Sidney Norris Rich was 22 years old when he was killed near the Belgian town of Ypres on June 3, 1916. A century later, his short life and time spent in the military during the First World War is the subject of a documentary called Countdown to Sanctuary Wood.
The film explores Rich’s short life as it counts down his final days, from his enlistment in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (June 21, 1915), to his eventual death in a place called Sanctuary Wood, only 349 days later.
Filmmaker Cliff Caprani was inspired to make the film after reading a plaque dedicated to Rich on the wall of All Saints Anglican Church in Ladner.
“If the plaque had just simply said that he had died in Belgium, I don’t know that I would have been as interested,” Caprani said. “But the fact that he died in a place called Sanctuary Wood, that just struck me as incredibly ironic and sad.”
Caprani reached out to Kathy Cuthbert, Rich’s grandniece, about making a documentary looking at Rich’s life. Cuthbert came on as a co-producer of the film and, with the family’s blessing, they set out to learn as much as they could.
“It surprised me that my mom had so many things from Sidney, letters and photos,” Cuthbert said. “That helped put that puzzle pieces together and just made it more personal, seeing his own handwriting.”
Born in Ladner’s Landing (part of what is now Ladner) on June 27, 1893, Rich volunteered to help fight in Europe and, because of his previous training as a surveyor, was assigned the job of range finder in a machine gun section of the 3rd Canadian Pioneer Division of the 48th Battalion.
While the rest of his division built trenches and other fortifications to keep the soldiers on the front relatively safe, Rich’s unit and others like it kept a watchful eye out for enemy troops.
Range finding was dangerous work that required Rich be positioned in front of the lines in order to act as the eyes of his gunner and accurately direct his fire at enemy forces.
Rich was killed in what was likely his first time seeing action, along with 11 of his friends in the unit. His enlistment papers committed him to serve “for the term of one year.” Rich was killed in action with only 18 days left to go.
In addition to the plaque at All Saints, Rich’s name is inscribed on the cenotaph in Ladner’s Memorial Park and on the Menin Gate, a monument dedicated to British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed at Ypres in the First World War and whose graves are unknown.
Rich’s father Harry Nelson Rich was instrumental in the construction of the Ladner cenotaph, and in a story that didn’t make the film, Cuthbert tells of how the town payed tribute when the monument was unveiled on Sunday, May 21, 1921.
“My mom was telling Cliff and I … she remembered when the cenotaph was opened. She said it was the May Days parade and her grandfather was ill — so Sidney’s dad was ill — but they rerouted the parade through the streets of Ladner to go by his house,” Cuthbert said. “He was on a chair on the front porch and waving, and she was in the parade going, ‘That’s my grandpa, that’s my grandpa!’
“So [Cliff and I] kind of talked later about maybe this is where my mom’s memory wasn’t so good because that wouldn’t have been May Day, that would have been Remembrance Day. Then I saw an old article from the Ladner Optimist [saying] ‘opening of the cenotaph, Ladner May Day parade goes through street by H.N. Rich’s house.’ So she was right.”
In the film, Cuthbert and her sister Barb Wadey joined the filmmaker as he retraced Rich’s journey across the sea to England and onward to Belgium.
Their trip coincided roughly with the 100th anniversary of Rich’s death, and while there the sisters were able to place a wreath at the Menin Gate in his honour.
Later, while visiting Sanctuary Wood itself, Caprani and historian/guide Stephen Binks surprised Cuthbert and Wadey with a ceremonial railway spike emblazoned with Rich’s name. Wooden stakes and railway spikes were used by surveyors like Rich to mark survey points in the ground, and together, the sisters planted this subtle yet poignant tribute to their fallen ancestor into the very ground on which he had fought and died.
“That was quite a moment, quite an emotional moment,” Cuthbert said. “I didn’t understand how deeply I’d feel about learning his story and being in Belgium.”
Caprani described the film as something of a community effort. Local historian Peter Broznitsky helped with the research, a Ladner actress (who asked to go uncredited) played Rich’s older sister Edith in a reenactment, Tsawwassen composer Lesley Sutherland wrote and performed the score for the film, and Cuthbert, who lives in North Delta, had her son Patrick portray Rich in a reenactment of his enlistment.
“The only thing wrong with Patrick was the fact that he was about a foot too tall for the role. Sidney was less than six foot and Patrick is a generous six-and-a-half footer, but other than that he was great,” Caprani said.
“We tried to make it as local as we could, so people from the community in one way, shape or form,” he continued. “We really tried to involve as many people as we could from here.”
Caprani went on to describe the film as one of the easiest he’s ever worked on.
“I’ve made a few films now and they can be quite tortured processes — you want to do this and you can’t, or you want to talk to this person and they’re not available or whatever. This film was remarkable in that almost anything that we wanted to do we managed to get to do,” he said.
“There was a sense for me that this was kind of the right thing to be doing, we were getting some kind of help from whatever, the universe, God, from Sidney, I don’t know, but somehow it all came together.”
Not that the making of the film was entirely without its challenges.
“I guess the biggest surprise was telling my 90-year-old mother that Sidney did not have German measles,” Cuthbert said, referring to how Rich spent roughly two months in an English hospital recovering from venereal disease.
“Cliff had said the whole concept of the film, the countdown of [Sidney’s] remaining days, if he’s missing for 59 days [that would have been hard to explain]. … And so Cliff said, ‘Before I make this film I want your family to be okay with me bringing that out.’ And of course, the family had no idea, they thought he had German measles, right? So [we told] my mother and she agreed that that’s okay to go ahead and put that in the film.”
The project took about two and a half years to complete, from the start of research to the finished product, and Countdown to Sanctuary Wood had its premier at Ladner’s Genesis Theatre in June 2017.
The film has yet to be made available online as Caprani is still submitting it various film festivals and is hopeful it will even be broadcast on the Knowledge Network one day.
Until then, people interested in seeing the film can keep an eye out for screenings at their local libraries and rec centres.
For more information on the film and the life of Sidney Rich, visit sidneyrich.ca.