My grandfather and his brother both served in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces during the First World War. My grandfather was wounded and his brother was killed. This past summer, on the hundredth anniversary of the start of the war, my family – parent Edmond Sr. and Letitia Valin, my wife Lisa Charette and my children Madeleine and Genevieve Valin – travelled to France to visit the grave of my great-uncle for the first time.
We knew little about their military experiences before we left. My father said my grandfather rarely spoke about the war or his brother. To help us learn more, we obtained their personal services files from Library and Archives Canada. What we uncovered brought to light a family history we thought was lost.
According to his service file, my grandfather, George Edward Valin, left his job as a clerk at the Post Office in 1916, and signed up with the 159th Battalion, a unit that recruited men from the North Bay and Sudbury region. He was 22 years old. He joined his younger brother, Michael Leslie Valin, who had signed up in the same battalion a few months earlier. Together they sailed overseas on the S.S. Empress of Britain to train in England. By May 1917, both men were in France serving on the Western Front in the Canadian Machine Gun Corps.
On July 27, 1917, my grandfather was wounded by a German mortar shell near the town of Lens, France. His service file indicates he suffered a broken leg and a “severe flesh wound” with shrapnel in both his legs. He would spend the next eight months in hospital in England before he was discharged from the army because of “physical unfitness.” His superiors referred to his “very good” character in his final evaluation.
My grandfather returned to Canada, settled in East York, married late in life and had a family. But he would spend the rest of his life in discomfort. He had a slight limp and the shrapnel wounds in his legs would sometimes ooze puss. He died in 1964 at the age of 70.
Michael Leslie Valin continued to serve after his older brother returned home. He was hospitalized twice over the next year from wounds suffered in the field. It’s unclear where he served during this period because the handwritten entries in his service file are hard to decipher. An entry on Sept. 19, 1918, noted that he returned to his unit after a bout of bronchitis. He would die 10 days later at the Battle of Canal du Nord.
The Battle of Canal du Nord took place near the French town of Cambrai between Sept. 27 and Oct. 1, 1918. It was part of a larger Allied assault to push the Germans out of France in the waning days of the First World War. The Allies were mostly successful but the casualty rate was high. On Sept. 29, as Canadian Forces faced bitter fighting, Private Michael Leslie Valin was killed in action. He was 22 years old.
His service file doesn’t contain a record of what killed him or how his family was notified of his death. There is, however, a footnote about his pay records. It says Michael Leslie Valin was paid $15 a month while he fought overseas. The money went to his mother back home. An entry in his file shows that a year after his death, his estate was notified of an overpayment, and his mother had to repay $15.
My great-uncle is buried at the Triangle Cemetery, on the outskirts of the French village of Inchy-en-Artois, near where the battle took place. The small, triangle-shaped cemetery sits at the edge of a farmer’s field, surrounded by a low brick wall. A total of 90 Canadian and Allied soldiers are buried here. It’s a two hour drive from Paris.
The cemetery is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They care for thousands of similar cemeteries around the world.
The cemetery was empty the day we visited in June. We were alone except for the occasional car that passed by on the country road. The cemetery grass was green and neat. My daughters raced to be first to find the grave. They found him in the back row nearest the triangle point. His headstone looked like all the others, but his was inscribed with his name, rank, age and the date he died.
We gathered around it and gave thanks. My father thought of his own father and the questions he never asked him. We thought about the other young men buried here and wondered about those who may never have had a visitor.
But mostly we thought of my great-uncle and his sacrifice. We had come to honour a man we had never met, but had come to know, in a small way, in the notes left in a file 100 years ago. And we were glad we could make the trip together as a family.
My father left this note at the grave:
“Michael Leslie Valin, who lies here, died of his wounds just days before the war ended. His brother (and my father) George Edward Valin survived injuries in the same war and went on to have a family late in life. Family members gather here today to remember them and to honour their service.”
Edmond Valin Sr.
Ed Valin Jr. and his family are longtime Beach residents.