Chaumousey cemetery is the last resting place for six RAF aircrew members shot down on the night of July 29, 1944. Five of the crew were English, the sixth buried in their communal grave was a 20-year-old Canadian – Flying Officer Peter Biollo, Edmonton, Alberta.
Chaumousey is a small village in what is known as the Vosges, deep in rural France. It is a short 18 kms from Epinal, where 5,255 American dead lie beneath seemingly endless rows of white crosses in mute, but powerful, testimony to the futility of war.
I was drawn to the gravesite of the young men resting in Chaumousey one sunny morning in the late 1970s. I had spotted the Maple Leaf flag flying above the treetops as we left the village. With a travel companion who delighted the natives with her French, we parked the car knocked on a cottage door to ask about the relatively new Canadian flag flying so proudly just up the road, and were plied with coffee and cake while we got a capsuled version of the events of 1944, then we were directed “up the hill” to the “Canadian” grave.
They couldn’t explain why it was called Canadian. Maybe it was because the English in the crew were next country neighbours while young Peter Biollo had come from the other side of the world to help liberate France from German conquest. They would have agreed with what RCAF Chaplain J.P. Lardie said a few years later: “Three thousand miles across a hunted ocean they came, wearing on the shoulder of their tunics the treasured name, Canada, telling the world their origin. Young men and women they were, some still in their teens. Fashioned by their Maker to love, not to kill, but proud and earnest in their mission to stand, and, if it had to be, to die for their country and their freedom.”
Over the years I have repeated the story of the Canadian grave and Maple Leaf flag at Chaumousey several times and probably will again if I live long enough. The last time was back in July of this year when I wrote about the courage of the villagers who, in defiance of the threat of German military interference, gathered in “a very large crowd and formed the funeral procession of these heroes whose caskets were covered with flowers and in spite of the interdiction of the Germans the big crowd followed to the cemetery…” The witness was Abbe Albert Mercier, the local priest.
I finished the July story wondering if the Maple Leaf still flew on special days in Chaumousey more than 75 years later. A week ago, I got an emailed answer from Stacey Adolph: “A flag is still flown at the crash site and another at the gravesite. A kindly family in France has taken on (the care) of the final resting place of my great uncle Peter Biollo.” She mentioned she had been in touch with the kindly French family.
Two days later paramedic son Nic spotted a note from a French gentleman named Benoit Howson seeking to contact me regarding an old article “about the crew of PB253 buried in Chaumousey.’’ He forwarded it to me, with copies to the sender in the hope that we can establish direct contact, which I’m sure we shall do in short order.
In the meantime, the note via Facebook tells me it is Benoit’s family that looks after the Chaumousey grave, that he’s written a “booklet” about the crew “written in French, but I’ll send you a copy if you would like one.” He writes: “My children have helped me tend the grave for years and they take part in the ceremonies that are still held.”
Which brings me to the end of another small chapter in my personal garden of remembrance. I remember these things, write about them, but I’d rather not be asked what I do in a practical way to make life easier for others.
How about you? Is just remembering once a year on November 11 enough?