A soldier who died long ago at Vimy Ridge is being remembered by a Tappen family.
Mark McMillen was wandering through the headstones at the Tappen Cemetery about six years ago and noticed that some of the gravesites were decorated with flowers or small solar lights.
But one gravestone appeared to have received no attention.
McMillen was deeply touched by the inscription on the aging granite: “William Edley Bethel Born May 5, 1896. Enlisted April 7, 1916. Killed in action at Vimy Ridge April 9, 1917.”
“I got to thinking that Vimy was such a waste,” he said of the nightmarish four-day battle in which the Allies took the ridge in northern France.
The Canadian Encyclopedia describes it as a “stunning but costly victory” that left 3,598 Canadians dead and another 7,000 wounded. Bethel was killed on the first day.
On Nov. 11 six years ago, McMillen took his oldest granddaughter, Elsie Malashewsky, to the cemetery where they planted a Canadian flag at Bethel’s headstone.
“I told her what this young fellow was trying to do in the war,” he said of the then seven-year-old. “I don’t know if she comprehended much, but the next year she asked me about the flag and we went and did it again.”
It has become an annual tradition with the now 13-year-old Elsie and her younger siblings James Malashewsky, who is nine, and seven-year-old Lucia Malashewsky accompanying their grandfather to the gravesite.
McMillen said he believes children should understand the ramifications of war and how men and women sacrificed themselves in order for Canadians to live in freedom.
He believes in honouring this man in a solitary grave far from the place where he died and has often wondered about his life.
Salmon Arm military historian Harry Welton said Bethel enlisted in Manitoba and was buried in France, but had no explanation as to why there is a headstone in the Tappen Cemetery.
An amateur genealogist with a membership with Ancestry.com conducted further investigation, discovering that Bethel was born in Nottinghamshire, England and emigrated to Canada with his family in March 1898. His parents, Robert and Susan Bethel, settled in Tappen.
Research on the genealogical website also unearthed photos of Bethel in uniform and one with his 16th Battalion.
According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Bethel enlisted in the Canadian Infantry Manitoba Regiment at the age of 20. He is listed on page 201 of the First World War Book of Remembrance.
He is buried at the cemetery at the Vimy Memorial, which is considered to be Canada’s most impressive tribute overseas to Canadians who fought and gave their lives in the First World War.
Inscribed on the ramparts of the Vimy Memorial are the names of more than 11,000 Canadian soldiers who were posted as ‘missing, presumed dead’ in France
Glad to have gained some knowledge of the young man who died so long ago, McMillen said he will continue the annual tradition on Nov. 11 and will make sure his grandchildren know about Bethel and the sacrifice he made.
“Next year they might get a better grip of what we’re trying to get in their heads,” said McMillen, noting that while Canadians don’t go looking for war, they can fight with the best of them when called upon. “As a Canadian, it doesn’t come out until you need it and sometimes you don’t even recognize it in yourself, but we’re scrappers.”
A proud Canadian who travelled much of the world as a deckhand, McMillen has seen the best and worst other countries have to offer.
“You certainly come home from a lot of places with a different attitude and realize we have it so good.”