Back from Europe – Part the Fifth!

remembrance_day___poppy_day_by_daliscarWelcome back to the latest edition on the Williams’ Family Eurotrip 2014! Today, in what I hope will be the second-last post in this segment, I will be covering some of my favorite aspects of the trip. These included our visit to the Caen Memorial Museum, our overnight in Chartres, and our arrival in Paris which was accompanied by some very interesting times in the Latin Quarter. Here’s how it all well down…

Friday, April 18th – Sunday, April 20th – Caen and Chartres and Paris:
The day started with us packing up and saying goodbye to the Lion D’Or, which for the past few days had been our home away from home, complete with feline company! Then, we hit the road on our way to Chartres; and unlike previous days, we only made one stop along the way. However, it was an important stop, since it was the last stop on our tour of World War II sites and memorials. Initially, we had talked about visiting the Ardennes Abbey, where 20 Canadian POWs had been murdered by SS troops on July 8th, 1944.

The Abbey has since been converted into a museum that pays homage to these individuals and commemorates the sacrifices made by countless people during the Battle of Normandy. However, my father had visited it twice now and cautioned that it was quite depressing. So instead, we decided to detour through the northern part of Caen to visit the Mémorial de Caen, a museum and memorial which was by far the largest and most detailed museum we had seen on the trip.

Mémorial de Caen, map out front of all the events around Caen during the Battle of Normandy 1944
Mémorial de Caen, map out front of all the events around Caen during the Battle of Normandy 1944

Outside the museum, we found a lovely map where I concluded explaining the events surrounding the Battle of Caen – one of the most intensive battles to take place during Operation Overlord and the liberation of France. This proved to be a good time to share what I knew, since the museum was immensely more detailed on the subject and would have made my little talk pointless! And picking up where we had left off during our visit to Juno Beach and the Normandy countryside, I began sharing with my wife and olks exactly how hard it had been in 1944 to take the city.

Initially a D-Day objective, it would take the British, Canadian and Allied forces a total of 45 days to secure the city of Caen. Its strategic position in the Eastern Sector of Normandy, as well being a major crossing point over the Orne river, made capturing it an absolute necessity. To the Allies, taking the city was a matter of securing a solid beachhead and preventing a German counter-attack. To the Germans, holding it was a matter of ensuring that the Allied forces would be denied the ability to venture father south.

Battle-for-CaenIn June, the Canadian 3rd Division managed to secure the high ground to the west and south-west of the city, including the towns of Carpiquet, Authrie and Rots. To the north, the British I Corps had also seized all land outside of the city, but still faced tough resistance from the German 12th SS Panzers, the 21st Panzer Division, and the 716th Infantry Division. Since their attempt to take the city by a direct assault on D-Day had failed, General Montgomery now looked to take the city with a pincer movement.

Thus began Operation Perch, which commenced on the 7th of June (D-Day+1) and aimed at achieving a breakout west around Bayeux. As the I Corps attacked the town of Cagny some 5 km south-east of Caen, the British XXX Corps (located 20 km to the west) would push south of Bayeux and cross the Odon river, in an attempt to outflank the Germans south of the city. Almost immediately, the attack ran into problems, which would force further delays in liberating Caen.

panzer_lehrIn the west, the XXX Corps was delayed after reaching the town of Tilly-sur-Seulles, where they became bogged down by hedgerows and stiff resistance from the 12th SS Panzers and the Panzer-Lehr Division – an elite unit with many of Germany’s most advanced tanks (such as the Panzer V “Panther” tank, pictured above). In the east, the I Corps’ advance was stalled thanks to tough resistance from the battle-hardened 21st Panzer Division. By the 13th of June, the offensive was called off.

However, on the following day, the German line broke to the west of the XXX Corps, thanks to the efforts of the American 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One). After withdrawing south, the Germans opened a 12 km gap in their lines, which the British 7th Armored Division sought to exploit by pushing south. In an attempt to outflank the Panzer-Lehr Division, the 7th Armored aimed to capture the town of Villers-Bocage some 15 kms south of Bayeux.

operation_perchHowever, the British once again experienced severe resistance and after two days of intense fighting, they fell back on June 14th. It was hoped that with some reinforcements, they would resume the attack  on the 19th and push through. However, a terrible storm fell on the English Channel, which caused severe disruption to beach supply operations and damaged the artificial harbor at Arromanches (see “Part the Fourth”, specifically the stuff dealing with Mulberry Harbor).

Because of this, offensive operations were postponed until July, at which point, General Montgomery would once again plan to seize Caen by a direct assault. The first phase of this assault was known as Operation Windsor, and called for the Canadian and British forces west of Caen to retake the town of Carpiquet from the 12th SS and then secure the Carpiquet Airfield to the south. The second phase, known as Operation Charnwood, would see the I Corps clearing the north end of Caen and seizing the bridgeheads into the southern part of the city.

operation_windsorOn July 4th, the attack commenced, with Canadian and British forces braving mines, anti-tank guns, and machine gun nests to take Carpiquet. By the following day, the town had been secured and several German counterattacks had been repulsed. By July 8th, acting on intelligence provided by the French Resistance, the Canadian and British forces marched on the airfield and found it abandoned. Operation Windsor was a success.

Operation Charnwood, by contrast, met with limited success, and caused significant damage to the city of Caen. On July 7th, the began with a massive aerial bombardment where the first wave of bombers dropped over 1,800 tons of munitions on the city. The Allies hoped to minimize civilian deaths by dropping leaflets prior to the bombing. However, the drop took place just a day prior, and due to complications caused by the weather, only a few thousands leaflets reached their destination and only a few hundred townspeople left.

operation_charnwoodOn the following morning, the I Corps mobilized and reached the outskirts of town by nightfall. The Germans immediately began evacuating across the Orne river, leaving elements of their forces behind to fight a rearguard action in the rubble-filled streets. Despite fierce resistance, the English and Canadian forces secured the northern half of Caen by the 9th of July and decimated the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division. However, the bridges across the Odon were not secured, and were either blocked by rubble or heavily defended from the south bank.

Because of this, the Operation was called off by the 9th of July since no further gains were possible. Though it had been delcared a success, Caen was not yet fully liberated and the city had suffered extensive damage. It’s civilian population which had been roughly 60,000 before the battle – had now dropped to 17,000, which caused widespread resentment towards the liberators. Nevertheless, the townspeople in the northern half of the city still came out in force to celebrate the defeat of the Germans.

Royal_Engineers_in_CaenLater than month, Monty once again planned to take the rest of the city with a pincer movement. Known as Operation Atlantic, this assault involved the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division advancing to the east of Caen to secure the suburb of Colombelles while the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division drove south to seize the high ground of Verrieres Ridge. Once again, these assaults would coincide with a British offensive farther east. On the 18th and 19th of July, the Canadian 3rd Division managed to secure the town of Colombelles from the 21st Panzers and drove them over the Orne river, effectively liberating all of Caen.

Unfortunately, the 2nd Division was stalled while trying to take Verrieres Ridge, thanks in part to heavy rains that turned the ground to mud – which bogged down their armor support and grounded the RAF – and because the Germans were well fortified and had artillery support. After several days of fighting, the 2nd Division fell back and were reinforced by elements of the 3rd Divisions; and together, they were able to halt the counter-attacks launched by the 12th SS Panzers.

operation_goodwoodMeanwhile, the I and VIII British Corps initiated Operation Goodwood on July 18th, which sought to capture the town of Bourguébus and the high ground south of the city. Once again, the operation was preceded by extensive bombing, which harried the German forces that had fallen back from Caen. However, the advance stalled due to numerous factors and the British lost the element of surprise. For starters, the British only had six bridges over the Orne river, which slowed the crossing of the 1000+ vehicles taking part in the offensive considerably.

Once they reached the other side, they were forced to contend with minefields that had been lain by the 51st Highland Division to defend their positions just a few days prior. But since the element of surprise was already lost, British command decided to order the mines cleared. Two days later, the attack resumed. However, the Germans had recovered from the bombing by then, and the British were forced to clear several well-defended towns that were connected by underground tunnels.

operation_goodwood1In addition, the German artillery on Bourguébus ridge had not been destroyed by the Allied bombing. And thanks to their numerous observation posts stationed throughout the villages in the region, they were able to observe the British advance and call in artillery support on their armor. Between the 18th and the 20th, they also mounted numerous counter-attacks, and by the end of the day, Montgomery brought the operation to a close, citing bad weather.

All told, Goodwood did not go as planned and was a failure in terms of achieving a breakout. Some 4000-5000 Allied troops and 250-350 tanks were also lost in the assault. The German losses are unknown, but some 2500 men were captured (mostly by the British since the Canadians were no longer taking SS prisoners) and between 75 and 100 tanks were destroyed. However, these two operations did manage to secure important strategic ground, liberated the rest of Caen, and effectively bled the Germans dry in the region.

Saint_Lo_BreakthroughBut most importantly of all, the sustained British, Canadian and Allied efforts in and around Caen managed to tie down four German Corps, which included important armored divisions, while the Americans were planning their own breakout to the west. On July 25th, just one day after the Canadians and British were told to dig in, the 1st US Army launched Operation Cobra, which effectively achieved a breakout around the town of Saint-Lô.

This breakout would allow the American forces to drive south and east, effectively outflanking what was left of the German forces, while the British 2nd Army – with the Canadian 4th and 1st Polish Armored Divisions leading the way – closed in on them from the north. This encirclement maneuver, which would come to be known as the Battle Falaise Pocket, effectively decimated what was left of the German army and signaled the liberation of France. Thereafter, the Allies would advance onto Paris and by the 30th of August, they were marching down the Champs d’Elysee. A massive crowd of jubilant Parisians turned out to welcome their arrival, and the liberation of France was declared.

Mémorial de Caen, out front afterwards
Mémorial de Caen, out front afterwards

All of this and more was covered in beautiful detail inside the museum, which began with a movie called “”. We then proceeded through a series of rooms with pictures, artifacts, infographics and write-ups that explained every aspect of the war – ranging from the prelude and the build-up  to every event that took place between 1939 and 1945. And of course, considerable space and resources were committed to the aftermath, which included the Cold War, Peacekeeping, and war in peace in the modern world.

The entire experience then closed with a movie entitled “Hope”, which gave an audio-visual rundown of the conflicts and major historical events that have taken place since 1945. And though the tone of the movie didn’t seem particularly hopeful, it seem to contain some hints that lessons had been learned and the state of the world had improved somewhat since. At least, that was the impression I chose to take away, others in our party disagreed.

The Cathedral of Chartres in the distance
The Cathedral of Chartres in the distance

And then, it was on to Chartres, lock, stock and barrel! Compared to the town where we spent the previous week and a half, this city was significantly bigger.  As such, it took some time to navigate through the morass of major streets and burbs before we finally came to the old town, which is instantly identifiable by the ancient stone wall and mote that surround it, not to mention the fact that it sits on the high-ground. And in the distance, we could see the spires of the looming at the crest of the hill.

Once inside the walls, the streets instantly narrowed, and getting to our hotel – which was awesomely located next to the Cathedral – involved going along some winding back-streets that proceeded ever uphill. Betty (our GPS) had some issues, mainly because the tight streets and high walls made it hard for her to get a signal. And yet, we somehow found our way to the top and street with our hotel on it. And once we had unpacked and entered, the nice lady who ran the place took on another climbing adventure.

The moat that surrounds the old city
The moat that surrounds the old city

Basically, this hotel (which overlooks the Cathedral) is a narrow, stacked house. On the ground floor, there’s the restaurant and bar, with the rooms stacked vertically above and below it. My folks were in the room one floor up, while Carla and I got the appropriately-named “Ange” room (Angel) that was at the very top, and had the best view of the Cathedral. It also had something we hadn’t seen in days and were looking forward to using – a tub with jets!

The room was also very traditional looking – with wallpaper that looked like plaster coating and old wooden beams in the ceiling that woke us up with their creaking! My folks room was a little different. In addition to a strange 80’s deco scheme, it had a circular bed, a stand-up shower and no tub, and a wall-mounted fire place that took some time to figure out. In fact, it wasn’t even immediately apparent that it WAS a fireplace.

The Cathedral entrance
The Cathedral entrance

After unpacking and uncorking the cider and Calvados in our room (an experience that left us a little shaken), the four of us proceeded to take a walk around the Cathedral before having dinner. In many ways, the Chartres Cathedral was similar to what we had seen in Ypres and Bayeux – in that their designs were a combination of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. This is owing to their immense longevity and the fact that they’ve been renovated and had additions put on over the centuries.

However, Chartres was bigger by comparison, and had what my father noted were true examples of flying buttresses. Did I mention he’s an architect? That kind of seems like something worth mentioning. In any case, these are basically load-bearing arches that are attached to the outside of the building, a common feature in Gothic cathedrals. And this baby had plenty of them! And of course, the stain-glass windows – which according to information provided inside contain the first blue glass ever made – were breathtakingly impressive.

The stained-glass windows located at the nave
The stained-glass windows located at the Nave

After noting the labyrinth pattern on the stone floor – and some strange symbols in the center of it that we joked were evidence of  the da Vinci Code – we walked around to the Nave (my father pointed out all the architectural features and names) and noticed the stone wall that was covered with intricate carvings. We also noted the renovations that were taking place, where the columns and stonework were all getting a “facelift”. This amounted to stripping the top layers off to remove the 1000+ years worth of soot that had built up them.

To save time, I should also note that we came back the next day and scale the steps of the bell tower. This is something you have to pay for, but we seriously wanted to mount those 350 steps to take in the view. And so we could say we did it! Now let me tell you, scaling a Gothic Cathedral’s 350-step winding staircase is no picnic! The going was cramped, the air moldy, and the steps a little slippery. Still, we couldn’t help but feel we were breathing in centuries of history, even if it did cause some coughing afterward.

Carla at the top of the bell tower
Carla at the top of the bell tower

At the top, we got a bird’s eye view of the old section of town, not to mention the new town and the countryside beyond. Once again, there were plenty of golden canola fields to be seen between grassy fields. And of course, we got a pretty good close-up of the flying buttresses, gargoyles and other Gothic external features. And then, we descended, which proved to be almost but not quite as difficult as going up. We also watched the Cathedral fill with people as the locals prepared for the Easter Sunday service.

Getting back to the night before, we then had dinner at the restaurant, which had an interesting feature of the menu. My mother spotted “Filet de Loup”, which roughly translates to “filet of wolf”, or so we thought. Naturally, we were a little concerned and suspected we might have wandered into a cultural difference. But our server resolved this when she explained that this is actually the name for a whitefish filet, and found our misunderstanding to be quite perplexing. Seriously, she looked at us like we were on drugs!

The light show on the Cathedral facade that took place that night
The light show on the Cathedral facade that took place that night

My wife and mother had the lasagna, which they didn’t really like, while my father enjoyed the filet de loup, and I enjoyed a filet of monkfish with chorizo. This was all washed down with glasses of Affligem, which were necessary after the Caldavos incident. And then, we popped back outside because we noticed an interesting light show happening on the front of the cathedral. At first, we thought someone was throwing rolls of TP down the front. But upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a dazzling visual display that was being projected onto the facade.

We snapped some photos of the show, but as you can see, they didn’t turn out to well owing to the need for low light to capture all the vivid colors. Then it was back to our rooms, a nice hot bath, and a sound sleep. Well, mostly sound, since the popping noise in the ceiling did wake us up and one point and make us wonder if the old building was about to fall down around our ears. Lucky for us, it didn’t, and the popping noises abated long enough for us to get back to sleep.

l'Academie de la Biere
l’Academie de la Biere

In the morning, we packed up (mournfully), did our second tour of the Cathedral (complete with the stair climb), and then said good-bye to the hotel. While we waited for my father to secure the car from a lot down the road, I spotted a building that bore the name “l’Academie de la Biere”, which I suspected was a bar with some serious taps and bottles. I ventured down to snap some photos of it. Too bad we hadn’t noticed it the night before!

And then, with the car packed and the bill paid, we set off for Paris! Our first stop was the Charles de Gaulle Airport where we needed to return the car. Our time in Paris would be spent car-free, as we knew that public transit there is quite extensive, and to drive there is to take one’s life in one’s hands! Predictably, getting into the airport was about as hard as getting out, and it took a few roundabouts on the highway to get to the rental lot on the bottom level.

Us on the train from CDG Airport to Paris
Us on the train from CDG Airport to Paris

From the airport, we hopped the train into the city, where he began subway surfing from train to train. It was here that we came to understand exactly what is meant by “mass transit”, which in Paris equates to the crush of humanity trying to make its way through congested platforms, trains and tunnels. And we had all our bags with us, to boot, which were quite heavy. Wanting to be the good son, I carried a few heavy bags, and was offered help repeatedly.

Eventually, to end the flurry of concern and proferred aid, I said: “The next person who offers me help will be mentioned, by name, in the suicide note.” That’s not an original quote, fyi, and it didn’t quite get the laughs I was hoping for. And after much hauling and walking, we eventually found our exit and ascended into the Paris city streets. From there, we walked the few blocks that would take us to our hotel in the Latin Quarter – la Hôtel des Grandes Ecoles.

Hotel Grandes Ecoles Courtyard
Hotel Grandes Ecoles Courtyard

I’ll be honest, our rooms were a bit tight, but the hotel did have a lovely courtyard paved with cobblestones. And not far away, there was a lovely roundabout with plenty of restaurants, all of which had extensive patios that faced the fountain in the middle. We took a look at all this and selected one based on my wife’s craving for nachos. It was called la Petit , a place that specialized in gourmet burgers and did make a good nacho plate. Instead of sour cream and cheddar, they used crème fraîche and melted Emmental.

Much like in Bayeux, we would dine here twice. Some places just make a lasting impression I guess! Oh, and the beer of choice around the Latin Quarter was yet another Abbey Blonde ale known as Grimbergen, though Kronenbourg certainly got top billing at the local bars as well. With our bellies full and our feet and backs tired of walking and carrying bags, we once again retired for the night and planned for a full day of adventure on the morrow.

La Seine, with the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral in the distance
La Seine, with the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral in the distance

This consisted of us taking a walk down to the Seine to take in all the sights and sounds of Paris. We arrived on Quai St. Bernard, with the Cathedral of Notre Dame to the west by a few leagues. We headed their immediately, and found some serious crowds assembled out front. Since it was Easter Weekend, there was quite a lineup to get in, and we decided we’d have to wait until another day to see the place from the inside. So instead, we decided to catch a bus to see all of the major sights in one afternoon.

As a sidenote, people looking to book a Paris bus tour have the option of doing a single 2 hour roundabout trip, or a day-long trip that where people can jump on and off the bus at any of the major sights. We opted for the former, and rode around on a double-decker and listened to a audio guide through uncomfortable earbuds tell us about what we were seeing. These included the Musee d’Orsay, the Place de Concorde, the Tour Eiffel, the Champs d’Elysee, the Arc de Troimphe, the Hotel des Invalides, the Louvre, the Pont d’Alexandre III, the Galerie Lafayette, the Opera Nationale, the Écoles Militaires, the Field of Mars, and the Hotel des Invalides, amongst others…

Streets of the Latin Quarter
Streets of the Latin Quarter

I shall NOT be giving historical background on all of these. Suffice it to say, this blog aint long enough and you people know how to use Google. But I will say, the roundabout tour was fun, scenic, and really drives home the fact that Paris is packed to the gills with heritage and living examples of its long and turbulent history. Seriously, one cannot drive or walk down the street without spotting a plaque, monument or statue that tells the story of something immensely significant that happened there.

Afterwards, we returned to our hotel and met a lovely man named Jaeger. This attorney, who hailed from Australia, was in Paris on business, and after being chatted up by my father, invited us to dinner. The place he took us was a few blocks over from the hotel, and was rather famous! Known as the Maison de Verlaine, a restaurant that is famous for having been frequented by countless literary, political and showbiz personalities – like Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy’s, to name a few.

La Maison de Verlaine, where we ate Sunday night
La Maison de Verlaine, where we ate Sunday night

And after a rather sumptious meal and a bottle of red that was both subtle and robust, we dropped Jaeger off at a bar in the roundabout near our hotel and retired to our beds for some sleep. Having toured all the major sights that day, we decided we would visit those we were particularly intrigued by on the following day. Only this time, we’d be going by foot and we planned to beat the lines. We had only a few days to go, and planned to see as much as we possibly could before our departure.

But more on that next time. I sincerely hope it’s the last! 😉

Back from Europe!

remembrance_day___poppy_day_by_daliscarHello all! It’s good to be home, and though I am nursing the worst case of jet lag I’ve experienced since… well, two weeks ago, I felt the time was right to let people know how my trip went. As I was sure to have said in my last post, things were mighty eventful and we saw some truly amazing things. In addition to the preserved battlefields, war memorials, war cemeteries and museums, there was also the staggering amount of preserved history to be found in every corner of the places we visited.

We also got a chance to sample some interesting food, delight in the customs and practices of the Belgian, Norman and Parisian people, and drink some very good beer (more on this last aspect of things over my beer blog). Point being, it was a life-changing experience and one which we agreed as a family we needed to do again someday. Only this time, we would pace ourselves a little better so we wouldn’t be spending the first day driving on no sleep! 😉

Us at Beaumont-Hamel
My mother, father and I at Beaumont-Hamel. All photos, unless otherwise indicated, by Carla Jack

To break it all down, we started by visiting cemeteries, memorials and museums in the Belgian countryside that commemorated the Great War and marked the centennial of its outbreak. We also managed to track down the last resting place of a relative of my mother’s, a young man named Wilmot Pettit who was shot down on D-Day over the Normandy countryside. And last, we visited two of the Normandy Beach landings and saw several museums and memorials that honored those who died during the Battle of Normandy in World War II.

This was the precise order of how we did things, which took us from Ypres to Dieppe, Bayeux to Chartres, and ended with us staying in Paris for several nights to take in the culture and history of the French capitol. Really, we couldn’t have packed more in, and now that this precis is over, let me get into the nitty gritty of this trip, with full background info and pictures. And since it’s too much to talk about in one posting, I’ve decided to break it down into a couple posts. Hopefully, I can cover more than a single day at a time, but no promises!

Wednesday, April. 9th – Friday, April 11th
(Nanaimo, BC to Ypres, Belgium):
Before the adventure could begin, there was the little matter of me and my wife meeting up with my folks and then flying to Paris. Now, this is not as easy as it sounds. First off, if you’re flying internationally from Vancouver Island, you either need to get to one of two cities (Comox or Victoria) or take the plane or ferry to Vancouver International Airport. And even then, there are likely to be one or more connecting flights along the way before flying the 8 or 9 hours to make it to Paris.

And once you get there, you’re nine hours ahead, which means you are stepping off the plane in midday when it feels in your head like its the wee hours of the morning. And chances are, you haven’t slept much the night before or on the plane, so you got a big ol’ sleep deficit to start with! Needless to say, that’s what happened to us. After meeting up with my folks the day before, we slept light the evening before the flight, and then set out on Thursday to the local airport before the sun was even up. After a quick trip over to Vancouver, we boarded our first flight, transferred in Montreal, and rode another plane into the sun for another nine hours.

French windmills, by Carla Jack
A few of the many wind turbines we saw

Upon our arrival, we were tired, greasy, and running on fumes. Nevertheless, we managed to grab a rental car and GPS at Charles de Gaulle International and started driving for the Belgium border.This took us through vast stretches of grassy green land, countless fields of golden canola, and many, many wind turbines. This was something that I noticed multiple times while touring the French and Belgian countryside, the large turbine operations that hovered above the flatlands like skyscrapers. I’m thinking we should get in on this in BC, and soon!

After driving northeast for several hours, we arrived in Belgium and began searching for our first set of sites. Having learned of some really cool stops during their previous visits, my folks wanted us to Avril Williams Guesthouse and Tea Room (no relation), a small BandB run by a British lady in the small town of Auchonvillers in the Somme region. In addition to providing food and accommodations, her business is also a de facto war museum due to its very interesting history.

town cellar used during the Great War
An Auchonvillers town cellar used during the Great War. Courtesy of http://www.avrilwilliams.eu

Having been built in the 17th century, graffiti found on the cellars walls and artifacts found on the floor indicated that the building served an important role during the Great War. Apparently, the cellar was one of 140 in the town that was used alternately by the French and British for ammo storage, signalling or for stretcher bearers. After the Armistice in 1923, the villagers returned and the house was rebuilt over the original cellar. It was the only one to have survived intact in Auchonvillers.

The cellar was rediscovered in 1992 when Avril Williams bought the property and some renovations were made. Artifacts found in the floor of the cellar – which included helmets, shell casings, swords, bags, insignia, and a slew of other items – have since been placed on display in the Tea Room itself behind plate glass. What’s more, out the back, a number of old trenches were dug up, restored, and incorporated into the place as part of its historical tour.

After lunch, we toured these and tried to imagine what it was like to have this kind of history in your own backyard! I should also note that Avril had some sheep grazing out the back, as well as several chickens and some very friendly cats. It was a strange and delightful pleasure to be seeing it all and talking to British and other tourists as we walked around and experienced all the reminders of such terrible events, all of which happened roughly 100 years ago but are a permanent part of the landscape. This is something we could to experience a lot on this trip.

Beaumont-Hamel Memorial
Beaumont-Hamel Memorial

Then, it was off to Beaumont-Hamel, one of the many preserved battlefield parks within driving distance from Avril’s. For those who don’t know, it was here that the Royal Newfoundland Regiment (“The Blue Puttees”) fell during the Battle of the Somme. It was during this battle, which took place between July 1st and November 18th, 1916, that this small group of volunteers from the Dominion of Newfoundland (not yet part of Canada) stepped into No Man’s Land and was all but wiped out.

Several factors were to blame for this debacle. In the first place, the French and British plan of attack against the German lines was meant to take place in late June, but was postponed due to bad weather. Combined with the heavy bombardment which preceded the assault, the field between the German and British trenches was turned into mud. What’s more, the German troops on the other side had been occupying their position for 20 months, and used that time to fortify their positions against bombardment.

The Hawthorn Ride Mine exploding. Photo by Ernest Brooks
The Hawthorn Ridge Mine exploding. Photo by Ernest Brooks

The British attack began with the detonation of a large mine under a heavily fortified positing known as the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt, which was caught on film and remains one of the most iconic bits of footage from the war. The explosion destroyed a major German strong point, but also alerted the German troops of the coming attack and led to their deployment. Moments later, when the British 29th Infantry Division advanced into No Man’s Land, they foundered due to German barbed wire, machine gun fire and artillery.

Back at the Divisional HQ, the British received confused reports, some of which stated that the German lines had been broken. To exploit this, General Beauvoir De Lisle ordered the Newfoundland Regiment and other units that were in reserve into the fray. Moving up from St. John’s Road, a support trench 230 meters (250 yards) behind the British forward line, the Newfoundlanders soon found that movement forward through the communication trenches was not possible because they were congested with the dead and wounded, and under shell fire.

The trenchlines and shell holes that still mark the lanscape
Note how the trench lines and craters still mark the landscape. Photo by Theitalinpen

Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Lovell Hadow, the battalion commander, decided to move immediately into attack formation and advance across the surface. As they moved out in the open, they were effectively the only troops moving on the battlefield and clearly visible to the German defenders. As a result, most of the Newfoundland Regiment who had started forward were dead, dying or wounded within 15 to 20 minutes of leaving St. John’s Road trench.

Most reached no further than the Danger Tree, a skeleton of a tree that lay in No Man’s Land that was being utilized as a landmark. As part of one of the most disastrous offensives during the war, the destruction of this regiment serves as a stark and sobering reminder of just how destructive the Great War was. Of the 780 men who went forward only about 110 survived unscathed, of whom only 68 were available for roll call the following day.

View of the battlefield, with the Danger Tree in the right hand
View of the battlefield from the memorial. The Danger Tree is visible on the right near the small group of visitors

As you can probably tell from the photographs, the area in which this battle took place is really not that big. Having seen it close up, I can tell you that it is astounding to know that so much death and destruction happened within such a small area. But such was the nature of battles like the Somme. So many men died brutally and senselessly for the sake of a few meters, and every position taken on the field was paid for with thousands of lives.

The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial is a testament to one of the greatest wastes of life of the war and in human history. Officially opened by the British in 1925, the memorial site is one of only two National Historic Sites of Canada located outside of Canada. The other is the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, which we visited a few days later. This symbol of sacrifice is staffed by Canadian students and civil servants, and remains a symbol of Newfoundland’s identity.

After taking this all in, we went back to our car and set off for the town of Ypres where we would be staying for the next three days. For most of us, this consisted of sleeping in the car while my father had to slap himself to stay awake. But in the end, we made it to the Hotel Albion located in the city’s old quarter and quickly climbed into our beds. Carla and I slept while my folks chose to nap and head on out for some proper dinner.

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And that is what we did for the first two days of the trip. If it sounds like a lot, then I’ve conveyed the experience properly! Needless to say, it was all quite overwhelming and we were all emotionally and physically exhausted afterwards. Just telling it again now makes me feel like I’m trying to cook an elephant! Basically, the only way I’m going to be able to do it is a bit at a time. So stay tuned, because there is plenty more to follow.

Up next, our adventures in and around the historic town of Ypres, Belgium! And in the meantime, please listen to this lovely song – “Recruiting Sergeant”, by the Newfoundland band Great Big Sea. It is a lovely song that commemorates the sacrifice of these brave young men, an entire generation of young Newfoundlanders. The video consists of images compiled by Dr. Death1020, who used RNR pictures of Beaumont-Hamel and of the Battle of the Somme to set the tone. Enjoy, and may we never forget!

Lest We Forget

lest-we-forgetHey all! Just wanted to do a late trip update and let everybody know I’m still kicking, and to share some of the many experiences that were had so far on this trip. It’s been almost two weeks now since the family and I departed from Vancouver Island and landed on the Continent, and try as I might, I’ve been unable to resist my internet fix! So as long as I was surfing, checking messages and doing a little messaging myself, I figured I could at least post an update or two.

Currently, we are in Paris, where we arrived on Sunday after dropping off our rental car at Charles de Gaulle Airport. After finding our hotel in the Latin Quarter, we began taking in the local sites and sounds, which included the Tour Eiffel, the Arc de Troimphe, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and la Maison de Verlaine, a restaurant that is famous for having been frequented by countless literary, political and showbiz personalities (Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy’s, to name a few).

battle_of_vimy_ridge_field_gun_firingBut before that, we were in the Flanders region of Belgium and the Normandy region of France. We began with Ypres, a small city in Belgium that was the site of three major battles during the Great War. This began in 1914 when the Allies retook the town from the Germans after their great sweep into northern France failed. The second took place five months later when the Germans, hoping to break the stalemate in Belgium, used chlorine gas for the first time. It was during this gas attack that the Canadian 1st Division distinguished itself by holding its ground and repelling the attack, despite the fact that they had no gas masks. The third and final battle took place east of the city and is also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, one of the bloodiest of the war.

These and other terrible sacrifices which were endured during the war are all commemorated on a daily basis in the town. Every night, wreaths are laid at the Mennin Gate at one side of the old city where the names of the dead are inscribed and people gather to hear The Last post played. Having attended it on both a Saturday and the following Sunday, I can tell you that It is a very beautiful and moving event.

remembrance_day___poppy_day_by_daliscarWe were also sure to visit the cemeteries, battlefields and memorials at Beaumont-Hamel, Concrete Farm, Langemarck, St. Julien, and Tyne Cot. This last cemetery, which is the largest World War I cemetery ever, has a small museum where the names of every soldier who died in the Battle of Arras is named. The recording plays on a loop, and takes FIFTEEN YEARS to finish!

I should also note that within this landscape, visitors and farmers are routinely still finding small pieces of the battles that took place over a century ago. These include unexplored munitions – which have to be carefully removed and disposed of – and shrapnel, which my father and I found quite miraculously. I say this because the field we were going to search was being tilled by a large machine, forcing us to search at the very edge. But even with this small space to work with, we still managed to find a large chunk of a shell and some small pieces of shrapnel.

Vimy RidgeAfter that, we visited the Vimy Memorial in France, one of the greatest to come out of the war. This site, and the many preserved trenches, tunnels and craters that mark the landscape are preserved and attended to by Canadian students who hope to keep the memory of this historical battle alive. Not only was it a major victory for the allies – the first decisive offensive of the war – it also defined Canada as a nation. While being guided through the trenches and tunnel, my father and I once again paused to pick up some keepsakes. This time around, it was a piece of chalk and flint (which the ridge is made of) and a small bit of ceramic, possibly from an old teacup.

We then travelled to Dieppe in Normandy and began visiting the World War II sites and memorials. This included the beach of Dieppe where the ill-faired raid performed by the Canadian 2nd Division, British, French and Polish Commandos, and American Rangers. We then drove to the French countryside to the town of Grangues to see where my Grandmothers cousin (an RAF pilot who died on D-Day) was shot down.

dieppe-dsThis was perhaps the most interesting part of our journey since it involved retracing the path of an actual family member. His name was Wilmot Pettit, and on June 6th, 1944, he was shot down while towing a glider full of British Commandos into the Normandy countryside.  The mayor of Grangues was extremely helpful, and drove us to where the crash took place, told of how the survivors had been captured and executed by the SS, offered to send us some photos of the downed plane, and told us where Wilmott had been buried. We then drove to the cemetery at Ranville to pay our respects, before heading on to Bayeux.

From here, we visited Juno Beach, Gold Beach, and saw the museums set up at both that commemorated the D-Day landings of the Canadian, British and Commonwealth troops. We wanted to get around to seeing Omaha, but unfortunately there just wasn’t enough time. We also visited the war cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer, where the many Commonwealth troops who died during the Battle of Normandy were laid to rest. We also managed to walk inside the still-intact coastal batteries at Longues-sur-Mer, and took in the Bayeux Tapestry before leaving for Chartres.

Which brings us by commodious vicus back to the present. We still have a few more nights here in Paris and we intend to see as much as we can before leaving on Friday.  And when I get home, I hope to write about my experiences here in more depth. Trust me when I say that this is the explicated version. The full-length one comes with way more background info, and pictures! Until then, take care, and take care to remember…

BookofRemembrance_pg.479

Off to Europe!

remembrance_day___poppy_day_by_daliscarHey all! Sad to say, I will be away for the next two weeks as the wife and I, and my mother and father, tour the battlefields of Normandy and Flanders. This trip has been a long time in coming, and is a pretty big deal for obvious reasons. Not only is it an opportunity to see some major historic sites – ones which I have been hoping to see for some time – we are also getting the chance to do this tour during the Centenary of World War I.

As my father informed us after returning from doing the battlefields tour back in 2009, commemorating the Great War and World War II is a pretty big deal for the people who live in Northern France and Belgium. Here, the people live with the reminders of these terrible wars every single day, with farmers and villagers finding pieces of shrapnel, bullets, and even unexploded munitions on a regular basis. And in some areas, the evidence of the trenches is still visible, even where they haven’t been preserved.

The sites we will be visiting include Ypres, Beaumont-Hamel, Vimy Ridge, Dieppe, Bayeux, Juno Beach, Caen, Omaha Beach, Chartres, and of course, Paris – which we will be flying in and out of. I will be back on the 25th of April, no doubt with plenty of stories and pictures! Take care, and never forget the sacrifice made by so many for so many more!