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Summerside man visits relative’s grave in France on 100th anniversary of his death in First World War

Skip Beairsto and Dawn Robins, of Summerside, said they were almost adopted by the people of Dury, France, during the community’s 100th anniversary celebrations of their liberation in the First World War.
Skip Beairsto and Dawn Robins, of Summerside, said they were almost adopted by the people of Dury, France, during the community’s 100th anniversary celebrations of their liberation in the First World War. - Contributed

Near the village of Dury, France, at the foot of a white grave marker with French and Canadian flags propped against it, sits a mason jar.

Inside the container is a chunk red sandstone and a handful of bleached-white seashells.

It’s a little piece of home for an Islander who died a world away from the red shores he was born to.

Private Willie C. Beairsto, of the 46th Battallion, Canadian Infantry, died on Sept. 2, 1918. He was born in Bedeque, raised in Freetown, enlisted in Saskatchewan and was killed in France by a shell as he was making his way to a medical station, near the front lines of the First World War. The war ended just two months later.

The jar was placed at the graveside by Skip Beairsto and his wife Dawn Robins. The former is a great nephew of Beairsto’s.

Beairsto and Robins, of Summerside, traveled to France in late August for a vacation with a special purpose, so he could stand at his great uncle’s gravestone exactly 100 years from when his relative had died.

They did just that, visiting on Sept. 2, around 8 a.m. It was the culmination of a life-long ambition of Beairsto’s.

“Virtually, I’ve been interested in it from when my father would tell me stories as a child. He always told me I had a great uncle who was killed in the last month of the war,” he recalled, adding that his research later showed it was the second last month of the conflict.

It was an incredible experience, added Robins.

“It changes your perspective,” she said.

“I know there was a lot of cemeteries of war veterans in that area, but until you go there and see how many cemeteries there are …. In every little community.”

While the couple was visiting the area, they took in some of the local events marking the 100th anniversary of the community’s liberation and the end of the First World War.

When they attended those ceremonies, Beairsto usually had a Canadian flag wrapped around his shoulders, so they were not hard to miss. Some of the locals become interested in the visitor’s story and took extra steps to make them feel welcome.

They were invited into people’s homes for drinks and meals, others drove them around to local points of interest and they were generally made to feel like family, explained Beairsto.

“There was one friends and family combination that, for three days, they just about adopted us. And they could speak no more English than we could French,” he said.

“You couldn’t have been treated any more as royalty, it was awesome.”

Beairsto had also exchanged some emails, prior to his trip, with the mayor of Dury, Marc Campbell. After they arrived, Campbell included them as part of the community’s commemorative celebrations, holding a small ceremony to honour their family’s sacrifice.

“We spent two days to commemorate the liberation of our villages, Dury, Eterpigny, Haucourt and Vis en Artois, by Canadian soldiers,” said Campbell in an email to the Journal Pioneer.

“These days were full of emotion and gratitude to these young people who crossed the ocean to fight for our freedom.”

Beairsto said, the whole experience was something that will stick with him for the rest of his life and he’s so happy that he had the opportunity to mark that special date with his great uncle.

Colin.MacLean@JournalPioneer.com

@JournalPMacLean

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