At the Winnipeg Free Press, Bill Redekop profiles Des Kappel, the toponymist in charge of naming the 90,000 remaining land features and lakes in the Canadian province of Manitoba. Currently tasked with matching land features to casualties of the First World War, Kappel’s work is often an emotional tour through history as he collects letters and photos of the fallen for inclusion in his database.
The commemorative project was about more than just naming. The province also asked for photographs, biographical information and any other documentation from families who suffered war casualties. These are included in a database. Kappel communicated with many of the families during the process.
“For some people, (the commemorative naming) is closure because the person died overseas, or right in the sea, and are buried overseas, if formally buried at all. We have families go up to the commemorative lakes and build cairns or put down plaques.” And some family members request that their ashes be spread on the lake that bears the name of their loved one.
The compilation of people’s stories brings home the insanity of war. It includes names, photos, biographies, the geographical features commemorated in their name, and very personal information, such as their letters home.
Take the example of Pte. Ralph Aandal of St. Vital. “I had a nice trip out here. We rode on the train for quite a ways. Then we got off and rode on camel for miles and miles.” He was joking. He had arrived in the Carberry desert to train at the nearby Shilo military base.
His last letter was postmarked the day he died: “We are still on the German border,” he wrote. “I haven’t been sick at all out here. It’s funny we all haven’t gone to the hospital. We are laying in water day and night… Love Ralph (14 December, 1944).”
That’s just the first name in the commemorative edition. Aandel Lake, northeast of Reindeer Lake in northern Manitoba, is named after him.