Gone but not forgotten

Mary MacKay comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on July 19, 2014

In Noordwijk in the Netherlands, there lies a Prince Edward Island soldier who perished during the First World War.
Despite being mortally gone from this earth for almost a century, John Daniel McIntyre of Millcove has not been forgotten.

In fact, Dutch native Mark Sijlmans is a frequent graveside visitor.

This amateur researcher has been haunting the local cemetery in his hometown for the past few years, giving voice and story to 27 First World War soldiers whose lives were cut far too short, including McIntyre, the only Canadian.

"In a way they are kind of children to me... . That sounds a bit sentimental, but I started to know them in a way ... ," Sijlmans says.

Like most Dutch students, Sijlmans was introduced to military history and the Allied Forces involvement in the two world wars at a young age.

"Holland was neutral during the First World War. We had nothing to do with it, but it interested me just because of the -scale the madness of war. Of course every war has that, but the First World War, in particular, I think," he says.

His quest for more knowledge first led him to cemeteries and battlefields in France and Belgium, but it was only recently that he began to concentrate on the history closer to home.

He was intrigued to discover there were 85 First World War graves in his hometown of Noordwijk, so two years ago he decided as a hobby venture to take photos of those headstones and to find out as much as he could about the men who were interred there.

Most were naval casualties who washed ashore on the Dutch coast and were buried in local cemeteries.

In 1920, the Imperial War Graves Commission, which is now the Commonwealth Graves Commission, exhumed all the bodies of the fallen soldiers for reburial in four centres of concentration, as they were called.

The Algemene Begraafplaats (General Cemetery) in Noordwijk was one of these centres.

Of the First World War soldiers who are interred there, Sijlmans has written stories about the 27 who have been identified

"John was one of the last I researched, and it seemed hard to find information about him. Most of the others had names of ships in their headstones and with the name of the ship I could find out what had happened with the ship and her crew. But John's did not have a ship's name," he says.

And so Sijlman began digging into this forgotten soldier's past.

Last summer he contacted the Canadian Ministry of Defence, which sent him a copy of McIntyre's casualty card.

Then he found part of McIntyre's service record and his attestation papers, which included a medical report and information that the P.E.I. man went to Truro, N.S., for training before he was shipped overseas.

From there McIntyre's story began to unfold.

He was born on Oct. 25, 1893, to Millcove farmers Norman and Johanna (MacDonald) McIntyre and had three sisters - Ellen, Mary and Margaret - and one brother, James.

He joined the Canadian Forestry Corps on May 1, 1917. On June 25, he sailed aboard the SS Justicia and arrived in Liverpool, England on July 4.

He was stationed in Sunningdale until he boarded a ship bound for Le Havre, France.

"John is last seen onboard the SS Courtfield around 3 a.m. (He) is seasick at the time. The next morning at 7:45 the men disembark and are counted at Le Havre docks. John is not there. The ship is searched and only his kit is found, but not John," Sijlmans says.

"What intrigues me is what happened to him. How did he end up in the sea after being on another ship for about a week for the crossing from Halifax to Liverpool? He had coped with that trip and then he only has to cross the channel which takes about 12 hours or so and then something goes wrong."

A month later McIntyre's body was found on a beach of the Frisian island of Texel.

"The most amazing thing that I have found is also from the Canadian archives and that's (a copy) John's will," Sijlmans says.

"It was taken out of his military pay book. It's a bit hard to read because the ink of John's pen has been blurred because it was with John in the North Sea for a month. That's a strange feeling to see what the sea has done and to feel that he had it on him wet in his uniform pocket and that somewhere on a beach they opened this."

McIntyre was first buried in a cemetery on the isle of Texel. The cemetery's registry translated reads: "John D Mc Intyre, coming from Mil Cove Canada washed ashore drowned person, lied buried south side Nr. 37, 2 deep and his coffin number is Nr. 1."

"Two deep means that there was another coffin buried above John's coffin.

"I do not know if this also happens in Canada, but Holland is a small country, and the dead are often buried one, two or even three deep, this is to save expensive land," Sijlmans says.

In 1920, he was moved to the cemetery in Noordwijk.

In addition to McIntyre, Sijlmans has uncovered the stories of five South Africans and 21 British First World War soldiers who are also buried in that same cemetery.

"The main reason was I just wanted to find out (who they were). It started out as kind of a hobby; who are these people and can I find out something about them," he says.

"Over the years it became more than a hobby. Now I want to know everything about them and I want (it so that) if people go there to that cemetery that they're not only gray headstones in a row, (but rather) that they can see the faces and read the stories behind them."