Stepping into the Hangard Wood Cemetery in Northern France, surrounded by golden fields of wheat, accessible only by dirt road, I felt more like I was home in Saskatchewan than in Europe. Indeed, aside from the small but conspicuous cemetery, placed right in the middle of a farmer's field, it all felt oddly familiar. Perhaps that's why the memorialization of the soldier presented this day hit so close to home.
John Croak, born in Newfoundland but raised in Nova Scotia, felt particularly real to me. I don't know if it's because he was the same age as me when he died, or because the setting felt so oddly reminiscent, but private Croak's story really moved me (it is worth mentioning that the memorial was also tremendously well-crafted and presented by the researcher today). Every detail we learned about felt so human, so genuine. Every setback painful. Every success powerful. And when we learned of his death, my traditionally stalwart rational, detached reaction fell by the wayside. I felt like John Croak just as easily could have been me.
I immediately identified that as a guilty and obnoxiously self-indulgent feeling. I was not private Croak, nor have I ever experienced anything nearly as challenging as the trials and tribulations he faced from enlistment onwards. Yet my empathy for the man felt limitless. If I were born in a different time, that could be me. But it couldn't actually, could it? I could never live through that era, could I? Yet so many did. These questions rattled around my brain for quite some time, but I could never answer them. My true feelings always felt out of reach, like birds fluttering around in the distant corners of a room.
As I walked out of the small, Hangard Wood Cemetery, out-of-the-way and seeminlgy rarely visited, I was unsettled. How could one man among millions of war dead coax such questions out of me? Why must we, as humans, always return selfishly to ourselves in our speculations? Can anyone truly understand war without experiencing it? I attempted to shrug off these questions as we returned to our vehicles, ready to continue our day.
As we drove away, I gave one last look back towards the cemetery, knowing the likelihood of ever returning there in my lifetime was infinitesimal. If I squinted really hard, though, I still feel like I was home, back in the fields of Saskatchewan.