Back from Europe – Part the Third…

remembrance-dayAnd we’re back with the third installment in the Williams’ Family Eurotrip 2014! As I’m sure I’ve said a few times now, this trip could hardly be summed up in a single post. Even with two posts – a sum total of 6000 words – I’ve managed to cover only the first five days. I might be able to cover the rest with an additional two, but I can’t promise a thing! Nevertheless, the next segment of our trip, which took us from Ypres to Dieppe, was a very interesting time.

Not only did we learn about some very interesting battles, which included a major victory for a Canada and a national tragedy, this part of our trip also served as a transitional point between the time was dedicated to World War I sites and those dedicated to World War II. In between all that, we also got to enjoy ourselves in the scenic Normandy countryside. Here’s how it all happened…

Monday, April 14th – The Vimy Memorial and Dieppe:

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial in the distance
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial in the distance

Monday morning, we packed up, ate our last breakfast at the Albion Hotel, told them how much we enjoyed staying with them (my parents wrote a three page stellar review!), and prepared to head out again. This consisted of stopping by the market to get some sandwiches and bottles of water for the day, a necessity when you’re doing walking tours, and then see the Ypres Market, Cloth Museum and Cathedral one last time.

We then packed up the car and began driving for the French border, got on another toll highway, and drove through the sunny, canola flower-filled countryside. Eventually, we made it to The Vimy Monument, the last World War I site on our trip and the only stop along our way to Dieppe along the northern Normandy Coast. Long before we arrived, we could see the monument cresting the Ridge where it is located, not to mention the many slag heaps that mark the landscape.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge by Richard Jack
The Battle of Vimy Ridge by Richard Jack

Again, a little background on this historic battle is in order. As part of the Battle of Arras (April 9th to May 16th, 1917), the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge was part of an allied offensive against German positions around the town of Arras. The objective of the Canadian Corps was the high ground at the northernmost end of the front, an area which had remained in German hands despite previous offensives by both French and British forces.

By taking this position, the Canadians would ensure that the Germans would not be to observe the French and British advance further south, or direct artillery fire along the long axis of their advance. Supported by a creeping barrage, the Canadian attack would begin on April 9th and aimed to the fortified German positions along the ridge, as well as the  strategic town of Thélus and Givenchy-en-Gohelle. Thanks to a combination of factors, the attack went off without a hitch.

Battle_of_Arras_-_Vimy_Ridge_mapUltimately, the success of the assault was due to a combination of technical and tactical innovation, meticulous planning, powerful artillery support and extensive training. For weeks prior to the offensive, Canadian soldiers underwent training using models to represent the battlefield, and General’s Sir Julian Byng and Sir Arthur Currie made sure that every single soldier had a map of the ridge and knew exactly what would be needed of them.

The artillery support would rely on a relatively new tactic known as the creeping barrage, rather than the standard preparatory bombardment. In this latter case, artillery would shell the enemy line for days or weeks in advance of the attack, and then stop as the soldiers went “over the top” to charge the enemy positions. By contrast, a creeping barrage would begin shelling No Man’s Land to take out enemy barbed wire, and then crept forward to keep pace with the advance of the infantry.

battle_of_vimy_ridge_field_gun_firingIn so doing, the Canadian’s artillery support was able to catch the German defenders as they were coming out of their dugouts to set up their machine guns and defenses. New methods and equipment were also used to triangulate the positions of the German artillery guns and take them out in advance of the attack. This way, the Germans had no reprieve from the bombardment, and no way to shell the Canadians as they moved up the ridge.

Within three days, the Canadians had secured the entire ridge and their objectives and forced the Germans to retreat to the Oppy–Méricourt line some five kilometers away. In addition, they took 4000 German prisoners and inflicted an estimated 20,000 killed or wounded, while suffering 3,598 dead and 7,004 wounded of their own. This too was a first, in that all previous offenses of the war involved the attacker sustaining far greater losses than the defender.

The Vimy Monument, as seen from the west end
The Vimy Monument, as seen from the west end

In addition to being a victory for the Canadian Corps and the first successful Allied offensive of the war, the success of this assault – much their performance at the Second Battle of Ypres – was a defining moment for the fledgling nation of Canada. As Brigadier-General Alexander Ross would famously say of the battle: ” . . . in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.” The triumph at Vimy also led to Byng’s promotion out of the Corps, and to his replacement by Arthur Currie — the first Canadian commander of the Corps.

Another outcome of this victory was the reputation earned by the Canadian Corps as being the army that could get things done where others could not. This reputation would further be tested in ensuing battles – the foremost of which was the Battle of Passchendaele – and The Hundred Days Offensive, the last one hundred days of the war when the Canadian Corps led the advance against the crumbling German lines through France and Belgium.

Us posing together at the top of the monument
The four of us together at the top of the monument

Anyhoo, we arrived National Memorial in the late morning and were immediately struck by its sheer size. It’s two pylons, shown above, reach 30 meters into the sky, one bearing the maple leaf of Canada and the other the fleur-de-lis of France, symbolizing the unity and sacrifice of both countries. At the top of the two pylons is a grouping of figures known collectively as the Chorus, the senior of which represent the figures of Justice and Peace. The figures of Hope, Charity, Honour and Faith, Truth and Knowledge are located beneath (as seen in the image below).

Between the two pylons is the Spirit of Sacrifice,  a young dying soldier is gazing upward in a crucifixion-like pose, having thrown his torch to a comrade who holds it aloft behind him. A lightly veiled reference to the poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae,  the torch is passed from one comrade to another in an effort to keep alive the memory of the war dead. Other figures around the monument include Sympathy of the Canadians for the Helpless, as represented by a standing man surrounded by kneeling people stricken by hunger and disease.

The Two Pylons of the Monument
The Two Pylons of the Monument

Two more representations, named the Breaking of the Swords and cannons covered in laurel, further symbolize the monument’s commitment to peace. Facing east from the monument is the saddened figure of Canada Bereft, also known as Mother Canada, which personifies the young nation of Canada mourning her dead. The Mourning Parents, one male and one female, are reclining on either side of the western steps on the reverse side of the monument.

Inscribed around the outside wall of the monument are the names of the 11,285 Canadians killed in France, and whose final resting place is unknown. Some 60,000 Canadians died in the First World War, but even after all these years, 11,169 still remain unfound. To see these names listed in a continuous band, and knowing that they represent only a fraction of all those who died, really serves to drive home the terrible reality of the Great War and its brutality.

View from the monument, with sheep grazing in the distance
View from the monument, with sheep grazing in the distance

Looking upon the field that surrounded the monment, we were also quick to notice how the land was gnarled and lumpy, similar to what we had seen at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. Also like the Newfoundland Memorial, the land is surrounded by an electrified wire fence and warning signs that caution against venturing into it, and the only things allowed to walk freely there are grazing sheep. As someone who raised sheep as a child, my wife was naturally concerned about their safety.

However, the guides were quick to confirm that not a single sheep had died in the twenty years that they had been conducting tours. This was certainly a relief to hear, but it didn’t really detract from the reality of the war that this display drove home. As soon as the war ended, the farmers and their flocks returned; and over the course of the years, unexploded mines and munitions accounted for more than a few lives – human, bovine and ovine!

The Mourning Mother, and sheeps grazing in the distance
The Mourning Mother, and more sheep grazing in the distance

After scaling the steps of the monument, we began placing Canadian flag pins here and there to pay our respects. We also snapped some photos of the monument, the surrounding landscape, and of ourselves as a family standing on it. After this, we ventured to the far end of the site to see the Grange Subway – a preserved underground tunnel and stretch of trenches – and the site’s museum. On the way, we saw plenty more trenches, shell holes, and one massive crater that had clearly been left by a mine.

We reached the Grange Subway and booked a tour, and a kindly guide gathered us and about ten others and brought us inside. I can tell with you with no trace of shame that the place was pretty claustrophobic and I might have had some trouble if we hadn’t kept moving. Still, it was extremely impressive to see this tunnel that the Allies had dug during the course of the war. In addition to the walls carved from the chalk and flint that make up the ridge, the tunnel was replete with dugouts, side tunnels, officers messes, and message stations.

The German trenches
The preserved German trenches and mortar position

And of course, the whole place stunk of mold, wet stone and chalky residue. Our guide then took us back outside, to where the tunnel ended in a recreated section of Canadian trench that overlooked another massive crater. Here too, a mine had been exploded just short of the German front lines, which also had a section of preserved trench that showed us how well dug in and fortified their positions were. Unlike the Allied lines, the Germans had had time to pour concrete and build outposts and “pillboxes” to both observe and shoot from.

After the tour finished, we headed back to the museum to take one last look around and then eat our lunch. On the way, we found some additional artifacts, which included a piece of chalk and flint (pieces of the Ridge) and a piece of what appeared to be ceramic with a letter B stamped on it. From its size, contoured shape, and the way it was marked, we could only guess what it was. But the prevalent theory was that it might have been an officers china cup.

The cliffs of Dieppe
The cliffs of Dieppe

And then it was to Dieppe for the night! Despite some problems with our GPS navigator – whom we named Betty since of the female voice – we made it to the hotel down by the beach. Kudos to my mother for her good job of booking the place! After getting into our rooms, we had a nice beer down at the hotel bar, and then decided to get in a beach walk before dinner. Now I should note that this walk, despite the lovely sand and stone beach, was not strictly for enjoyment. You see, a lot happened on that beach some seventy-years ago…

In 1942, this region of France was still firmly in the hands of Nazi Germany. In addition, the Germans were still occupying much of Russia and had the British tangled up in North Africa. The United States had just entered the war and was facing a fight on two fronts – Europe and the Pacific. And with Russian losses numbering in the millions, a great deal of pressure was on the Allies to open a “Second Front” on the Continent again.

Dieppe_raidTo test the German’s coastal defenses, and evaluate the likelihood of making a successful amphibious assault, the Allies began making plans for a raid against the Atlantic coast. In what would come to be known as Operation Jubilee, a force of 6,000 infantrymen – predominantly Canadian and supported by a Canadian Armoured regiment and the Royal Navy and Air Force – the plan was to seize a port town, destroy the military facilities, and then evacuate before a German counter-attack could arrive.

Commander by Lord Louis Mountbatten, a British Admiral and 1st Earl of Burma, the attack was also intended to show that such an assault – which was the first step in liberating Europe – could be done. On August 9th at 5:00 am, the assault began as Canadian and British troops, as well as 100 US Rangers and Free French Commandos, began landing on the beach. By 10:50 a.m., the Allied commanders were forced to call a retreat.

dieppe-dsThe Dieppe Raid, or the Battle of Dieppe, would go down as one of the greatest blunders in military history, and is considered a national tragedy here in Canada. After less than 10 hours since the first landings, the last of the Allied troops had either killed, evacuated, or left behind and captured by the Germans. All told, a total of 3,623 of the 6,086 men who made it ashore were either killed, wounded, or captured, and demonstrated that the Allies could not hope to liberate Europe for some time.

There are several reasons why the raid was a failure. For starters, Allied fire support was grossly inadequate and failed to take out the German defenses. As a result, the advancing infantry was quickly trapped by machine gun fire, mortars and coastal batteries that sighted them as they tried to run up the rocky coastline. The Royal Air Force also failed to lure the Luftwaffe into open battle, and took some heavy losses themselves (96 aircraft compared to 48 lost by the Germans).

Dieppe Raid by Charles Comfort
Dieppe Raid by Charles Comfort

What’s more, the operation was repeatedly downsized, reducing its troop strength several times before it was approved. The Allied commanders, most notably Mountbatten, claimed that this would not be a problem as the attacking force would have the element of surprise. However, this was immediately squandered due to the British government openly talking about the raid for weeks before it happened. In short, the Germans knew they were coming.

While a more recent interpretation of the raid – which claims it was done as part of a clandestine operation to seize a four-rotor Enigma machine – have reevaluated it’s purpose, the outcome of the operation was anything but successful. In the end, the only good to come of it lay in the fact that it taught the Allies precisely what not to do when staging a coastal assault. These lessons greatly influenced their preparations when drafting Operation Torch (the landings in North Africa) and Operation Overlord (the D-Day landings in Normandy).

Carla, my father and I taking our shoes off to walk into the surf. Photo by Rosemary Williams
Carla, my father and I taking our shoes off to walk into the surf. Photo by Rosemary Williams

While walking the beach, my father and I noted the way that it sloped upward and was covered in r0und stones. It wasn’t hard to see at all how tanks would be immobilized by these once they got stuck in their treads. What’s more, the thought of charging up the inclined beach with a rifle and sixty pounds on gear on our backs seemed like absolute folly. Especially if we knew there were machine guns and cannons aimed at us.

Such was our attempt to understand what it must have been like for the young Canucks, Brits, French and Americans who were expected to capture this town. And when we mounted the top near the breakwater, we came to a couple of monuments dedicated to the soldiers who fell on the morning of the 19th of August. This included the Red Beach Monument, which honors the members of the Essex and Kent Scottish Regiment, and all those who fell on the eastern sector of the beach.

red_beach_monumentFinanced by members of the Windsor community in Ontario, this monument was erected at town’s edge overlooking the beach and was carved from black granite with the cutout of a maple leaf in it. This cutout is aligned so that when the sun shines at 1 p.m. on Aug. 19 — the exact hour that the regiment stormed the beach — it will cast a perfect shadow of a maple leaf on the ground below. Farther down, we found another monuments commemorating the units that fell in other sectors of the beach. At both, we laid a Canadian flag pin and paid our respects.

Then it was back to the hotel for some much needed grub and some sleep. It had been quite a long day, as you can no doubt tell from the lengthy recap. And we certainly needed plenty of rest, because what came on the next day would test us both physically and emotionally. But more on that later, as it deserves a separate post for sure. Thanks for reading, more to follow, and stay tuned!

Back from Europe – Continued…

lest-we-forgetAnd I’m back, with the second installment of what the family and I did on our recent trip to Europe. Like I said before, there is a lot to cover and I couldn’t possibly deal with it all in one post. And after we flew in and did our first day of driving and visiting the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial Park, we drove to the first town where we would be rooming on our trip. This is the historic town of Ypres, Belgium (pronounced either as Eep, or Ee-pairs, depending on whether its spoken in French or Flemish).

And arguably, some of our best times and experiences were here. Not only were the townspeople incredibly friendly, the food and accommodations good, and the local culture something to behold, the way the war is commemorated and those who fell honored is truly astounding. For those of us who only mourn the losses of the Great War and observe the lessons obtained therein once a year, it truly boggles the mind. But I digress, here’s what happened…

Saturday, April. 12th – Sunday, April. 13th –
The Ypres Experience:
As I said last time, Ypres was our first stop after two days of ongoing travel and very little sleep. And after we rested up and showered, we had some pretty full days experiencing the town and the many cemeteries, memorials and museums that dot the landscape. It was also while touring Flemish city and the surrounding countryside that we made what was perhaps the biggest find of our trip – pieces of shrapnel from the war!

Now for those unfamiliar, this ancient town is the municipal capitol of West Flanders that dates back to before the time of the Roman conquest. During the Middle Ages, it was renowned for its cloth and textile industry, and was even mentioned in the Canterbury Tales due to its extensive trade with England. However, the town is best known due to the fact that it was contested ground for three separate battles during the Great War.

The_Second_Battle_of_YpresDuring the First Battle of Ypres, which took place from October 19th to November 22nd, the Allies retook the town from the Germans, who had captured it during their initial advance through Belgium. The Second Battle of Ypres – April 22nd and May 25th, 1915 – was where the German army attempted to break the stalemate in the west by using poisonous gas for the first time. It was at this time, as already mentioned, that the 1st Canadian Infantry Division distinguished itself by standing their ground and beating back the German assault.

To put this in perspective, the Canadians were an untested unit that had recently arrived in Flanders to witness the terrible carnage that had become of the war. When the Germans unleashed the poisonous clouds of chlorine gas into the city, these soldiers did not yet have gas masks (or proper helmets) and thousands of men began to die. The French and British lines crumbled under the onslaught; but at St. Julien, where the Canadian Division was stationed, an inventive Canadian officer came up with a novel idea that saved them from death and retreat.

Battle_of_St.JulienRemembering a lesson from chemistry class, he ordered his men to urinate on rags and apply them to their faces. Knowing that ammonia, which urine contains, neutralizes chlorine by turning it into harmless ammonium chloride crystals, the Canadian soldiers simply breathed naturally through their urine-soaked rags and waited for the gas to roll over them. When it did, they took up their positions and were there to meet to the Germans when they assaulted.

Because of this, the German attack failed, and led Sir George Perley (Canada’s High Commissioner in Britain) to state that the “saved the situation”. British Lieutenant General Smith-Dorrien followed this up with the conciliatory statement that had it not been for the Canadian troop’s gallantry, the initial German breakout that took place early in the battle “might well have been converted into a serious defeat for our troops.” All told, this gallantry came at a terrible cost – with some 5,975 casualties, of whom roughly 1,000 were killed.

Ypres in 1919
The ruins of Ypres in 1919

The battle raged on for many more months, with some 100,000 men being killed, captured or wounded before the end. However, it was The Third Battle of Ypres – also known as the Battle of Passchendaele (July 21st – November 6th, 1917) that was the best-known and bloodiest of the war. After months of fighting, this battle resulted in nearly half a million casualties on all sides, and only a few miles of ground were won by the Allied forces. During the course of the war, the town was also all but obliterated by the artillery fire.

These events are commemorated on a daily basis by the town’s people, and the names of those who fell are inscribed on the Mennin Gate, which sits at the east end of the old city. But I’m getting ahead of myself here! Before I can cover all the historic sites we took during the course of our stay, I should mention the hotel where we slept, which was none other than the Hotel Albion. In addition to being located in a building in the old city, the rooms were spacious and beds king-size, which came in handy upon arrival!

The old city, as it is today
The old city, as it is today

After waking up on Saturday and getting some much-needed shower time, we enjoyed the hotel’s traditional Belgian breakfast spread. This consisted of hard boiled eggs, sliced meats, cheeses, assorted breads (baguette, croissants, pain au chocolat, etc.), jams, and of course some really good coffee. After eating and drinking our fill, we set out about town, and our first stop was the Cathedral located next to our hotel. After appreciating the centuries-old architecture, we lit some candles and headed for the center of the old town.

Next up was the bookshop my parents had seen on their last visit and wanted to see again, a place called The British Grenadier, which specializes in war memorabilia, books, and historic keepsakes. The guy who runs its, a man by the name of Steve Douglas, just happens to hail from Waterloo, Ontario, where my parents lived and studied for many years before I was born. While there, we chatted with Steve (a rather stoic figure who nevertheless seemed to remember meeting my folks) bought some postcards, poppies, a hat for myself, and marveled at his large collection of wartime artifacts and commemorative goods.

The Ypres Market, with the spires of the Cloth Museum (left) and Cathedral (right) in the distance
The Ypres Market, with the spires of the Cloth Museum (left) and Cathedral (right) in the distance

After that, it was off to the town market which, since it was a Saturday, was out in full force! Basically, the center of the old town was filled with vendors of every kind peddling snacks, clothing, shoes, fresh meats, fish, cheeses, and even some livestock. After walking through this crush of human activity, we came upon the Cloth Museum. This massively long medieval structure was the heart of the city’s linen and textile trade, and was made incredibly long so that bolts of cloth could be unwound completely to check for authenticity.

After being almost completely destroyed in the war, the town rebuilt it and renamed it the In Flanders Fields Museum, in honor of the John McCrae poem of the same name. Once inside, we got to see just how amazing it was. The entire museum is kept dark, somber music plays in the background, and multimedia displays show reenactments of various aspects of the war.  There are also photographs, maps, and artifacts as far as the eye can see. And every visitor is asked to make an account for themselves in the museum database and given a poppy-shaped wrist band that is programmed to identify you.

DSCF2152These identifying wristbands not only allow you to get in and out, they also let you access to terminals and have what they call “Personal Encounters”. Basically, this amounts to you accessing various terminals throughout the library and being given information on people who served in the war. Once obtained and compiled to your account, you can request that the museum email it all to you, which I naturally chose to do. The names of my Personal Encounters were Elsbeth Schragmuller, William Flack, and Mike Mountainhorse.

Click here to see the museum certificate that contains their bios, and be sure to check out the museum’s website for more information on who they are and what they do. After exiting the museum, we had some lunch from a sausage cart (foot longs with fried onions and some interesting choices of sauce) and headed over to the Cathedral located next door, which was also destroyed during the war. Here, we watched as the local choir was warming up for a big show and lit some more candles.

The Mennin Gate, seen from the street
The Mennin Gate, as seen from the street

Then it was a quick nap back at the hotel to combat the lingering effects of jet lag followed by some dinner in the market at a place known as Antonio Vivaldis, which my parents had been to the night before. We drank Leffe Blonde, which is available here in Canada but is something of the beer of choice in Flanders. Last time my folks came back, they made it quite clear that this and Kronenbourg (also a local favorite) were now their beers of choice!

Then, we walked down to the Mennin Gate to take in the Saturday night ceremony that honors all the Commonwealth soldiers who died during the Great War. This great archway, which you can see above, has the names of every single soldier inscribed on it, and ceremonies to honor their sacrifice take place every night. Yes, you read that right. EVERY SINGLE NIGHT the people of the town gather at the gate, the local choir sings songs, the Mayor comes out to speak, The Last Post is played, and wreaths are lain.

Inside the Mennin Gate. Note the names inscribed on the walls
Inside the Mennin Gate. Note the names inscribed on the walls

And even though this is a daily occurrence, Saturday is a special night, when the largest and most elaborate ceremony takes place. I should also note that in Ypres, the poppy – as a symbol of remembrance – is worn year round and can be seen just about everywhere one looks. To put that in perspective for us foreign folks, its like having Remembrance Day (Veterans Day, Poppy Day, Armistice Day) every day. None of this once-a-year on November 11th stuff.

We then walked the wall, which overlooks the moat that circles the old part of town and also has its share of commemorative plaques and statues. I tell you, every corner of the town pays homage to its long and rich history, and even a short walk can reveal all kinds of interesting things! And that was Saturday. Sunday morning, we woke up, had another sumptuous breakfast, and headed out of town to visit all the Commonwealth Cemeteries we could find, as well as a German one.

Yorkshire Trench
Yorkshire Trench

We began with the Concrete Farm Cemetery, a smaller Commonwealth cemetery located outside of town. After stopping here to pay our respects to these soldiers and lay some Canadian flag pins on the Canadian graves, we continued on to Yorkshire Trench. This trench and the park that now features it was first uncovered in 1992 by a group of amateur archaeologists known as “The Diggers”, people who are dedicated to finding the bodies of the fallen that were never retrieved and giving them a proper burial.

Between 1998 and 2000 they spent many hours digging and examining the trench, which also had tunnelled dugouts. At the time major construction work for new buildings in Ypres’ northern industrial zone was also being carried out. Hence, like so many other trenches, graves and unexploded munitions, this small piece of the Ypres Salient was discovered entirely by accident. And in addition to many artifacts “The Diggers” discovered, the remains of 155 First World War soldiers were uncovered – the bodies of British, French and German that were lost in battle and never recovered for seventy years.

Outside Langemark Cemetary
Outside Langemark Cemetery

Then, it was off to Langemark, the German cemetery that was set aside by the Belgian government. Compared to the Commonwealth grave sites, this cemetery was very somber. Pruned trees surrounded the outer edge of it, the concrete bunkers that had served as dugouts during the war were now filled with leaves and detritus, and the many, many German fallen were interred four to a grave marker. And near the front gate, a single, mass grave known as the “Comrades Grave” contains the bodies of no less than 24,917 servicemen, including the flying ace Werner Voss.

Inside the gatehouse, the names of the more than 44,000 soldiers who died during the many battles of Ypres are etched into the wooden walls. Of particular interest were the names of the 3000 German students who fell while crossing the field that next to the cemetery. Legend has it that these German students walked arm in arm and sang “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” as they charged across the battlefield, and to their deaths. Yet another reminder of the futility and folly that characterized the Great War for all sides.

My father examining the map of the Ypres Salient inside the cemetery's entrance foyer
My father examining the map of the Ypres Salient inside the cemetery’s gatehouse

It was also here that my father and I, while searching in the farmers field next to the cemetery, came across our most important keepsakes from our trip. As he knew from his previous visits to the countryside, the fields that once made up the Ypres Salient constantly turn up pieces of shrapnel, spent shell casings, and even unexploded munitions when the weather changes. In this last case, farmers come across these shells when the winter weather causes the ground to freeze and the soil pushes these shells to the surface. Typically, these are then removed and placed by the side of the road to await for bomb disposal crews who take them away and detonate them.

But in the case of shrapnel, bullet casings and other pieces of wartime history, one doesn’t have to look very hard to uncover them. Simply walk into a farmer’s field or a dig anywhere in the region, and odds are good you will find something. We had a hard time searching the nearby field since a tractor was out turning the soil with some rather large blades. Still, we managed to find several fragments of exploded shells at the edge of the field, and after only a few minutes of looking.

The shell and bullet fragments we found by Langemark Cemetery
The shell and bullet fragments we found by Langemark Cemetery

The grizzly significance of this was not lost on us: that so many artillery shells and bullets were fired in this region over a century ago that bits and pieces are still being found, and it took us only a few minutes of searching in a tiny parcel of land to find some. And of the four pieces that we pulled out of the ground, the first and largest was certainly the most recognizable. Roughly three inches long, an inch and a half wide, and over half an inch in thickness, this hunk of rusted metal had a curvature and striations on one side that indicated that it was an artillery shell.

We guessed that it was British, and given its size, it most likely came from a 18-pounder field gun. The other two, much smaller, looked to be large bullet fragments, in that they were cored in the center and not that big. Still, they appeared rather large for a standard rifle or machinegun, so it’s possible they were from a heavy machine gun. Of course, its difficult to say since 100 years of caked-on dirt, rust, and wear can kind of obscure a fragments true size and dimensions.

The St. Julien monument
The St. Julien monument

After that, it was on to St. Julien, the town outside of Ypres where the monument to the Canadian soldiers who held their ground during the first gas attack is located. While admiring the monument, my father spotted a fellow Canuck, who was identifiable from his Hamilton Tiger Cats jacket (his hometown). After spotting him, my father went over and promptly chatted him up. He does that a lot! And then, it was off to our last stop for the day – the Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetery.

This cemetery, which is the final resting place of 11,954 soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient during the Great War, is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world. Of these, some 8,367 are unidentified, and their headstones are inscribed with the words “Known unto God”. In addition to these graves, there’s also the four memorial that honor the roughly 90,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died here – most of whom were never found or properly identified – with the names of each inscribed on the walls.

Tyne Cot Cemetery
Tyne Cot Cemetery

We started with the Visitor’s Center, a small and somber museum, before working our way into the cemetery proper. Inside and out, we heard a recording playing where the names of all those who fell in the Ypres Salient were spoken on a loop. To give you some sense of how many men that was, the recording takes a full FIFTEEN YEARS to get through the entire list. Yes, more men fell in this region within the space of four years than can be even be named in that same amount of time. Unbelievable!

Once outside, we walked amongst the headstones and looked for the telltale Maple Leaf that indicated that it was a Canadian soldier who had been buried there. On these, we placed Canada flag pins and thanked them for their service. I can tell you, being surrounded by so much death, and knowing the sheer scale of it, was quite overwhelming. After we had run out of pins and written our names in the visitors book, we hopped back in the car and drove back into town.

My parents and I looking through the headstones
My parents and I looking through the headstones

The rest of the day was spent separately, with my folks having dinner on their own and Carla and I going out for a run. We spent about an hour running around the wall that encircles the old city, visited the Cathedral again, found a place to eat (a nice bistro called “The Goose”), and gorged ourselves on curried chicken, chicken wings, and salad, all of which was washed down by some lovely Belgian Trappist beers and a tall Pilsner. It was a nice, gentle way to conclude a day characterized by sober reflection and somber reminders.

And then, the quiet sleep, knowing that it was our last night in Ypres and we would be leaving for the Normandy coast, and visiting the Vimy War Monument, the next day. It would be the day when we made our final visit to a monument dedicated to those who served and died in the Great War, and the first day of visiting World War II monuments, museums, and cemeteries. And to do it justice, I am going to need to give it it’s own post!

Until next time, thanks for reading, and always remember how fortunate we are to live in a world where total war is a thing of the past. May we never forget, and never be forced to repeat the mistakes of the past!