South Scotland

Harold Ewen's sacrifice remembered in the Netherlands

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe grave of L/Cpl Harold Ewen in the Netherlands has been tended by the 92-year-old Dutch woman for the past 65 years

"Don't forget: third row, fifth grave".

With those words Tonnie Thijssen would remind her sons Tony and Geert of the location of the war grave she has tended faithfully for more than six decades in the hope that they will take over its care after she has gone.

Buried there is Harold Ewen, a man who would now have been Tonnie's age had he not fallen during the liberation of her country on 16 February, 1945. Harold, a lance corporal in The King's Own Scottish Borderers, was only 26.

Gratitude for his ultimate sacrifice has driven Tonnie to make her way to Milsbeek war cemetery at least three times each year since 1948.

It started because, after the war, the authorities there asked local people to adopt a grave and assigned Harold's to Tonnie and her late husband. To begin with it was a duty, but it became much more than that as the years passed.

Image caption Mrs Thijssen says she feels as if Scottish soldier Harold Ewen was part of her family

"It is as if he belonged to us", she said. "I just found it a very normal thing to do because he fought for our freedom. It is like he is family."

Mrs Thijssen said that any mother would want the grave of her child to be visited and looked after and that is what she has done for Harold. She always harboured hope that she might eventually meet a relative of his but did not know where to look.

But Paul Ten Broeke did.

Paul, whose hobby is photography, was working on a war graves project in Milsbeek cemetery when he chanced upon Mrs Thijssen last Christmas. He was so moved by her story and undying devotion to Harold that he resolved to find out for her who he was.

The quest brought him to Scotland.

In Dumfriesshire he found the cottage where the Ewen family had lived. On Dunscore war memorial he saw the names of Harold and his brother William who also perished in the war. He even met one old lady, Edith Graham, who remembered Harold as a child at school.

Paul was unable to trace any relatives in Dumfriesshire, in Aberdeenshire where Harold's father came from (around Turriff), or in Portobello where the family also lived for a time and where Harold was born.

Wooden cross

However, he did come back with enough information and pictures to compile a comprehensive booklet on Harold's life and untimely death in Broederbosch Wood, near Milsbeek, during an assault on a German-occupied castle.

The knowledge has meant Tonnie Thijssen is closer to Harold than ever. And she treasures the picture of the handsome, smiling young man proudly wearing the cap of the KOSB.

"As I come towards the end of my life, Harold has come alive for me," she tells Paul. She is also happy that his story is now known in Scotland as well.

Tonnie has just been back to Harold's grave to lay flowers of remembrance on All Souls Day. She also planted a wooden poppy cross with a hand-written message on the back.

"For ever in my mind. Thank you for our freedom. Ton."

More on this story