Anna Durie: A Mother’s Defiance

Head and upper body of woman, formally dressed with hair up, wearing collar choker, and necklace with large oval pendant, large bow on front of white blouse, black and white photograph

Anna Durie.  © Simon Fraser University, Canada.

On 29 December 1917 Canadian Captain William Arthur Durie was killed near Lens and buried in Corkscrew Cemetery, France.  His distraught mother Anna wrote to the Commission questioning whether the grave really contained her son’s body, and if so, she vowed to return him to Canada.

True to her word, in 1921 she attempted but failed to remove William’s coffin.  Having declared her intention to shoot anyone who tried to move William’s grave, in March 1925 Anna was furious to learn he had been re-interred at the larger Loos British Cemetery.

“I was going like a criminal, by night, to exhume the body of one of the bravest officers that ever left Canada!”

– Anna Durie, writing to the Commission

Captain William Arthur Durie.

Letter from Anna Durie to Fabian Ware, accusing him and the Commission of lying to her (CWGC Archive).

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Wracked with “grief and pain”, she accused the Commission of lying to her, arguing she had been assured Corkscrew Cemetery would not be closed and now her son’s body might be lost.

Article on William Durie’s reburial, Toronto Daily Star, 22 August 1925. CWGC Archive.

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The next thing anyone knew about the fate of Anna’s son was an article in the Toronto Daily Star in August 1925 describing his “reverent” funeral service at St. James’ Cemetery, Toronto, Canada. The article proclaimed that “after eight years of effort” she had “succeeded in obtaining custody of his remains”.

Grey cross on pedestal, other headstones in the background, many trees with autumnal coloured leaves

William Durie’s new grave in St. James’ Cemetery, Ontario, Canada.

What “obtaining custody” really meant was stealing into the cemetery under the cover of darkness on 25th July, opening William’s coffin, retrieving most of his remains, packing them up in a case and clandestinely sailing with them to Canada. On hearing of the funeral thousands of miles away, the Commission conducted an investigation and made a grim discovery.

Report on the discovery of William Durie’s exhumation, 5 September 1925. CWGC Archive.

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In one last show of rebellion, Anna Durie never acknowledged her successful actions to the Commission. In 1928 she even filled out a form to request a personal inscription for the headstone mistakenly planned for her son’s grave at Loos, knowing he was no longer there. The epitaph she wrote could even be intended as a commentary on her own actions:

“He took the only way / And followed it / Unto the glorious end”.

Standard Imperial War Graves Commission form

Form filled out by Anna Durie requesting a personal inscription for her son, complete with payment of 13 shillings and 8 pence, 20 August 1928. CWGC Archive.