It is the kind of epic battle that begs to be commemorated. And so the London Scottish Regiment does just that—gathering each year on Halloween Eve to pay homage to those who fought 95 years ago in the battle of the Windmill of Messines. The details of the barrage in Belgium—part of the First World War’s First Battle of Ypres—are rehashed by veterans of the London Scottish over food and drink. A memorial bagpipe tune may even be played: “At muster call at closing light, the men were filled with dread / At so many comrades wounded and so many lying dead / They had no hero soldier’s grave, indeed they never will / Their headstone—just the ghost of the burned-out mill.”
But for Pipe Major John Spoore—a 23-year veteran of the regiment—one thing always seemed to mute his enjoyment of the occasion: for all the years of celebration, nobody even knew for sure just where that pivotal windmill was located. So when Spoore heard about McMaster University’s Peace and War in the 20th Century website—a database which, unlike many others, allows open online access to its historical material—he hoped that archivists there could help him locate the mill, and finally put “his old grey head at ease.”
Soon after Spoore emailed in his plea, map specialist Gord Beck, armed with the few scattered clues he had of the battle, hit the historical records. After narrowing the field, he scoured trench maps of the approximate location until he found what he was after: a tiny symbol that indicates the presence of a mill. Beck says the discovery is consequential because the Windmill battle was “part of a major offensive” against German forces. But he also stresses that this is part of a “widespread [and growing] appeal”—a broader interest in revisiting the sites of the First World War.
For Spool and his fellow vets, a long debate—one that rears its head every time Oct. 31 rolls around—has now been laid to rest. So now, when the London Scottish Regiment gathers to celebrate the “many kilted soldiers lying dead on Wystschaete Hill,” they will, at last, know the location of the long-lost Messines mill.