Horse jacket and cap, which he wears proudly to historical functions.

The French farmer has become a crusader for recognition of Canadian sacrifices on behalf of the people of Moreuil. In 2008 he established “Historial de Moreuil”, a society to study and memorialize the efforts of the Canadians and the battles that surrounded the town in the Great War.


Anonymous said...

Je viens de visioner a la tele. cette histoire
du soldat willoughby. Bravo Jean-Paul pour cette decouverte.Le Canada et la France est une relation special.Merci
Si j'ai la chance j'aimerai voir le site.

Robert Mackay said...

Canada and France will always have a special relationship for so many reasons.

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