Belgian grave-hunters solve 100-year-old mystery of missing First World War Canadian

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Belgian grave-hunters solve 100-year-old mystery of missing First World War Canadian airmen

Dirk Decuypere is a retired language teacher from a tiny village near the Belgian town of Ypres, a boneyard of a place full of fragments of dead soldiers, unexploded shells, spent bullets and blood from the Great War.

Decuypere grew up with the stories of his Grandpa, Jules, a veteran of the trenches, who spoke to him about mud and death and friends and loss of human life on an incomprehensible scale. Decuypere, in listening, was drawn to the stories of the individual soldier. As he grew older, he dug into archives in Belgium, Germany and England, feasted on local history books and war diaries and, in 2004, stumbled across a mystery he couldn’t shake while researching a German military cemetery near his home in the village of Geluwe.

“I became obsessed by it,” the 67-year-old Decuypere says from Belgium.

Listed among the dead in the cemetery register were three Canadian airmen who were shot down behind enemy lines. Two of the men were misidentified in the German records. The third, Lt. Arthur Metheral of Moose Jaw, Sask., was correctly named. The three Canadians were relocated to a Commonwealth cemetery in nearby Langemark in 1956. Metheral’s mother was still alive at the time, but the Canadian government neglected to inform her that her son’s original grave had been located — or that he had been moved. The two misidentified men, meanwhile, were reburied in graves marked: “Known unto God.” And there the three lost Canadians remained, loved by those who mourned them and misplaced by those who buried them until Dirk Decuypere encountered them and began a 13-year quest to “rescue their stories.”

“I needed to know what happened to these men,” he says.

He wasn’t the only one.

Claire Bennie Clark’s mother, Jane, adored her older brother, Bob Bennie. Jane was eight-years-old when Bob was shot down in Europe in June 1917, and a teenager in 1924 when her family traveled from Leamington, Ont., to France to look for his grave, without success. The story of that trip would be told and retold at family gatherings for decades to come.

“My uncle was never a distant memory,” Clark says. “He was very much a presence in our family.” Bob had been a big brother. He was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Pelee Island, Ont. He used his first paycheck to buy his mother, Ada, a crystal bowl that was a fixture on the family dinner table in Leamington. He rode a motorcycle. He went away to war and didn’t come back.

Decuypere found Bob in the war diary of a clergyman in Geluwe and in the report of a German officer from 1917. Lt. Robert Smith Bennie flew a Sopwith Strutter, a two-seater plane. His observer was Arthur Metheral of Moose Jaw. Bennie and Metheral were taking photos over Menin, Belgium, on June 5th, 1917 when 16 German fighters appeared.

“When they were shot down they jumped out of their burning aircraft,” says Decuypere. “In that moment, they had a choice — and they decided to jump together.”

Decuypere’s wife, Mieke, shares her husband’s passion for the stories of the dead. The couple spend their vacations cycling, walking and doing archival research. Decuypere is dedicated, but disorganized. He takes notes. Mieke reads — and tends to their files — a stack of papers that, in reference to the three Canadians at Langemark, currently measures a metre high.

“That doesn’t include all the emails,” Decuypere says.

The third missing Canadian flier materialized in another German war report. Lt. Lindsay Drummond was shot through the heart on the evening of May 18th, 1917. He was attacking a German observation balloon when the fatal bullet struck.

“The field where Drummond crashed, I know it,” Decuypere says. “I found an old German trench map, and so I could know that this is really where he fell.”

For five years, Decuypere and Mieke sifted through written accounts, eyeballed old photographs and plotted dots on maps, piecing together the fates of Bennie, Metheral and Drummond. They submitted their findings to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, judge and jury in the affairs of the dead. For a soldier who is “Known unto God” to be given a name and be known — after 100 years — is a delicate matter.

“In the past six months, the Canadians haven’t left my thoughts,” Decuypere admits. Finding the men wasn’t a hobby. It was something he needed to do. “A human life deserves to be kept for eternity.”

“The most important thing for me,” adds Mieke, “is the emotion that comes free — when you find somebody — and then you find their family.”

The Decuyperes’ findings were confirmed (finally) by the CWGC on February 9, 2017. After 13 years of searching, the search was at an end. Now a reunion in Belgium is in the offing, featuring three Canadian families that have never met and the remarkable Belgian couple who brought them together by solving a puzzle — pro bono — from their respective pasts.

“This is a journey we would never have taken without Dirk,” says Mary Ann Bertrand, Metheral’s great-niece.

Decuypere and Mieke are hosting nine descendants of the dead men for dinner at their home in Geluwe on May 17. Mieke is planning a menu of cold salmon, fresh vegetables and chips.

“Probably with some Belgian beer and French wine,” she says, “because we live right next to the French border.”

Claire Bennie Clark has an old family diary detailing the pilgrimage the Bennies made to the battlefields in 1924 to search for their son and sibling. She plans to retrace the steps that her mother once took, only this time with a different outcome.

“What Dirk has done for our family is life changing,” Clark says, her voice breaking.

The morning after the dinner, Bob Bennie and Lindsay Drummond’s new headstones will be unveiled at the cemetery, while two new monuments will be dedicated to the three Canadians in Geluwe.

Dignitaries are invited. The families have been asked to say a few words. Dirk and Mieke Decuypere will be there.

“You see the effort, 100 years ago, of the Bennie family, trying to find their son,” Decuypere says. “How couldn’t I have put in the effort now, to give these men a known grave?”

The loss rates of airmen in the First World War were staggering. The life expectancy of a new pilot in the conflict was a matter of weeks. And those were the ones who had survived the training, which claimed half the fatalities.

It was not helped by the ignoramuses who ran the Allied Flying Corps, beginning with the criminally incompetent Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Supreme Commander, who denied parachutes to airmen so that they would pushed to the last full measure in dogfights. (It's what happens when you give command to laundry and canteen officers, lifers, bureaucrats.. keepers of lists and inventories).

There were reliable parachutes at the time and Germans gave them to their pilots. That would have saved the lives of Lt. Robert Smith and Lt. Arthur Metherel who had to make the decision to jump or burn and could have lived to fight another day.