Belgium Trip: Part 2
One of the exciting opportunities for me in visiting Belgium was to visit some of the memorial sites to Canada's military involvement in WWI and WWII. Lynne seemed to share this interest and ahead of time we had spoken about how emotional it might be. I certainly knew it would be for me as I have been aware for years that war had been an emotional issue for me. Either because of it or in spite of it, I have been a pacifist all my adult life. ( As a young person I used to think how wonderful it would be to join the French Foreign Legion) . I first became aware of the emotions I have around the results of war when I was in my first year of university. I casually began reading the back page of the local Waterloo paper on Remembrance Day where they listed the young soldiers that died in the two World Wars that were from this small community. Alone, in my room, I began to cry. It seems I am a real softy over this issue to this day. As a result, I have yet to muster the courage to visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, the war of my generation that I expended so much energy in opposing while living in the United States. In spite of not having known anyone who died in any war, I just know I would break down and cry at this memorial to the men of my generation. Perhaps, one day soon.
I looked forward with anticipation and some trepidation the visit to some memorials to my parents and grandparents wars.
We went first to Vimy Ridge, in Northern France. It was a warm and sunny day: a perfect day to be there.
(click on photos to enlarge)
The Vimy Ridge Memorial
I have previously written about Vimy Ridge so I will try not to go on too long about it.
Vimy Ridge was the site of a very significant battle in World War I, around the French city of Arras, in which the Canadian soldiers where victorious, after the French and British had failed in their attempts to capture this piece of French landscape. It was important to the Germans to protect the coal mining facilities near by. Canada's victory here was the first major victory of WWI which had been a stand- off in a trench war of attrition, for over two years.
It was more than a military victory for Canada. In WW I Canada was still a colony of Britain. Canada supplied the Canadian Corp , attached to the British military, but largely under the leadership of Canadian Generals. Canada's citizen military was an assemblage of ordinary Canadians from farms, small towns and provincial cities who came together to fight as a unit representing all parts of Canada. They performed well and bravely under creative leadership. For Canada, Vimy Ridge represents a step in the growth of a national identity such that by World War II, Canada, as a Nation, declared war and fielded it's own military of a million men out of a population of 12 million people. Vimy Ridge was for Canada, what the Battle of Gallipoli was for Australia and New Zealand.
The site of Vimy Ridge is a little part of Canada. It was given to Canada by the French. At the bottom of the slope up to the memorial is a small forest of trees from Canada planted over the land that still is scared by craters from the artillery bombardment. It is roped off , kept mowed by grazing sheep, for to this day there remains unexploded ordinance in the ground. The whole site is in fact a graveyard as the remains of many soldiers who fought and died here were never recovered or identified. They were just lost in the wet earth devastated in the chaos of this kind of trench warfare exchanging artillery bombardments.
It was nice to be greeted by young Canadian university students who conducts the tours and answer questions every year. They are all bilingual and from every part of Canada.
We took the tour in a restored mine tunnel and some trenches. Seeing it, it is hard to really appreciate how dreadful the conditions were. The mine tunnels and trenches were wet and cold in the Winter. They are cramped. At times soldiers remained in the tunnels for day at a time without proper sanitation, often in silence and darkness, eating and sleeping and no doubt thinking about their fate when they were to join the fight. If one stumbled one could be trampled to death getting out of the tunnels. At places, the German and Canadian lines were just an easy stone's throw away from one another. One could shout across and even hear some of the enemies conversation. A careless moment, carrying one's head to high, could result in a soldier being killed by a sniper. In visiting the tunnels and trenches we tried to image how dreadful it was for soldiers.
The Memorial itself stands tall and alone at the top of a gentle slope. I personally would not have called it a ridge at all, although on the back side the slope is steeper and overlooks the rural countryside. For me approaching the memorial was an act of reverence. It was a gentle walk up from the parking lot. Only when you are close to it are you aware how monumental it is. It is gleaming white marble, (recently cleaned). I found myself hesitant to walk up on to it. There was a feeling of entering "sacred space" similar to the feeling one can have entering a beautiful house of worship. You want to speak in hushed tones and only listen to the quiet sounds around you. At Vimy of course this monument is out of doors and reaches up to the bright blue sky on this day. It is illuminated at night and must be an impressive site from the surrounding countryside.
I found I wanted to be along when exploring the monument, looking at the statuary on it, reading some of the names chiseled into the stone and at each side reading the names of significant battles in WWI that Canada participated in, also chiseled into the monument. I preferred to be alone with my thoughts, a comment or touch by another person might have bought me to tears. The over 11,000 names on this memorial were of soldiers who died and whose remains were never recovered and identified to be buried in an individual grave.
We stopped and visited Canadian Cemetery #2 just off the battlefield. It was immaculately kept with gleaming white headstones in neat rows with flowers at each. It is striking too see how many of the graves just indicate that a soldier is buried here. There is no name recorded.
I was glad for this once in a lifetime visit to this iconic Canadian memorial in France.
I wish we had had time to visit Beaumont Hamel nearby. This was the site of the tragic battle by the soldiers from Newfoundland and Labrador, in the Great War. While they were not part of Canada in either war, after they joined Confederation, in 1949, their history became part of Canada's history. In this battle the soldiers from Newfoundland and Labrador were slaughtered such that only a handful out of about 900 could assemble the next day . Nearly every family in Newfoundland was touched by this tragedy and this battle is a dreadful memory that some Canadians endure still today.
We next went to Iepers (Ypers) in Belgium.
The Menin Gate
The Menin Gate is another monumental war memorial. It is an entrance to the town through the ramparts that once surrounded the town as a protective fortification. It was tranformed into a memorial after WWI, On it walls are chiselled the names of 55,000 soldiers who died in the many battles of WWI in this area, whose remains were never recovered. They were blown to pieces or just trampled into the wet fields of the battles. One of the Battles of Ypres was the Battle of Passchendaele, (the Third Battle of Ypres) which was the background to a recent Canadian movie. The names are of British and Commonwealth soldiers, over 6,000 are Canadians.
The Menin Gate is very impressive. It is overwhelming to see all the names on it walls. It was particularly moving to see wreaths of poppies left there. I saw one for Halton and a High School in Unionville, both near Toronto.
Every evening at 8:00 PM. the traffic through the gate is stopped: an honour guard comes out into the road and has a ceremony including blowing the Last Post on a trumpet. This has been done every day since 1927, except for a couple of years during WWII when the Germans occupied the city. I would have very much like to have witnessed this but we could not stay.
Cloth Hall Site of the Flanders' Field Museum
The Flanders' Field Museum is in the Cloth Hall. This very large gothic building is in the center of Iepers. At first I thought it was a church. In fact, it was an industrial building. It housed the cloth making industry in this town, which was its major industry. It turns out it is the largest gothic building that was not built for an ecclesiastical purpose.
Iepers (Ypers) was reduced to rubble in WWI and WWII. In the Great War the Cloth Hall was badly damaged and had it's roof destroyed. In one day as many as 100,000 people died who had sought refuge in the city as they fled the battle in the countryside. The town has been rebuilt
as it once was.
On entering the Cloth Hall we first saw an exhibit about the Chinese workers that served in the Great War. This was the first time we had ever heard of Chinese involvement in the war. Chinese contract workers were imported from China, most had never been outside China or even their village when they were brought to the European theater of war. They worked handling and hauling supplies and munitions. Sadly, there are no memorials to their efforts or grave markers of those who perished in the war.
The Flanders' Field Museum is an interactive one where you can spend a lot of time learning of the details of the war in the Ypres Salient, the experiences of the soldiers and to a lesser extent the experiences of the civilians. I learned a lot and could have spent more time there.
It was very moving to hear the reading of the poem "In Flanders' Field" read and seeing John McCrae's text in his own hand inscribed on the wall.
We next visited Talbot House in the small town of Poperinge
The attic chapel in Talbot House
Not far from Iepers is the small town of Poperinge, surrounded by farms that grow a lot of hops.
Besides a hops museum and the luxury hotel we stayed in the town is the location of Talbot House.
During the Great War, Poperinge was located just a few miles from the war front. It was not destroyed during the war of attrition over a very small area. A military chaplain, Philip "Tubby" Clayton decided he wanted to create a place away from the battle field where soldiers, regardless of rank, could come when they were given rest time away from the front. A wealthy local person offered him his home to use after he removed all his things to a safe place. Thousands of soldiers took advantage of the benefits of Talbot House. They would come from the front caked in filth and exhausted. Here they would get to wash, have their clothes cleaned by the local women of the town, clean their kit of gear and perhaps forget the war for a while, enjoying the company of the other soldiers, the local girls and enjoying the beer that Belgium is so famous for. The house has a very peaceful garden in which to seek some quiet. It also had cobbled together a chapel in the attic. According to the sign as I climbed the steep steps, 100,000 soldiers climbed them for a service or a moment of spiritual reflection.
After the war, the owner got tired of people knocking on his door saying they had stayed there during the fighting. He sold the home so it could become a museum as it remains today with many of the artifacts and furnishing restored to its rooms.
Our final memorial site to visit was the Canada and Polish Museum. It is in the small town a Adegem.
This is the entrance to the Canada and Poland Museum
This is a private museum. The owner promised his father on his death bed that he would create a memorial museum honouring the Canadians who fought in the area in the Battle of the Scheldt, in the Second World War. The owner's father had been in the resistance and radioed England when the German bombers passed overhead. The Canadians are well remembered in this area. The Polish soldiers fought with the Canadians in the Battle of the Scheldt.
After The successful D Day landing the Canadians were assigned the task of liberating the towns along the coast as far as the Scheldt Estuary. There they were to liberate it from the defensive positions of the Germans. Under-supplied and undermanned the Canadians liberated this area and made the port of Antwerp available to resupply allied troops. They went on to liberate the Netherlands just to the North, where Canada and Canadians are held in high regard, two generations on, for their efforts on behalf of the Dutch.
When Canada was given the task to liberating the low countries of Belgium and the Netherlands, the British pushed on toward the Rhine and Germany while the Americans liberated Paris and then moved North toward Germany, crossing the Rhine after defeating the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge. The British and the Americans were in the rush to get the glory on reaching Berlin. By now everyone know the war was over. In fact, I think it had been over ever since the Russians defeated the Germans and destroyed their army at the Battle of Stalingrad. If D Day had failed, the march of history might have be redirected for a while but the Germans could not fight and supply troops on several fronts at one time. (Well that is how I read the history).
The Canadian Polish Museum was privately funded after efforts to get public funds to build it failed. It is in a quiet setting on the edge of town. The museum displays are set up as a series of dioramas showing soldiers in various fighting situations along with correct uniforms and gear. One display shows a group of soldiers in a trench, while another shows a communication center all set up and manned with staff. There is a film of the actual fighting in this area which illustrates the commentary. This is a wonderful museum, off the beaten path, well worth visiting.
There is so much history to learn about in Belgium. It has a long history of being fought over. There are monuments to the dead everywhere. Of course, the graveyards with their gleaming while headstones are most prominent. They seem to be everywhere. Some are large formal affairs. Others are just a few graves when soldiers where buried where they fell. Also every little town has a central monument to their citizens that died in war.
I have been reading a military history of the Battle of the Scheldt called "Terrible Victory" by Mark Zeuhlke. It is a fascinating read, particularly when I recognize names and places, having been there.
On this part of our time in Belgium I feel I have felt much emotion, and learned much ,and grown in appreciation for the sacrifice made by those who answered the call of their Nation.