Remembering Pte. H.W. Keene

I suffer from a syndrome that compels me to take the road less travelled. So, when I needed to chose a WWI veteran to feature for an undergrad assignment, I knew it would be an interesting path. Being that our professor, Dr. Tom Hamilton showed such passion, disappointing him with a mediocre effort wasn’t an option. I had to tell someone’s story. But it had to be the right one.

There is no shortage of Canadian war heros. We all know their names – Currie, Bishop, McCrea, Byng – men who left their marks on the war and our nation. But they are the obvious choices. There are entire books dedicated to telling their stories so that we never forget them.  But that was the problem, their stories were already being told. And plenty of students were able to research  members of their families. I didn’t really have this option.

And so I went in search of a story to tell.

And that’s when I found Harry. There was so little information about Pte. Harry William Keene that I was tempted to find someone else. And then a series of relatable pieces of Harry’s life became intwined with mine. Harry was killed in the Battle of Amiens. I had visited Amiens. He was 27 when he died. I was 27 at the time. And he died on August 8, 1918. My brother was born on August 8th.

The reason so little is known about Harry is because he was a young man, who hadn’t yet started a family of his own. Those who remembered him were adults and soon they too were gone. There was no one to tell Harry’s story. I had to pass on what little I knew about the man because he deserved to be remembered.

So, my presentation was comprised of the little I knew. It wasn’t about getting a good grade any more. It was that Harry deserved to be remembered and I couldn’t find it in my heart to put him back on the shelf. Most people would have just chosen someone else.

That was nearly 4 years ago but Harry has remained in my thoughts. With his grave being just a short distance from the Vimy Ridge Memorial, Colin and I set out to find it. We had ordered room service in our posh hotel room that morning as a treat, and with a view to getting out of town quickly in the morning, with extra bits to pack away for lunch time. We had GPS, maps and the directions from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It was getting close to 3pm when we left Vimy.

Our GPS told us Caix didn’t exist. Lovely. Thanks technology. The maps kept us going for a while – then the road ended – and no where near Caix. It was nearing 6. We were on a back road somewhere in Northern France and my heart was breaking because I feared we wouldn’t find it in time and I knew we must be so close. We had to be on a train to Paris that evening and we needed to get the rental car back.

But that’s the thing with Harry. He doesn’t let you give up. It’s the reason why he was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal. So I made a final attempt to get the GPS to see sense. It sprang to life with a set of directions. And we had just enough time to make it!

Caix is a tiny village. And the final resting place for hundreds of soldiers who were killed in World War I. The Caix British Cemetery is tucked in the corner of town, adjacent to a farmer’s field. And we had found it.

Seeing Harry’s gave, I was overcome with emotion. I sat on the ground, traced the letters on his grave marker and I cried. I was so thankful that we hadn’t given up and guilt-stricken because our travels hadn’t left me time to bring flowers. I assume that Harry hasn’t had a lot of visitors, and that time will bring even fewer. Sadly, the guestbook was missing and we couldn’t leave a record of our visit. Being able to visit Harry’ s grave left its mark on me though.

And I will keep remembering him.


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