I started this blog looking to find a trace of my family in Tanzania. Now, seven months later, I’ve found a blood relative in France.
Frank Bicknell was my great grandmother’s brother. He grew up in Huntingdon, a small farming community in Quebec. He trained to be a house painter, just like his father James. Frank’s mother died when he was a toddler. James remarried a woman named Ida, who later died in childbirth. Frank’s father then married Ida’s sister, Lucy. I don’t imagine it would have been easy for little Frank to get used to the idea of having three mothers, two of whom were dead.
The conflict came to a boiling point in 1914, or so the family story goes. The world was at war. James went on a trip back to England, where he was born. Frank was at home with his stepmother. The two argued so much that on the spur of the moment, Frank decided “I’m going to war.” On Oct. 26, 1914, just over 100 years ago, Frank Bicknell joined the Canadian forces.
I’ve seen the attestation or enlistment paper, thanks to Library and Archives Canada. “Have you ever served in any military force?” Like so many Canadians, Frank answered “no.” He was about to enter the bloodiest war the world had ever seen.
Frank was placed in the 3rd battalion. He trained on Salisbury Plain in England and left to fight in France in February 1915. He saw the 2nd Battle of Ypres, which was the first time the German troops used mustard gas on a mass scale. British and French troops went running. The Canadians were the only ones who maintained their position. Frank was one of those Canadians. Despite this bravery or perhaps because of it, Canada lost almost 6000 men in the battle.
In June 1915, the 3rd Battalion moved to Givenchy. Canadian engineers dug a tunnel and planted a mine under the German trenches. Canadian gunmen attempted to take out German machine guns. Frank Bicknell, the painter from Huntingdon, jumped over the parapet. A German soldier shot. Frank died instantly.
His body was found in a trench on the edge of the “Red Dragon Crater”. It was moved throughout the war and finally laid to rest at the Cabaret-Rouge Cemetery, a British cemetery that was named after a popular cafe destroyed during the war.
His grave remained untouched for almost 100 years. A couple weeks ago, I came to Cabaret-Rouge to pay my respects.
Following a jumble of letters and numbers, I found where Frank was laid to rest. I was oddly comforted by the maple leaf on his tombstone. It was a little piece of home and family in the middle of France. I planted some yellow chrysanthemums to show that this soldier was remembered and because I know he was once loved. But Frank shouldn’t have died an ocean away from his family.
So, today I remember Frank and I try to imagine how his death could have been prevented.