Diana Beaupre and Adrian Watkinson have a peculiar retirement lifestyle. The British seniors spend their golden years combing through cemeteries. They walk among century-old headstones. They’re looking for Canadians.
“Some of these people, I believe, have been forgotten,” Beaupre said.
More than 9,000 Canadian soldiers, killed during the First and Second World Wars, are buried across the U.K. Many made it back from the front lines, but died of their injuries. And with their families back in Canada, they often never received a proper burial.
“Many of them are buried in ones and twos in the most remote locations, tiny churchyards, the length and breadth of the UK,” Diana said. “We know all these Canadians are here, but no one has ever catalogued them properly [or] visited all of graves across the U.K.”
Beaupre’s reasons for wanting to find and document Canadian war graves are deeply personal.
She was born in England, but recently discovered her real father was French-Canadian.
Paul Beaupre served in the Second World War. While he was based in England, he and Beaupre’s mother had an affair. She only learned the truth in 2001, when she found a box hidden in her mother’s closet containing photographs of her father.
Diana tracked down his extended family members in Canada and a DNA test confirmed the relation. But, no one knew where her father was buried.
“There was no headstone. No marker. Nothing,” she said. “And the feeling I had was that he’d been forgotten.”
She soon discovered her father wasn’t the only soldier whose final resting place was unknown.
Terry Denham runs the ‘In From the Cold Project,’ a group of volunteers tasked with finding thousands of lost war graves across the U.K. After the First and Second World Wars, he said, there were 244 Canadian soldiers whose grave sites were unknown.
“I would say probably three-quarters of them have unmarked graves — there’s just nothing,” Denham said. “So not only are they missing their proper commemoration, there’s nothing there for future generations to visit, to signify that this guy did something important 100 years ago.”
“It almost seemed immoral,” said Beaupre, who decided a couple of years ago to become a full-time “grave hunter.”
The coffee table at the her and Watkinson’s country home in Canterbury is buried under century-old clues: death certificates and military records collected from churches and libraries across the country.
The sparse details of a soldier’s life and death help them narrow-in on the Canadian’s last-known location. Then they do the legwork, trudging through fields or churchyards looking for any sign of a grave.
“We could be the first visitors they’ve had from the time they were buried,” she surmises.
As a result of their efforts, and with help from other volunteers, the list of missing Canadians from the First World War is way down — from 44 to just three. Each grave they find is registered. It receives a commemorative headstone and a promise from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to look after it forever.
“The best thing is being able to tell the family back in Canada, ‘Yes, we found your great-uncle,'” Beaupre said with a grin. “These soldiers, they died far from home, but we feel like we’re bringing them home.”
And one grave they found hits particularly close to home: Diana’s father.
She discovered his grave — not in the UK — but in Quebec. The grave site has now received its own commemorative headstone and, like all the others they find, a tiny Canadian flag planted next to it.
“Just to say to them, ‘Look, you’re not forgotten,” said Watkinson. “You may be far from home, but you’re certainly not forgotten.”
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