Every time I visit Europe I desire to visit sites that help bring history to life. In Paris, while the history of the various Louis’s and Napolean’s was interesting, I didn’t feel that same connection to the stories the way I did in Germany and Poland when touring the WWII sites. When we got to Belgium our first stop was the small town of Ieper (Dutch name), or Ypres (the French name). This small town was central in the battles fought by the Commonwealth and the Germans in WWI. While there we took a half-day tour of some of the nearby battlefields, monuments and historical places that gave the history of WWI a little more meaning – specifically the role that Canada had to play.
We took our tour with Steve from Salient Tours. Steve, a fellow Canadian from Windsor, Ontario, went to Belgium years ago with the goal of photographing every single Canadian grave in the area – and is still there working on this project to this day. He is very knowledgeable about the war and specifically about the part of the war that took place in the Ypres area. The tour involves 8 people in a small mini-van (plus 2 following behind in a car this time around), driven from site to site, complete with Steve as your guide to bring the history of each place into context. Our tour consisted of a couple from England, Scotland, and New Zealand, an Australian, a South African and then us. So the Commonwealth was well represented.
I have some photos to share as I talk about the places we saw, however, on a SAD note, at the end of this day, me memory card was corrupted. Ray recovered all the photos (which originally I didn’t think would happen), but 35% of the photos from the tour had been corrupted and could not be salvaged. But I’m grateful to still have some!!
The tour starts off at the Essex farm (and cemetery) – the dressing station that Dr. John McCrae worked at when we wrote the infamous poem “In Flanders Fields” in 1915. John McCrae, a professor from McGill University, was considered old (in his 40’s) at the time the war, but still wanted to help out. He worked at this dressing station, and then eventually moved up to a hospital in France, where he stayed until he died (and was buried there). It was amazing to stand in the bunkers where he attended to the soldiers and to stand where he was standing when he wrote that poem. The poem was inspired by the death of his friend, Alexis Helmer, who they buried on the site. There was no chaplain present, so McCrae performed the ceremony. The day after this he was found sitting on the back of an ambulance, scrawling this poem, observing the poppies, which grow in disturbed soil – the soil of war. It was a colleague that sent his poem in for publication, and eventually it gained traction and became one of the most famous war poems ever.
Many more bodies were added to the mix in weeks to come, including a famous grave of a 15 year old boy, one of many who lied about their age so they could fight in the war. The grave stones, when pushes directly together, represent a group of men to died together, and their bodies were so mangled that they couldn’t tell them apart – and this buried them in one grave, with a series of headstones side by side. The thing about single headstones is that you can look and know they represent one man. It is easy to imagine a proper military service, with each being given honour. But to see them together like this and understand that is was a quick burial, on the ground of the first aid station, in a situation where each remains could not be give it’s own grave….that was a quick reminder of how ugly and messy war is – even more so in World War I.
Originally there were not white grave stones, but crosses, but after the war the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was formed, and developed rules for the war graves meant to bestow honour and uniformity. The white stones, with the name, the regiment, and (if not British) the country was allowed. Canadians and Australian governments paid for it’s families to add epitaphs to the bottom. Great Britain allowed their families to add something, but at a charge per letter. This meant added an epitaph would be like giving up 6 months or so worth of bread for their families – so most remain blank on the bottom. The New Zealanders thought it was ridiculous to charge at all, and refused their citizens the right to pay to add something, whether they wanted it or not.
Our next stop was Langemark – the only German cemetery in the area. The German graves were not allowed the same degree of recognition that the Commonwealth were given. They moved all the local German graves to one somber cemetery, with black stones, lain into the ground. Many of them represent 20 or 40 unknown bodies, and in the center are large plaques with the names of all the dead burried there, but most names are not connected to any one stone. There are 44,000 German soldiers burried, here, 25,000 of which are in the center in one mass grave. The cemetary is maintained by the Germans. It is a sad place to walk through. Because regardless of which side of the conflict they were on, this land had been soaked with the blood of young men. There is a grave off to one end that contains 3000 school children that were killed during the first battle of Ypres.
Next we moved to a nearby area to the Langemark cemetery, in the country side near the town of Saint Julien, where the gas attacks were used for the first time in war. Tear Gas, Mustard Gas, Chlorine and Phosgene were used as agents of war for the first time (making this a Chemists war). There is a memorial called the “Brooding Soldier” placed in honour of the Canadians who defended against the first poisonous gas attacks at the second battle of Ypres. The Canadians held the line despite the gas, until British reinforcements arrived, losing 1 in 3 Canadian soldiers (over 2000) in the process. The gas was not the major cause of death in WWI though (only 4%) though the number of injuries and damage is caused to the health of soldiers was significantly higher. The biggest thing was that the use of chemicals completely changed the face of war.
We then moved into the fields of Passchendale (photo above) where the commonwealth spent 3 months trying to capture the ridge from the German’s. However, this was low land, and it meant that much of this time was spent knee deep in mud, trying to move, but getting no where. There was 6km to gain to claim the ridge, and by November, they were successful (only to lose it shortly after). They lost 35 men for every meter they claimed on the 6 km journey (do the math). Mud, rain, gas – some of the toughest conditions of war.
We then moved on to the Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the World. This beautiful and somber grounds is littered with white head stones (though they are currently being replaced with Italian marble stones – which will stand the test of time better). 12,000 men have been laid to rest on this site.
Our last stop was at the Hooge crater and bunkers, where a pond is formed in a previous war crater and trenches have recently been unearthed. The ground is filled with piles of debris left from war – poles and barbed wire and shell casings. A underground German bunker, and of course, the trenches. Ray had a chance to walk through them. Not as deep as you would expect, it brings to life the conditions that the men lived in to claim and defend this land, against great opposition. This was an ugly and muddy, and relatively low tech war. Modern day war can, in many respects, be fought at a distance. Technology continues to change the way that war develops. But walking through trenches and across wet battlefields and feeling the mud beneath your feet is a quick reminder of how hard this was, how many were lost, and what an important role Canada had to play in the war and in the world.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.