On November 11th of each year, the fields surrounding the Menin Gate are covered with poppies to commemorate the sacrifice of the many British and Commonwealth soldiers who died on the field of honour in Flanders, Belgium. It was the Third Battle of Ypres, which took place between July 31st and November 10th, 1917, more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele.
Every evening at 8 pm, buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade stand ready at the eastern entrance of the monumental arch of the Menin Gate to play The Last Post, a musical piece to mourn the dead and honour the lost and fallen soldiers, a lullaby to rest their souls. Requiescant in Pace to the 54,896 listed soldiers. A well-lived two minutes of emotions guaranteed at the Memorial.
“We are the Dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow / Loved and were loved, and now we lie / In Flanders fields.” This verse is from the poem In Flanders Fields, written on a spring morning by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae (1872-1918), an Ontario doctor and a poet, who died nearby.
Also at the Menin Gate is engraved, on panel 10, the name of Major Talbot Mercer Papineau, lawyer and grandson of Louis-Joseph Amédée Papineau, himself son of the Hon. Louis-Joseph Papineau, politician, lawyer and owner of the seigneury of La Petite-Nation, a vast estate of lakes and rivers between Montreal and Ottawa in the Outaouais which was inherited by Talbot’s family in 1903. Talbot was the son of Louis-Joseph IV (1856-1904) and his wife, Caroline Rogers Papineau (1859-1952), was from Philadelphia in the United States. He was the brother of Louis (the eldest), Westcott and Philippe, all born in Montebello between 1881 and 1887.
Like his three brothers, Talbot was born at the family manor house in Montebello. It was close to midnight on Easter Sunday, 1883, when this big baby, over eight pounds, with black hair and dark eyes, arrived. On Thursday, June 28, he was named after his maternal grandfather, Talbot Mercer Rogers Papineau, and baptized Presbyterian, the religion of his parents. Amédée Papineau, now a happy grandfather, rang the tower bell to announce it to all around. “Too good and too wise to let out a cry, he receives the water with a smile,” he wrote in his diary. Later, on March 25, 1887, he noted: “Birthday of Talbot, who is now 4 years old. Like his brothers, all three good children, full of health, who promise to live and to make good men. God willing!”
His wish was granted. A brave man and valiant soldier, Talbot was at Passchendaele on the morning of October 30th, not far from the hamlet of Gravenstafel, towards Duck Lodge and their first objective in the battle. Twenty thousand soldiers were in place, waiting for the signal to attack. The night before, what were Talbot’s thoughts? Of a woman, his friends, his family? Surely all of them, but it was to his mother, Caroline Rogers Papineau, that he wrote a short letter, his last one:
October 29, 1917
Dearest Mother ,
I have been able to write you after all before going over. We have been fortunate so far,and everything is cheerful. I even shaved this morning in a little dirty water. I was delighted to get two letters and a box of candy from you last night. A cold night. Also noisy. I can assure you, the earth full of vibrations. There is so little to say when if only I knew what will happen. I might want to say so much. These would be poor letters to have as last ones, but you must know with the world of love they are written. You have given me courage and strength to go very happily and cheerfully into the good fight. Love to all, and a big hug for you, dear brave mother.
Before going over the top, one foot on the ladder and the other ready to cross a barrage of fire, Talbot turned to Major Hugh Niven and said, ” You know Hughie, this is suicide,” and then jumped. Seconds later, he was hit by a shell in the chest, a deadly blow and without mercy. It was 05:50 hrs, he was 34 years young. The trench comrade who followed him lost his life as well. His name was Rider Lancelot Haggard, a captain bearing the name of a legendary knight, ten years his junior. Talbot’s body was submerged in a sea of mud and was only found three weeks later by a first-day comrade, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles James Townsend Stewart (1874-1918), nicknamed Charlie, whom he had known during the training of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) in Ottawa in August of 1914. Charlie recognized his corpse, or rather what was left of it, by the particular way that Talbot had attached his puttees and by the contents of his pockets. He planted a cross on his makeshift grave, which eventually disappeared, forgotten in the tumult of the end of the battle.
Nobody told Talbot’s mother these sad details, not to aggravate her pain. Rather, she was told that her son’s body was never found, as was the case for all whose names were engraved on the Menin Gate. Did she believe it? Let’s hope so. Caroline had a hard time overcoming her sorrow, she who had so much faith in her dear Talbot, who believed in her son’s talent and who harbored so much ambition for him. “Nothing can console me for the loss of my boy who had been the joy and comfort of my life,” answered Caroline on November 25, 1917, to the letter of condolence from a high military officer. She died in 1952, at the age of 93, in a sadness that has become eternal.
Caroline Rogers Papineau is buried under a humble tombstone marked “C.R.P. 1952 ” in a small cemetery adjoining the family funeral chapel on the trail leading to Manoir Papineau, with the descendants of her eldest son Louis-Joseph V, the last to be buried in the chapel in 1971. Near Caroline, three gravestones are aligned: they are for her eldest grandson, Louis-Joseph VI born in 1912 (” L.J.P. JAN 7, 1987 “), his wife Elizabeth Mary (” E.M.P. 27TH NOVEMBER, 1976″), and their son and her great-grandson, Louis-Joseph Kenneth, born in 1944, died in 2016 and buried there in June 2017.
What’s left of Talbot Mercer Rogers Papineau in Montebello? In the funerary chapel, a commemorative plaque evokes his memory as well as that of several members from his illustrious family, some of whom were buried in the crypt. A monument to the veterans of the two world wars rises near the tourist station, without mention of the deceased. Unfortunately, we do not know who they were. This monument, however, was given a name in 1948 : Memorial Talbot-Mercer-Papineau. Thus, posted at the entrance, the brave Talbot symbolically keeps the path leading to the family manor, the funeral chapel, and the cemetery of the Papineau Family.
November 11th reminds us of the signing of the 1918 Armistice, which ended the First World War and is a tribute to the sacrifice of all the soldiers who gave their lives for their country. November 11th is Remembrance Day. To quote Amédée Papineau : “God willing!”
Doug Sladen and Diane Tardif (Montreal ), Kate Schissler (Ottawa), Writing and Editing Assistants.
Thanks to a few history and heritage enthusiasts from here and elsewhere for the help with documentation and research: Georges Aubin (L’Assomption), Marie-France Bertrand, Dominique Bouchard, Nathalie Bouchard, Yvan Fortier (Parcs Canada, Quebec), Géral Geoffrion, Nicole Hebert, Claire Leblanc-Deeks, and Sophie Léger.
About the Author
Marie Josée Bourgeois is a member of La Société Historique Louis-Joseph-Papineau. Born in Montebello, she is very active on the cultural scene, giving Heritage and History presentations and guided tours in the region of La Petite-Nation.
Sandra Gwyn. Tapestry of War. Harper Collins Publishers: 1992.
Canada at War. http://www.canadaatwar.ca/index.php?page=Page&action=showpage&id=12 consulted October 23, 2017.
John Burge. The Future Before Him. http://social-ethos.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/article2.pdf consulted October 23, 2016.
Obituary LJK Papineau, https://www.tubmanfuneralhomes.com/families-in-our-care/l-j-kenneth-papineau/1863/ consulted June 26, 2017.
http://www.montebello.ca/administration/ckeditor/ckfinder/userfiles/files/LA-CHAPELLE-FUNERAIRE-PAPINEAU.pdf consulted October 20, 2017.
http://www.montebello.ca/administration/ckeditor/ckfinder/userfiles/files/LE-CENOTAPHE.pdf consulted October 20, 2017.
Chapel, infos Papineau http://www.patrimoine-culturel.gouv.qc.ca/rpcq/detail.do?methode=consulter&id=92799&type=bien#.WfeN0LpKuhA consulted October 28, 2017.
Journal d’Amédée Papineau (to be published, assembled and noted by Georges Aubin), original documents BAnQ-Q, P417/8 et P417/9.
John McCrae http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/first-world-war/mccrae, consulted November 6, 2017.
https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/what-presbyterians-believe-the-sacrament-of-baptism/ consulted November 6, 2017.
https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/qc/manoirpapineau/decouvrir-discover/natcul1/c consulted November 6, 2017.
Collection PPCLI, Photo, Major Talbot Mercer Papineau 1916.