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Only questions remain

By James Jackson
Waterloo Chronicle
Published Sept. 19, 2012Just a few of the mementoes left from Louis Steckenreiter, including his tennis racket.

On the morning of Apr. 10, 1917, the 128th Canadian Infantry Battalion joined thousands of other Canadian soldiers in the assault on Vimy Ridge in France. Among those soldiers was Waterloo native Private Louis Peter Steckenreiter.

The Germans had transformed the ridge into a veritable fortress of barbed wire, machine guns and artillery cannons, but by the end of the day the Canadian men had captured the entire ridge, save for a heavily fortified area known as the Pimple that was taken two days later.

Steckenreiter never made it to the top of Vimy Ridge. Though his body was never found, he was officially listed as killed in action on Apr. 10 and his name can be found alongside the more than 3,500 other Canadians killed over the course of the four-day battle.

Ninety-five years later, the remnants of Steckenreiter’s life are spread out across the top of a large kitchen table inside a corner unit at the Laurelwood Retirement Community home in Waterloo.

Photos, war medals, a death certificate and even his old tennis racket are just a few of the items that Dorothy Steckenreiter has collected over the past 40 years trying to piece together the life of Louis.

Dorothy is married to another Louis Steckenreiter, the nephew of the man who died at Vimy Ridge, and she has made it her mission to make sure that “Uncle Louis” is not forgotten.

“I want my family – my children and grandchildren – to know about their family,” she said.

The life of Uncle Louis has been a challenge to research. Louis – her husband – was born in 1921 and never knew his uncle, and he said his father and his aunts did not talk about Uncle Louis.

What they do know is that Louis Peter Steckenreiter was born Apr. 9, 1887 to Nicholaus and Helene Steckenreiter in Bridgeport. His grandparents had immigrated to Canada from Germany during the 1850s and he was one of five children in the family. He worked as a bookkeeper and labourer.

Louis moved to Saskatchewan after 1911 with his brother John to work on a farm and enlisted with the 128th Battalion in Moose Jaw in February 1916. The battalion trained at Camp Hughes in Manitoba before shipping out to England in August of that year.

“He was going over to fight cousins, maybe. Who knows?” said Dorothy.

“And to be killed.”

The only wartime letter they have is dated Sept. 19, 1916. The five-page letter, written in black ink, was sent from Surrey, England, soon after he arrived and offers a glimpse into Louis’ personality.

“I would appreciate if you could send me occasionally some of those cakes and homemade sweets like you used to make,” he wrote to his sister. “And tell John to draw a few dollars out of my bank account to send me some good, heavy woolen socks.”

In February 1917, the 128th battalion became part of the 5th Canadian Division and relieved a British contingent of soldiers stationed at Vimy Ridge.

Under the command of Canadian Major-General Sir Arthur William Currie, the soldiers trained for months for their assault on the ridge. The British and the French had spent two years trying to recapture the strategic position, a seemingly futile attempt that had cost them hundreds of thousands of lives.

The Canadian attack began on Apr. 9, 1917 and it took four days for the Canadians to finally dislodge the German soldiers from their perch atop the ridge. Louis was initially reported as missing in action following the assault on Apr. 10, but after the battle he was confirmed killed in action.

His body may not have been recovered, but his memorial stone can be found at Canadian Cemetery No. 2 in Pas-de-Calais, France, about one kilometre south of the Canadian memorial at Vimy.

To this day the battle is viewed as one of the turning points in the First World War and Canadian history. It was the first time that Canadian soldiers fought under the same banner and symbolized Canada’s coming of age as a nation.

Louis Steckenreiter is one of the 16 Waterloo men who died during the First World War and will be memorialized by a new cedar arbour being built by the Waterloo Horticultural Society at the Memorial Garden in Waterloo on Erb Street between Albert and Caroline streets this Sunday at 2 p.m.

The project was funded by the City of Waterloo, Royal Canadian Legion Branch 530, Ontario Trillium Foundation, Fleischauer Landscaping and the Waterloo Horticultural Society.

A reception at Legion Branch 530 will follow the dedication ceremony. A display honouring the 16 fallen soldiers will be at Waterloo City Hall from Sept. 24 to Oct. 26.

Louis died on the battlefields of France, leaving behind little more than the contents spread out on the Steckenreiter’s kitchen table. He was unmarried and had no children, but the letter he sent to his sister tells of more than just cakes and socks.

He also wrote of a ring he had given to a woman named Edna back in Saskatchewan before leaving for Europe, never to return.

“He talks about giving somebody a ring, but we don’t know who she is,” said Dorothy.

The fact he died just one day after his 30th birthday is just as heartbreaking, she said.

“I think it’s sad,” said Dorothy. “I wonder if he celebrated. I wonder if he had a cake.”

One other question lingers in the back of Dorothy’s mind as she looks over the portraits of the man that remains a mystery to this day. “You wonder what his kids would have been like if he had kids?” she said.

“What would they have done? What would they look like?”

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