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Jack Knox: Man's burial an act of dignity, and defiance, in wartime

Tucked in a back corner of Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral, an aging, beautifully carved oak cross is affixed to the wall. “Ici repose le Lieutenant J.D. Pemberton,” reads the inscription, “décédé le 21 août 1917.

Tucked in a back corner of Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral, an aging, beautifully carved oak cross is affixed to the wall.

“Ici repose le Lieutenant J.D. Pemberton,” reads the inscription, “décédé le 21 août 1917.”

There are a couple of minor errors there. The “J” should be an “F” and Frederick Despard Pemberton was a captain, not a lieutenant, when shot down over France in the First World War.

That’s easily forgivable, particularly considering the courage and humanity shown by the Frenchman who planted the cross at the grave of the 24-year-old Victoria resident whose death he witnessed.

And now, almost a century later, the families of the two men have reconnected. It seems this story, which culminated in a grieving father bringing the cross home from France, has stayed alive on two continents.

Despard Pemberton came from what would be described as a “good” family.

The eldest son of F.B. and Mab Pemberton, he was born in 1893, the same year his grandfather, Joseph Despard Pemberton, B.C.’s first surveyor general, died.

Educated at Mt. Tolmie’s University School (the precursor to St. Michaels University School), the war took him to Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont. It was while there that he ducked down to Dayton, Ohio, learning to fly at the Wilbur Wright School of Instruction. Commissioned as an officer in the 50th Regiment of the Gordon Highlanders, it wasn’t long after shipping over to England that he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps.

He was in the thick of the action over France. The cathedral archives hold a fellow officer’s account of a May 1917 encounter: “We were attacked by five Albatross scouts which broke up our formation. Between us we shot down two of the enemy and drove another down, apparently out of control. My pilot, Capt. Pemberton of British Columbia, manoeuvred the machine in a most excellent fashion, evading the fire of the Huns as much as possible and giving me every opportunity to bring my Lewis gun into play. He received a spent bullet to the back, necessitating spending a week in the casualty clearing house.”

Three months later, Pemberton’s luck ran out in a dogfight over Selvigny in northern France.

A local man, 46-year-old Louis Milhem, saw the biplane come down — and was dismayed by the way the Germans treated the dead Canadian, stripping Pemberton of his personal effects, right down to his buttons, before leaving the body in a shoddily made coffin.

Milhem intervened. He later explained in a letter to Pemberton’s family that he didn’t want to see the young pilot buried “in such miserable conditions.” Milhem washed Pemberton’s cheeks of dust and blood, combed his hair — in the process finding the fatal wound, a three-centimetre gash above his right eye — gathered some flowers and buried him in a better coffin at the cemetery in Honnechy. A few days later he returned with the oak cross, which it is believed he crafted with his own hands (bad information from the Germans resulted in Pemberton’s rank and initials being a little off).

All this was done at great personal risk. Perhaps defying the occupiers, giving the Canadian some dignity in death was, at Milhem’s age, his way of waging war. He had already suffered loss. The factory he had once run was gone, the Germans hauling away any machinery that had not already been destroyed in the fighting; he later became a farmer.

The family in Victoria, meanwhile, only knew that Pemberton was missing in action. It wasn’t until 1919, after the war, that Milhem was able to send some mementos — a lock of Pemberton’s hair, his epaulette buttons (the only two not removed by the Germans).

F.B. Pemberton travelled to France and brought his son’s cross back to Christ Church Cathedral, where it remains today.

The family had a tragic war. Despard was predeceased by his 20-year-old brother, Lt. Warren Pemberton, who crashed while serving in the Royal Flying Corps in 1916. A close friend, Capt. Wildy Holmes, was personally decorated for bravery by King George V before being killed in 1917; dead at age 23, his name lives on in a street in Langford. (Had they survived the war, Wildy and the brothers would have been cousins by marriage, as Maj. Henry Cuthbert Holmes married Philippa Despard Pemberton in 1917.)

The Pemberton name died out after that, though it lives on in Victoria’s Pemberton Holmes real estate company. The Holmes family kept alive the story of the “French farmer,” too, even though it was a bit of an unfinished historical jigsaw.

So it was a welcome surprise when, this September, Despard Pemberton’s great-nephew, Mike Holmes, received an email from Milhem’s great-granddaughter, Véronique Petit Derin. A doctor in Verdun, France, she was looking for details of a story that her family had also passed down. “It would be great for me to make live again this memory of a Canadian soldier who died for us,” she wrote.

It was Mike’s brother, Richard Holmes, who picked up the correspondence. He and Derin have since filled the holes in each other’s family histories. Photos have been swapped. Holmes told her about family visits to the cross in the cathedral, where the tale of her great-grandfather’s bravery is explained. Derin wrote of a little silver flask, inscribed in French, that Despard’s sister had sent her great-grandfather in thanks.

“I always wondered what my great-grandfather could have done to receive a so precious gift,” she said in an email to the Times Colonist. “It was kept in my family like a treasure.”

Now she knows. “When I think of my great-grandfather and what he has done, tears come to my eyes, really, and I feel deeply touched.”

Richard Holmes is also happy to see that puzzle filled in. “I suppose it is all about connecting pieces of history together,” he says, reflecting on the meaning of this story. “It is of course about family, but much more than that as the impact of world war reached into so many lives.”

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