Remembering The Great War

Tower-of-LondonThis past August 5th marks the centennial of the beginning of one of history’s greatest follies, otherwise known as World War I and the Great War. And all over the world, this anniversary is being marked in a number of ways. But in London, a particularly interesting display has been created by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper that gives new meaning to the term “swords into plowshares”.

Using Tower of London, an institution that once represented oppression and imprisonment, the artists creatively arranged a series of red ceramic poppies – 888, 246 to precise. Each one represents a British soul who died during the war. Resembling blood pouring forth, the poppies extend from a window and then sweep into the Tower’s the moat, giving a visceral casualty-visualization to the extreme death toll.

Tower-of-London-1The last poppy will be “planted” November 11, the date WWI ended and the poppies will be available for purchase. As dreamed up by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper, the display – which is known as “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” – was inspired by the words Cummings found in the will of a fallen solider. As he explained in an interview with The Guardian:

I don’t know his name or where he was buried or anything about him. But this line he wrote, when everyone he knew was dead and everywhere around him was covered in blood, jumped out at me: ‘The blood-swept lands and seas of red, where angels fear to tread.’

This latest display which attempts to visualize the costs of war in the same way “The Fallen” commemorated all those who fell at Arromanches Beach on D-Day. Created by British artists Jamie Wardley and Andy Moss, whose medium is most often sand, the artists and an army of 500 volunteers used rakes and stencils to create the silhouettes of the 9000 soldiers who fell on the beaches of Normandy on June 6th, 1944.

Arromanches_The FallenAs you can see from the aerial photograph above, the visualization drives home the terrible loss of human life in a way that cold statistics never can. This artistic display was made in honor of Peace Day last year, which has been held on Sept.21st of ever years since 1982. Having been to Arromanches this past April, I am sorry to say that I missed it. But such displays are short-lived, which only serves to add to their poignancy.

This past June 6th was a time of sober reflection and commemoration as well. This year also marked the 70th anniversary since the Normandy invasion, and the occasion was not only a time to honor those who fell in what was arguably the most ambitious undertaking in history, it was also a time for world leaders to come together and show their commitment to peace.

remembrance_day___poppy_day_by_daliscarIt has been a historic year, of that there is little doubt. And these two anniversaries are well-paired, drawing attention to two World Wars that were the most destructive in human history, but also inextricably linked. In total, some 90 million people died in both conflicts combined (thought estimates vary) and insisting that people remember how it all began is an opportunity to ensure that it never happens again.

As said before, the last poppy will be planted on Nov.11th, 2014 to mark the end of the war. To purchase one of these, simply click here.

Sources: fastcocreate.com, (2), poppies.hrp.org.uk

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!

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.

_____

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

Remembrance Day 2013

lest-we-forgetIt goes by many names the world over. In Canada, Britain and Australia, we call it Remembrance Day. In the United States, it’s called by Veteran’s Day. In New Zealand, France, Belgium and Serbia, it’s known as Armistice Day. And to the Polish, it’s Independence Day since the end of World War I was also the occasion when their country achieved statehood.

Interestingly enough, the war that it originally commemorates also goes by many names. To those who fought in it, it was the Great War, but also the “War to end all wars”, as no one who lived through it could fathom that any nation would ever go to war again. And to those who have went to war again just 27 years later, it would come to be known as World War I or the First World War.

remembrance-day-poemRegardless of the name, November 11 is a day when people the world over come together to mark one of the worst periods in our history, celebrate those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and reflect upon the terrible lessons that were learned. And while it is easy to look upon the world and imagine that we’ve learned nothing, I choose to believe otherwise.

When the world went to war in August of 1914, the news was greeted with general elation for those involved. In Berlin, Paris and London, crowds emerged to celebrate the fact that their nations were mobilizing against their enemies. In Canada, people readily volunteered to serve overseas and “fight the Hun”. The propaganda mills of every nation were running overtime, stoking the fervor of war, claiming rightness, and that God was on their side.

Royal_Irish_Rifles_ration_party_Somme_July_1916Four years later, few retained these romantic notions of war. Those who survived the carnage were known as “The Lost Generation”, and those born after the war entered into a world struggling to leave the memory behind and get back to normal. When war was once again declared in 1939, few were enthused, and the general attitude was one o fear.

In fact, part of the reason “Appeasement” – the strategy of giving in to Hitler’s demands, or accommodating Japanese and Italian expansion in Africa and East Asia – was permitted was because no one wanted a repeat of the last war. Even in the Axis nations of Germany, Japan, and Italy, the general public entered the war only reluctantly, convinced they had no choice and fearful for how it might turn out.

Berlin-1945_croppedSix years, 70 million lives, 1600 cities, and several attempted genocides later, the victorious nations of the world once again came together with the common goal of lasting world peace, human rights and economic development. This was embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Court of Justice, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group.

Despite the prevailing mood that a new “Cold War” was already brewing between east and west, the word’s “Never Again” were spoken by people on all sides. After two World Wars and the near total-destruction of many nations, it was understood that the world would not be able to endure a third. Somehow, and despite the arms race of the latter of the half of the 20th century, peace would endure.

Cuban-missile-crisis-photo-from-Oct-29-1962Lucky for all of us, the Cold War ended some two decades ago and the specter of World War III with it. While many wars took place during the intervening period and there were a few close calls (The Cuban Missile Crisis being foremost), a nuclear crisis was continually avoided because all sides understood that no one would emerge the victor.

Today, wars still rage in the underdeveloped regions of the world and even amongst the so-called “developed” nations – the rational ranging from fighting extremism to trying to foster nation building. Nevertheless, I can’t help but look back today and think that those who died and sacrificed so much taught us something invaluable and enduring.

nuclear1Sure, the Great War did not end all wars, nor did those that followed it. But with every mistake, with every new sacrifice, with every new conflict, surely we have learned something. Were it not for the UN and the spirit multilateralism the prevailed after the Second World War, World War III may have been unavoidable, and might still be a possibility.

And while there were still wars between proxy nations during the Cold War, Korea and Vietnam taught us the futility of political conflicts, a lesson which helped end the Iraq War sooner and with less loss of life than would have otherwise been possible. These sentiments have since been applied to the war in Afghanistan and the drone wars, two more unpopular campaigns that are sure to end in the near future as well.

holocaustWhat’s more, the genocide of the Jewish, Roma and Slavic peoples all across Europe taught us the evils of ethnic cleansing and man’s capacity for hate, lessons which have helped us confront and combat genocide in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, East Timor and elsewhere. They have also forced us to contemplate genocides which have taken place on our soil, in Australia, Canada, the US and Latin America.

To look at the state of the world today, it is easy to grow cynical and say that we’ve learned nothing. But when you consider that fact that we no longer live in a world where total war is seen as glorious, where two superpowers are aiming nuclear-tipped missiles at each other, and where aggression and genocide are actively ignored or accommodated, you begin to appreciate what we have and who made it possible.

Vimy RidgeBut most importantly of all, to say we’ve learned nothing is to disrespect those who made the ultimate sacrifice, not to mention those who came home forever changed and scarred. For these veterans, servicemen and women, and people who risked life and limb to ensure that war would bring peace, that people would remain free, and that greater evils would not be allowed to prevail, saying “it was all in vain” renders what they did for the rest of us meaningless.

With that in mind, I’m very happy to announce that next year, in April of 2014, my family and I will be visiting Europe to witness the Centennial of World War I. While we’re there, we will be visiting the grave sites of those who died overseas, several battlefield from the First and Second World War, and will bear witness to one of the greatest historic events in our lifetimes.

My father made the trip once before and remarked with awe how to people over there, the wars are not something that are commemorated once a year, but on a regular basis. But next year, it is expected to be especially poignant as people from all over the globe converge on Flanders to pay their respects. I expect it to be very eye-opening, and you can expect to be hearing about it the moment I get back!

A sober and reflective Remembrance Day to you all. Peace.

remembrance_day___poppy_day_by_daliscar

Skyrim: A Video Game Review

the_elder_scrolls_v_skyrimBack with another video game review. And picking up where I left off last time (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion) I’ve decided to follow up with its sequel – Skyrim! I was a bit late to the game with this one, having purchased it a few short months ago. But I’ve certainly had it long enough to appreciate it. All told, I’ve played it through twice, and bought all three expansion packs.

And let me tell you, its pretty damn awesome! In fact, I would even go as far to say that it is a big improvement on Oblivion. And since I loved that game and got endless hours of gaming enjoyment out of it, that’s hardly faint praise. But its true. In terms of the games interface, graphics, gameplay, storyline, quests, abilities, items, and detailed environments, everything looked, felt, and played better than the last one.

skyrim-mountainsAnd as usual, the latest installment in the Elder Scrolls series takes place in a new province of Tamriel. As the name would suggest, the setting for this game is Skyrim, the cold, mountainous climate that is home to the Nords and the birthplace of the Empire. As always, the game is a platform for some serious worldbuilding, and the game makers spared no expense or effort to give Skyrim a realistic look, feel, culture and backstory.

And another major difference between Skyrim and Oblivion is the fact that this time around, there is not one but two main quests that are closely intertwined. Of course, there are countless secondary and additional missions that you can do, but the main plot lines have to do with the civil war that has engulfed Skyrim, and the return of the Dragons, an event foretold in the Elder Scrolls which signals the end of the world.

skyrim-dragonsHowever, the focus is undeniably on the return of the Dragons, as well as the “Dragonborn” who’s return was also foretold. Basically, a Dragonborn is a person of Tiber Septim’s line who has dragonblood, and hence can speak the dragon language. Words in this language are known as “Word of Power” since to speak them is to unleash destructive and other magical powers.

As the main character, you are Dragonborn, and have the option of learning and unlocking Words of Power as the game goes on. This is intrinsic to winning the game, since these words not only convey power, but are necessary in helping you to defeat the dragons.

Plot Synopsis:
The_Elder_Scrolls_V_Skyrim_coverThe story opens some two hundred years after the events of Oblivion where the Imperial Septim line ended, and Mehrunes Dagon was defeated. However, the Empire now finds itself in dire straights after being defeated in the Great War by the Altmeri Dominion. As you come to learn, this powerful faction – which was founded by the Thalmor (a group of High Elves) – declared war on the Empire over the worship of Talos (aka. Tiber Septim).

After losing the war some thirty years prior, the Empire formally signed a peace treaty known as the White-Gold Concordat which, amongst other things, forbade the worship of Talos within the Empire. This decision led to many Nords feeling like they had been abandoned by the Empire, and eventually led a Nord named Ulfric Stormcloak to mount a rebellion. This began when Ulfric killed High King Torygg, thus plunging the realm into civil war.

The game begins much as the last one does, with you being prisoner by Imperial Forces. As you quickly realize, you are being take alongside a group of Stormcloak rebels and their leader – Ulfric – to the nearby town of Helgen for sentencing. Though you were taken by mistake, the Legion decide to send you to the chopping block anyway. However, your beheading is interrupted when out of nowhere, a massive dragon shows up and begins laying waste to the town.

Alduin_Helgen_1The dragon, you learn, is none other than Alduin, the mythic beast that was defeated in the First Age and who’s return to “eat the world” was foretold by the Elder Scrolls. Helgen and its defenders are quickly killed, but you manage to escape with either the help of a Legionnaire named Hadvor or a Stormcloak named Ralof. This choice will likely influence the main characters choice of which side to win in the war.

After escaping Helgen, you and your companion travel to the nearby town of Riverwood where you are asked to go to Whiterun – capitol of the Hold – and request aid from the Jarl. Jarl Balgruuf’s agrees, but asks for you assistance in retrieving the Dragonstone – an ancient tablet that marks the burial sites of all the old dragons. Apparently, the dragons have been rising from their graves to take on living form again, and it is happening all over Skyrim.

skyrim-screenshot-dragon-fireThe stone resides inside Bleak Falls Barrow, and is protected by Draugr – a race reanimated mummified Nords. After fighting your way to the stone, you come upon a Dragon Word Wall, where you learn your first Word of Power. After returning to Whiterun, word reaches the Jarl that a dragon is attacking nearby, and you are asked to go and help. After defeating the dragon, the player absorbs its soul, and everyone realizes you are Dovahkiin – aka. Dragonborn.

After returning to Whiterun, the Jarl names you Thane of the Hold and gives you a Housecarl (bodyguard) and the right to buy property. Afterwards, you hear a Dragon Shout calling from on top of The Throat of the World – Skyrim’s tallest mountain. This is a summons from the Greybeards, an order of monks who live in seclusion in their temple High Hrothgar near the summit. Once you travel there, the Greybeards begin teaching you the “”Way of the Voice”.

skyrim_delphineThis includes teaching you words of power and enhancing your Thu’um (your voice), as well as sharing the prophecy of Alduin’s return and how a Dragborn would emerge to do battle with him. As a further test, the Greybeards ask yo to retrieve the legendary Horn of Jurgen Windcaller. However, the player discovers the Horn has been stolen by another, who wishes to meet with the Dragonborn at Riverwood.

The thief reveals herself as Delphine, Riverwood’s innkeeper and one of the last surviving members of the Blades. She indicates that the Blades were once the guardians of the land against the Dragons, and she wishes to help in your quest. Together, you and Delphine travel to a Dragon burial mound where you witness Alduin reviving a Dragon, and must defeat him.

skyrim_thalmorembassyAfterwards, Delphine informs you that she thinks the Thalmor are behind the return of the Dragons. Not only have the Thalmor been hunting her and all other remaining Blades for some time, it stands to reason that they would stand to gain the most by helping the Dragons wreak havoc all over Skyrim and the Empire, as a prelude to renewed war.

Together, you hatch a plan to infiltrate the Thalmor embassy near Solitude and find proof of this. This consists of posing as a guest as a diplomatic party, and then sneaking off to search the embassy. After finding a series of diplomatic recrods, you learn that they are not behind the Dragon threat, but are searching for a man named Esbern, an archivist of the Blades Order.

skyrim_alduinswallDelphine then instructs the player to locate Esbern, who is known to be hiding in the sewers and ratways of Riften. This town is located on the opposite side of Skyrim, and is home to the notorious Black Briar family and the last known stronghold of the Thieves Guild. Together, the three of you then seek out Alduin’s Wall at Sky Haven Temple, where the prophecy of Alduin was originally written.

While the Blades set up in the temple, Esbern reveals that the ancient Nords used a special Thu’um against Alduin called “Dragonrend”, representing mankind’s comprehensive hatred for the Dragons, to cripple his ability to fly so they could engage him. To gain more information, you meets with the Greybeards again and they decide it’s time for you to speak with their leader, Paarthurnax.

skyrim_PaarthurnaxPaarthurnax, as it turns out, is an ancient dragon who was once one of Alduin’s most feared generals. He reveals that Alduin was not truly defeated in the past, but was sent forward to an unspecified point in time by the use of an Elder Scroll in the hopes that he would get lost. Paarthurnax tells you you will need that Elder Scroll so you can peer into the past and learn the Dragonrend shout to defeat Alduin.

This latest mission takes you to the College of Winterhold, where you are forced to join to get information. You are then shown to Urag gro-Shub, an orc who runs the Arcanaeum – the College library. He directs you to Septimus Signus, a hermit who was driven mad by reading the Scrolls and who now lives in a outpost in an iceberg located on the nearby coast.

skyrim_septimusIn his outpost, Septimus is working on a Dwemer Box, a massive combination box that contains a Dwemer artifact. He tells you that you must travel to the ruins of Blackreach, one of many ruins left behind by the highly advanced Dwemer civilization in Skyrim. He gives you the Attunement Sphere and the Blank Lexicon, which you will need to reach the Scroll once you reach the heart of the ruin.

This journey takes you deep underground, into a world of bioluminescent plants and terrifying Falmer creatures. Once you find your way to the heart of the ruin, you come upon a Dwemer Sphere, a massive combination structure that you must adjust a series of focal lenses in order to unlock. Once this is done, the Scroll is removed from the Sphere and given to you.

skyrim_alduinTaking the Scroll to the Throat of the World, you glimpse into the past and witness the heroes of the First Age engage and defeat Alduin using the Elder Scroll and the Dragonrend shout. With this knowledge, you then summon Alduin to do battle, and with the help of Paarthurnax, you defeat him and send him fleeing to Sovengarde – the Nordic afterlife. You are told that you must go to face him there so that he can be defeated for all time.

The only way for you to travel after him is to trap a dragon and force them to bring you to Alduin’s lair, from which you may travel to Sovegarde to face him. This involves asking the Jarl of Whiterun to use his great hall – the Dragonsreach – which was originally constructed to trap a dragon. The Jarl is reluctant to do this while the war rages on, which either requires that end the war first, or ask the Greybeards to mediate a temporary cease fire in the war.

skyrim_battle_whiterun In between all of this, there is the second major quest, which involves taking sides in the civil war. As Hadvor tells you at the beginning, the  best way to contend with the returning Dragons is to join the Legion and use their resources. But Ralof will urge you to join the Stormcloaks as a “true son of Skyrim”. Depending on which side you choose, you are either required to travel to the capitol of Solitude, or to the Stormcloaks seat of power in Windhelm to sign on.

Once you’ve taken a side, battle is joined, and your first mission is either to lead the defense of, or assault, Whiterun. As Thane of the city, this will either mean upholding your oath of office, or betraying it in service of your new liege lord, Ulfric. In either case, this is the first of many battles, which are followed by missions to various forts to seize strategic passes, culminating on a siege of the enemy’s stronghold.

skyrim_battle_windhelmAs you progress, you are given higher and higher ranks in the army and entrusted with tasks of increasing importance. At the end of the Imperial campaign, you and General Tullius and Legate Rikke lead the assault into Windhelm and fight your way into Ulfric’s palace. After defeating him and his bodyguard, he asks that you – the Dragonborn – be the one to take off his head, as he thinks this will be more appropriate.

In the Stormcloak campaign, the war culminates in the siege of Solitude, where you, Ulfric, and Galmar Stone-Fist fight your way through the streets and to the Legion barracks and force the surrender of General Tullius and Rikke before executing them both. Ulfric then declares victory in the civil war and declares himself High King of an independent Skyrim.

skyrim-sovengardeWith the civil war complete, the plot to trap a dragon in Dragons Reach takes succeeds and you manage to secure a dragon named Odahviing. He agrees to help you since many dragons are disenchanted with Alduin’s rule, and agrees to fly you to the portal to Sovengarde, which is located high in the mountains at an ancient fort called Skuldafn. Once there, you battle your way through Draugr and lesser dragons and enter.

Upon your arrival, you find your way to Ysgramor, the legendary Nord who, along with his Five Hundred Companions, drove the Elves out of Skyrim. Ysgramor informs the player that Alduin has placed a “soul snare” in Sovngarde, allowing him to gain strength by devouring the souls of deceased Nords. The player meets up with the three heroes of Nordic legend who defeated Alduin and, with their help, destroys the soul snare and defeats Alduin in combat.

skyrim_dragonrendThe player then returns to the summit of the Throat of the World in which Paarthurnax and the other Dragons wait. Paarthurnax explains that even though Alduin is defeated, they are in no condition to celebrate for he was once their ally and is still one of their kin. Having asserted his authority over many Dragons, Paarthurnax convinces those loyal to him to leave Tamriel.

However, there is an alternate ending which takes place if the player obliged the Blades earlier in the game and killed Paarthurnax as punishment for his crimes while serving under Alduin. In this version, the player returns to the Throat of the World and speaks to Odahviing, who tells you that you have inherited Alduin’s position and that he will serve at your pleasure from now on.

Expansions:
DragonbornIn this regard, Skyrim kicks the crap out of its predecessor. Whereas Oblivion had expansion packs which seemed good, but not great, Skyrim’s three packs really impressed the hell out of me! These included Dragonborn, Dawngaurd, and Hearthfire, each of which offers additional quests, items, and abilities; and not in the tack-on, lower-quality types offered by the last game.

In the Dragonborn expansion, you are tasked with traveling to Solstheim, an island off the eastern coast of Tamriel inhabited by Nords and Dark Elves. Once here, you learn that the last Dragon Priest and one-time ruler of the island, a man named Miraak, is attempting to take it over. Naturally, he sees your emergence as the latest Dragonborn as a threat, and you must do battle with him.

skyrim_solstheimIn order to do this, you must learn from the Skaal people of the island who possess specialized magic. It also requires you cut a deal with the Hermaeus Mora, the Daedric Prince of forbidden knowledge and Miraak’s apprentice. In exchange for getting the Skaal to surrendering their secrets to him, he gives you the ability to travel to the realm of Apocrypha and fight MIraak. In the end, Mora betrays him and offers you the chance to become his new apprentice.

Additional items offered in this package include Nordic weapons and armor, which are of superior quality to most offered in the game thus far. In addition, you also gain the abilities to create armor and weapons out of Stalhrim (an ice-blue mineral), Chiton, or bones- which includes dragon bones and dragon scales. These are pretty deadly and pretty frightening to behold! I should know, I know have a full suit and arsenal of them!

skyrim_apocryphaAnd then there is the Dawngaurd plug-in, where an ancient vampire clan is returning to Skyrim. As usual, this has to do with a prophecy foretold in the Elder Scrolls that tells of the coming of eternal darkness. The vampires that belong to Clan Volkihar, led by Lord Harkon, seek to actuate the prophecy by performing a ritual involving a mythic bow and a blood sacrifice.

After recruiting Harkon’s own daughter (Serana) to your side, you manage to obtain several more Elder Scrolls, the bow itself, and are then forced to travel to another mythic realm, and eventually confront Lord Harkon and his clan at Castle Volkihar off the north-western coast of Skyrim. Once complete, the Dawnguard returns to its old glory and you and Serana are made permanent members.

skyrim_dawnguardAnd last, but not least, is Hearthfire, where things get a little different. Instead of offering additional quests that have to do with other prophecies, Hearthfire gives you the ability to purchase land in Skyrim and build your own tailor-made houses on them. This requires you to amass building materials – such as quarried stone, wood, clay, and various iron components.

With these secured, you are then able to build a home from the ground up, adding different wings and special sections – which include a Great Hall, a Kitchen, an Alchemist Tower, Trophy Room, Storage, Cellar, Bedrooms, and Entrance Foyer. You can augment these further with furniture, furnishings, a stable, a carriage, a bard, a smelter, a forge, a shrine, and about a hundred other options.

skyrim_hearthfireBetween Windstad Manor, in the salt marshes in Hjaalmarch, Lakeview Manor in the forests of Falkreath, and Heljarchen Hall in the Pale, you have the option to build three manors. And of course, you need a Housecarl to look after them and have your pick of three. And what’s also cool is that the expansion gives you the option to adopt two children, and you have your choice of four possible ones.

Having played them all, I can tell you that I enjoyed them all, particularly the first and third. If you happen to buy Skyrim, splurge and get the expansion packs!

Summary:
As I said already, this game was absolute awesomeness! Much like Oblivion, the production value was extremely high, and it features the voices of several well-known actors. This includes actress Joan Allen who does the voice of Delphine, Max von Sydow as Esbern, and Christopher Plummer as Master Arngeir of the Greybeards. All of this goes real well with all the world-building and detailed environments.

What’s more, I liked how the two main quests were intertwined, the one very much dependent upon the other. This gives you a chance to engage in some immersive medieval-style warfare, and also provides an opportunity to fight it out with beasts several times your size. I was especially impressed with this last aspect, which is something you don’t see in the gaming world often.

tamriel_mapIn addition to dragons, there are also giants, mammoths, and giant anthropomorphic robots that defend the Dwemer ruins. In most games, going up against larger-scaled enemies can look and feel awkward. But here, it both looked and felt natural, and was mighty fun to play at. And of course, there were countless other enemies that were just as cool to fight.

But what I especially loved about Skyrim was the way they managed to once again create a realistic setting, with a world that contained a highly interactive environment, wind-blown snow, rustling trees and bushes, and people who looked and moved in realistic ways. And as always, the cultural aspects of the game, which included food, drink, literature, ingredients, and items that are peculiar to Skyrim’s culture, but also includes items from other provinces.

skyrim_mountedAnd like the last game, you have quests which are connected to the guilds. In this case, this includes the College of Winterhold, which is the holdover from the Mages Guild in Skyrim, and the Companions, which is the local version of the Fighter’s Guild. Joining them means taking on quests which will allow you to climb the ranks and take on their enemies, ultimately earning the position of leader. There are innumerable other quests, plus the ability to amass abilities and bonuses based on amassed experience.

And of course, you can amass property, money, and personal possessions galore. But unlike Oblivion, you also have the option of getting married. This can be to any central character from the story, and can even be same-sex, if you’re so inclined. Combined with the Hearthfire ability to adopt and build your own home, you have the ability to create an entire family in this game. Kind of like Second Life, only set in Tamriel. Way better!

Of course, I could go on and find more to praise about the game, but some things you just need to check out for yourself. Consider this my long-winded wringing endorsement! And just for fun, I thought I’d post the trailer since it was pretty impressive too: