Remembrance Day has always held special significance for Sheri Graham and her family as they remember the ultimate sacrifice made by her great uncle, Melvin Robert James Graham, who died during World War II.
This past October, Graham became the first member of the family to visit the Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands, where her great uncle is buried along with 967 other Canadian soldiers who lost their lives in the fighting north of Antwerp during the Battle of the Scheldt.
“It was quite emotional as I placed a bouquet of roses, a Canadian flag, and a small stone from the farm that he grew up on at his grave,” says Graham, who had the stone engraved with his name and a maple leaf. A plaque on the back of the stone reads, “Always loved, forever missed, never forgotten, Huntingdon, Quebec, Canada.” Her visit on October 22 took place just one week short of the anniversary of his death on October 29, 1944.
“I couldn’t believe that I was there,” says Graham. A visit to the war cemetery had long been on her bucket list, and when a lifelong friend invited her to come along on a business trip to Belgium, she couldn’t resist mapping the distance to the border with the Netherlands and her great uncle’s burial site. “It felt like it was meant to be when I saw it was only a 35-minute drive.”
Graham grew up knowing her great-grandmother, Eva, and had always felt a close tie with her great uncle through the family. Eva and her husband, William, raised their two sons, Mervyn and Melvin, on Gorecroft farm, located on the Gore Road in Hinchinbrooke. Mervyn would eventually become the fifth generation to farm the family’s land, while Melvin left to work at a bank. He married Joyce Pugh in 1941 before shipping off to war in Europe the following year.
Melvin was a corporal with the 22nd Armoured Regiment of the Canadian Grenadier Guards when he died during the Battle of the Scheldt. The battle was fought in northern Belgium and southwestern Netherlands to clear the Scheldt River of German occupiers to open a shipping route to the port in Antwerp, which could then be used to supply the Allies in north-west Europe. Considered by some historians to be one of the most difficult battlefields of the Second World War, the five-week offensive was eventually won by the Allies, but at the cost of 12,873 casualties including 6,367 Canadians.
Pugh remarried after Melvin’s death. In 1989, after she had passed away, her second husband and one of their daughters came to Huntingdon to find Melvin’s relatives. As there were no cellphones at the time, they relied on the well-used phonebook at the booth outside Leblanc Patates. “They were probably very surprised to see another Melvin Graham listed,” says Graham, whose father had been named after the fallen soldier. Following a visit to the family farm, the pair presented Melvin with a box containing his namesake’s war medals, papers, and photographs.
“He was just a young man, who left his wife, his family, and his job at 22 years old to never come back,” says Graham, while shaking her head.
She admits the visit to the cemetery left her feeling a bit shaken. “It was surreal to see rows and rows of gravestones all so meticulously maintained,” she recalls, noting how peaceful it was, with beautiful trees, a long stretch of flowering rhododendrons, and a mix of lavender and rose bushes. Not a single grave was left undecorated.
“It was very touching to see how much respect is still given to these fallen soldiers after all these years,” Graham says, noting she was content to see that those who were buried there, including her great uncle, were not forgotten.