Soldiers from Montreal’s Black Watch regiment marched Saturday through the streets of Wallers, France, returning to the French village their regiment liberated a century ago.
The village issued an invitation to the regiment to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
In October 1918, German artillery was set up on the western part of the city to hold back Allied forces. The German troops were eventually pushed back, but not before setting several buildings on fire during their retreat.
After four years of occupation, local residents greeted the Canadian soldiers as heroes.
To commemorate the anniversary, the Black Watch regiment sent a contingent of 100 past and serving members.
“To walk in the footsteps of those who came before us, whether in the Black Watch or other regiments, it’s moving,” said Eric Booth, a former Black Watch reservist. “It’s moving. The people have made us feel very welcome.”
Booth’s grandfather wasn’t in the same regiment, but did move through the same village in 1918. Private J.W. Thresh served with the 22nd Battery of the Royal Canadian Artillery.
One of the stories Booth says his grandfather shared was how he found out the war had ended. The morning of November 11th, 1918, Thresh had climbed a hill of mining tailings to get a view of the area. When he came down, he ran into a young local woman.
“The miner’s daughter looked up at him and said ‘la guerre c’est fini’: the war is over,” Booth said.
The village was decked out in Canadian red and white for the occasion. Part of the parade route was under Canadian flag banners.
About 200 local residents turned out, including a local hockey team that’s preparing for a trip to Quebec City’s upcoming PeeWee tournament.
The day’s events started with a wreath-laying at a monument dedicated to local soldiers, but then moved to the town square in front of a church for speeches about Canada’s role in the liberation.
Rene Gonnez says he attended to thank Canadians personally.
“It’s to honour Canadians,” said Gonnez. “That’s very important.”
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One member of the Black Watch regiment contingent was American Hugh Gemmell. The United States didn’t enter the First World War until 1917, and Gemmell’s grandfather turned to Canada for an opportunity to fight. Willam Gemmell joined the Canadian military and served with regiment. After the war, he returned to the US.
Gemmell never met his grandfather, who died in 1938 at just 45 years old.
“He was sick after he got back from the war,” Gemmell said. “He died young, like a lot of them did.”
There was also a dedication to a fallen Black Watch soldier. A street in Wallers has been named after Corporal Hugh Gray, killed by a German mortar shell just days before the signing of the Armistice that ended the war.
Gray made it through the village and was on a reconnaissance patrol alone. The street where he was killed is now called “Rue Caporal H. Gray.”