A town in the Netherlands, named Holten, is home to a cemetery where 1393 Canadian soldiers who fought in the World War I rest in peace.
A Holten man named Gerry VanHolt started the “Face for Every Name” project, where he hoped to gather photos and biographical information about each soldier resting in the cemetery.
The Canadian side of this project is run by Mike Muntain. Born in Blackfalds, the piper with the Princess of Wales’ Own Regiment Pipe and Drum band, Muntain now lives in Kingston, Ont.
When he contacted this reporter in early March, he had only been working on the project for two months and had been warned at the outset to not get his hopes up.
“I hoped to get 100 done by Nov. 11,” Muntain explained. “I was told I’d be lucky if I got 10.”
Muntain hit the 100 mark in April, and now just days away from Remembrance Day, has more than 1,000 biographies and 700 photos of the soldiers who now make their final home in Holten.
Those details now reside in a database that can be called up on special computer kiosks at the centre adjacent to the cemetery.
Tourists, local residents and students from nearby schools visit the resting place for Canadian soldiers on an annual basis, drawn to the rows of silent gravestones by the sacrifices made by the people they represent.
Known in the family as “Uncle Johnny,” Dwight Earl Welch of Erskine, central Alberta, is one of the soldiers listed in the database. He was greatly loved by everyone, including a nephew who wrote to Muntain after he heard about the effort.
“He’s one of the first guys that I really got to know well, through his family’s stories,” Muntain said.
Welch was just short of his 23rd birthday, when he was captured in Dieppe, France. He was held in captivity at a prison camp in Meiningen, Germany. A short span later, he was admitted to the hospital and died four days later during surgery. The cause of death was listed as septicaemia.
“He should not even have been on the Dieppe Raid,” wrote Welch’s nephew, Douglas Earl Welch, in an email. “(He) threatened to transfer to another regiment if he was not allowed to accompany his ‘buddies’ on the raid.”
He received a citation for his bravery in action, where under intense fire, he helped drag two men to safety, despite being wounded himself.
Muntain explained that as the project has progressed, he’s felt more and more like these are people he knew in his own life – and he’s increasingly glad to be part of the project.
It has been 30 years since VanHolt started his work to honour the Canadian soldiers interred at Holten. Every Christmas eve, there’s a special ceremony at the cemetery where local residents head out to keep the soldiers company, so the fallen aren’t alone on such a special day.
A few months after adding Welch’s photo and story into the database, VanHolt passed away.
“I wish he could see the closure this project has brought so many people,” Muntain said, citing as an example the misspelled gravestone of Guy McKnight. The soldier’s tombstone read MacKnight, but no matter the efforts of his family it had not been corrected.
When his 86-year-old cousin, who had been close to McKnight, found out the stone was being replaced with the proper spelling, he burst into tears.
“If the adage ‘A man lives as long as he is remembered’ is true, the people of Holten make sure that, for ‘their Canadians,’ their name lives forever,” Muntain said.