On a grey, windswept spring day three years ago, Ryan Mullens sat next to the grave of a long-dead soldier in the green shadows of the Canadian military cemetery at Groesbeek, Holland.
Clutching a wooden flute carved from oak salvaged from the shattered forests around Vimy Ridge, the former Calgary reservist played Amazing Grace in tribute to Lt. James Koester of the Regina Rifles.
Mullens knew Koester’s story well. Killed while trying to take the nearby German town of Emmerich on March 30, 1945, in the war’s twilight, the fair-haired young Koester had told a buddy moments before his death that the only thing he wanted after the war was to live on a “quiet road somewhere … to sit there and be a friend to man.”
As the last notes of his hymn died away, Mullens looked down the long rows of granite headstones stretching into the distance and thought about the stories buried there — the thousands of young people whose heroic acts, tragic ends and moments of grace have been lost to living memory.
“That was really the genesis of the idea,” he said. “It came into my mind — how do we use the technology we have now in order to give people that connection that I just experienced at Koester’s grave?”
He started researching and building. Three years later, Mullens and a partner are on the cusp of launching a smartphone app called “Faces of Valour” that will allow users to unearth the long-buried histories of those who fought and died.
It’s just one part of a digital wave that promises to transform the act of remembrance. Inarguably, the trend was underway before coronavirus — but it has been accelerated by pandemic-driven lockdowns.
Some of our annual rituals of commemoration are going virtual in a way that could make the experience deeper and richer. In addition to the Faces of Valour app — which links gravestones to military records and photos — there are virtual walls of remembrance where ordinary people can share the individual stories of soldiers.
“As human beings, we relate to the stories of other human beings,” said Peter Francis, an executive at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Maidenhead, U.K., west of London.
“I think this pandemic, if it’s done one thing, it’s shown us that perhaps now is the time to start to have those debates about, well, do we need to do something different to engage that [younger] generation? Do we need to embrace technology?”
WATCH: Peter Francis on using technology to tell war stories
The national Remembrance Day service in Ottawa this year will look like nothing we’ve ever seen before — no parade of elderly veterans, no solemn crowds depositing poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
It will be equally subdued in the United Kingdom. Although Francis said he expects Nov. 11 events to return to normal at some point, he acknowledged that the way we commemorate past wars has to evolve with the culture — that the more the great wars of the 20th Century fade into the distant past, the harder it becomes to explain their meaning to those who didn’t experience them.
“Although the traditional remembrance services that have served us well for the last hundred years are absolutely fine — and long may they continue — perhaps we also need to start asking that generation about, well, how would you remember?” he said.
A more personal way of remembering
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, founded amid the carnage of the First World War, is encouraging families and even interested strangers in Britain, Canada and other Commonwealth countries to post videos and tributes on a virtual wall of remembrance to honour the individual soldiers buried in its 23,000 cemeteries around the world.
It has even launched a program to name stars in the night sky after fallen soldiers.
Such acts are “as absolutely as valid as her Majesty the Queen laying a wreath at the Cenotaph in London on the 11th of November every year,” said Francis.
While digital commemoration matters as much as a wreath-laying, it’s also more personal. Mullens said he wonders whether going digital might give future generations a better appreciation of the human tragedy of war by giving faces to the individual casualties.
“There’s so much power in a story and when we can recognize ourselves in a story,” said Mullens, whose organization is digitally mapping the military cemeteries at Beechwood in Ottawa and Brookwood in the U.K. as a first step toward launching the app.
“These memories can be preserved in a way like never before and strengthened in a way like never before, because unlike any time in history, this software is going to allow people to stand at a grave, actually see the person and know who that person is buried there.”
WATCH: ‘He never got to go home and see his son’
Before Faces of Valour, learning about the person behind the tombstone had to be done the hard way — by digging through the archives and piecing together different narrative strands from online sources.
Three of the people writing tributes this year for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s virtual wall found their own ways of connecting with the stories of Canada’s war dead.
In 2002, David Patterson, a retired brigadier-general and artillery gunner, was in the Commonwealth cemetery in Tilly-sur-Seulles in northern France when he came quite by accident across the grave of a Canadian airman.
Flying Officer Ramsay Habkirk was buried among hundreds of other Commonwealth troops and a handful of German soldiers — another lost story of the war, until Patterson decided to tell it.
“What struck me was, he was here by himself in a cemetery that isn’t very well visited at all by anybody, but not the least by Canadians,” said Patterson, who now heads a battlefield tour company in retirement.
Each time returns to Normandy, he said, he visits Habkirk “to make sure that he isn’t alone.”
His wall of remembrance tribute to Habkirk — who was shot down and killed while flying supplies to special operations agents operating behind German lines in August 1944 — is personal and heartfelt.
It’s the same for Sam Hadley. Her grandfather, Cpl. George Hadley, was a Canadian soldier in the Queen’s Own Rifles. He was killed shortly after the Normandy landings in 1944.
Her remembrance offers a perspective seldom seen in official commemorations of Canada’s war dead — an acknowledgement of how tough it was for her father to grow up without his own dad.
She said she fears that too few people today have any concept of, or appreciation for, what her grandfather and other relatives on her mother’s side sacrificed — and why.
“When I put things up on the wall, it’s personal,” she said from her home in Bletchley, U.K. “It’s my remembrance. It’s me saying, ‘I wish I could have met you and, regardless, I am proud of you.'”
Hadley said she worries about the gulf of understanding that persists between her grandfather’s generation and that of her four children — an inability to see the wars of the 20th century as someone’s lived experience.
“I feel there’s no education here,” she said. “My twenty-four-year-old doesn’t know anything [about Remembrance Day]. You say about the Normandy landings and he says, ‘I don’t even know what that means.'”
Giving a voice to the dead
When Paul Heenan started to write about Capt. Donald McCrea — who was killed during fierce fighting around Caen, France halfway through the summer of 1944 — the forward artillery observer was little more than a name on a list.
McCrea was killed at St. Martin-de-Fontenay. His death amounted to a footnote in a book about the war written by retired general Jacques Dextraze, who fought in the Second World War and went on to serve as Canada’s chief of the defence staff in the 1970s — until Heenan found a pile of letters in the national archives.
“He was a name on a wall before I started to dig into his past,” said Heenan, who chose to research McCrea because they were both artillerymen.
“I read the letter from the padre. I read the letter from his battery commander and I read the letter from his commanding officer. And they all said this was a guy who would do anything for anybody.”
He learned that McCrea had left behind a young widow — a woman he managed to spend only a few weeks with before he was shipped back to Europe following his officer training.
“It makes you think of the ultimate sacrifice,” he said.