Remembrance Day: Peter Burn 1898-1918

4 11 2013

DSCF0404Peter Burn 1898-1918 (2)

What does Remembrance Day mean? For me, it is a time to reflect on how war can take so much away from us. In the summer, my son, James, and I visited my great uncle Peter Burn’s grave in Bouzincourt, France. Bouzincourt is a village 30 kilometres northeast of Amiens, France, and is six kilometres north of the small city of Albert. The area was hotly contested, both during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and during the German Spring Offensive in 1918. My uncle was a private in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and died in action on April 22, 1918, near Bouzincourt. He was killed along with two cousins and an uncle, by a German artillery shell. Another uncle survived the shellfire, but was physically and mentally scarred for life.DSCF0423

Bouzincourt is an isolated community, where few visitors pass through. We rented a car in Arras, a city to the north of the village, as there are no public transportation services for the place. I managed to find the village, where my son and I went to a very quiet little cafe. A kind, older lady made me a coffee and gave James a biscuit to eat with his hot chocolate. Next, we found the community cemetery. I told James the row and number for Peter Burn’s grave, and he ran to find it within a minute. “Dad! I found it!” he informed me, and I made my way over. I could not have prepared myself for the moment when I saw the headstone. I covered my mouth with my hand and quietly intoned, “Oh, my God. . . !” We put flowers, which I had bought in Arras, onto the grave, and I spoke some words, saying who we were and why we had visited. I told Peter that he had not been forgotten. We stayed around the cemetery for over an hour, and I repeatedly returned to Peter Burn’s headstone. I found it hard to leave the lonely site. I looked around, and thought about the 95 years that had passed since he was killed. So many changes of seasons, so many events passed. I realized that my son and I were the only family members who had ever visited him. My gramp, William Burn, had tried to reach Bouzincourt but never made it (due to its isolated location). Here Peter had lain, in this remote place, with no visitors, for so long. I was grateful that I had made the effort to get to his graveside. I was so saddened to think that he was just 19 when he perished. Peter had finished school, turned 18, and then went to war. A short life; a tragically short story. Did he ever get to experience the love of a girlfriend? What were his dreams that never came true? What had he wanted to do with his life? Why did he have to die, in a war that took so many young lives like his? In a letter he wrote home, two days before he died, Peter noted he knew his father was worried about him. He reported he had heard that the French and Americans were pushing back in the face of the German offensive and he hoped that there would be a breakthrough, to bring the war to an end. He mentioned he had seen 20 tanks the day before, and lamented that food packages from home had had to be stopped due to the dangers of getting them to the front lines. It was the last letter his parents got from him, and the second last communication. The last was a card noting he was doing alright, on the day before his death. On this coming Remembrance Day, I will certainly be thinking of Peter Burn during the moment of silence. I will also be recalling my grandfather, William Burn, a member of the Gordon Highlanders, who was lucky to survive the slaughter of the Great War.