Gallery: Family connection brings First World War back to life

The Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge.

The Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge. - Credit: Archant

I love history, and I’ve been fascinated by all the centenary events to mark the First World War, but I’ve always felt slightly detached from it . . . until now.

My grandfather did fight in the war – he was gassed near its end – but the only time he ever talked to me about his early life he told me he came nearer death when he caught the flu in 1919 than he did in the war!

He died in 1980 at the age of 82. I wasn’t aware of any direct family link with the conflict until the EADT published its roll of honour in August to mark the centenary of the start of the war.

I flicked through it to see if I could find a Geater. There were none in Leiston, where my family had lived, but there was one on the war memorial in Theberton, just outside the town – and coincidentally the village in which I was born.

No-one in my family seemed to know where Arthur William Geater fitted into the family tree (I must confess I’ve never really been that keen on genealogy) but I was fascinated. We later discovered he was my grandfather’s first cousin.

What was more interesting was that he was in the Canadian Infantry, 85th Battalion. He died on June 26, 1917 and his name is recorded at the Vimy Ridge memorial just outside Arras in northern France.

I joined a delegation from Ipswich to its twin city of Arras to mark Armistice Day. On our way home the following day we stopped off at Vimy Ridge – the site of one of the fiercest battles of the war.

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Vimy Ridge was a crucial battle. The ridge itself has huge strategic importance. From the foot of the breath-taking monument you can see the French cities of Lens and Lille in front of you – and Belgium on the horizon.

The battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 was one of the most important of the war – and Canadian troops took a leading role in it.

Before Vimy Ridge, Canadians were seen as members of the British Empire Forces.

After the battle their tenacity was recognised and they were universally seen as Canadians first and foremost.

The national memorial to Canadian forces of the First World War is at Vimy Ridge and is an astonishing creation of two columns rising over the escarpment.

Around its base are carved the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who died in the war – but have no known grave. Arthur Geater is one of them. He died on June 26 1917 – but the place of death is not recorded. The battle for Vimy Ridge was in April of that year, however fighting continued in that part of France until the following year.

Arthur had emigrated to Canada a few years before the start of the war. That was not uncommon among Canadian soldiers – about 60% of those who came over the Atlantic to fight in the war had been born in Britain.

As Suffolk-based war expert Taff Gillingham explained to me before we left, those who had recently emigrated felt a much stronger pull to the “old country” than second or third-generation Canadians.

Vimy Ridge is today officially part of Canada and is administered by the Canadian National Parks department.

As well as the memorial and cemeteries on the 250-acre site there is also evidence of battle all around. The land was churned up by artillery and a new invention – Vimy Ridge was one of the first tank battles in history.

There are craters all over the place and the forest has reclaimed much of the land.

Trenches have been preserved in concrete to give visitors a taste of life in the ground – although without the mud and water it is not perhaps completely authentic.

And the grassy areas are kept tidy by a flock of sheep. There is still a huge number of unexploded shells in the ground and it is too dangerous for men on lawnmowers to cut the grass.

In earlier decades sheep were quite often blown up while grazing – although it is apparently several years since there have been any sheep explosions!

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