Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Vimy Ridge Centenary Tour

The April 2017 Vimy Ridge tour is sold out! We'll spend 14 days visiting the battlefields of Normandy and the First World War, including the Somme, Vimy, Ypres, Verdun, and the Chemin des Dames. We've been able to make a late addition to the itinerary -- a visit to the Maison Blanche souterraine near Vimy Ridge. Canadian troops sheltered in the underground galleries before the Vimy battle. It's full of graffiti they carved into the chalk. The place is not open to the public and other tours don't go there. This is even more exciting because the tours of the Grange Tunnel at Vimy have become progressively more restricted over the years. Looking forward to it!

For description of the Maison Blanche, and photos, see

Monday, 14 November 2016

Vimy Ridge and D-Day anniversary tours in 2017

I'll be leading another group to the Canadian battlefields in Europe for the April 2017 centennial of the Vimy Ridge battle. That tour is already sold out, but we are offering a second tour in May-June which (in addition to stops at Vimy and other relevant sites) will visit Juno Beach on 6 June, the 73rd anniversary of the D-Day landings. Here's a link to the Insight Vacations web page with the full itinerary for the tour:

Thursday, 14 January 2016


Approximately 67,000 Canadians were killed overseas during the Great War, and another 42,000 during the Second World War. The series of Canadian Battlefields of Europe tours of which the 2015 trip was a part offers a unique opportunity to learn about these formative events in our history in some depth. For me, escorting these tours provides the occasion to indulge my own fascination with these battle sites and memorials, but the tours also allow me to pass on to others what I have learned about Canada's military history and the sacrifices of our military personnel. It is a responsibility that I am very proud to exercise.

2015 Canadian Battlefields tour post-script: Waterloo, Brussels, and Ypres again

I left Cambrai and the Great War battlefields -- for the moment -- and drove up to the Brussels area for a look at the Waterloo battlefield. We read a little about Waterloo in one of my courses so I thought it was time to pay a visit. I expected kind of a big deal, at least in terms of the visitor centre and historical displays. On this note, Waterloo was both disappointing and somehow more appropriate. The main draw, apart from the battlefield itself, is the Butte de Lion. Obviously built after the battle to commemorate the Anglo-Dutch-Prussian victory over Napoleon, the hill stands in the centre-right portion of Wellington's line. It took 226 steps to get to the top, and I climbed 'em all! There was really not much else worthy of the difficulty it required to get there. The site was marked by a large construction project (a new museum or something, it wasn't clear) which made a bit of a mess of the site. I was there a month before the big 200th anniversary on 18 June 2015 and I thought they might have planned to have things tidied up before such an important anniversary tourist season. There was also a large, 360-degree panorama painting of the battle, housed in its own little shrine. The panorama was created for the 100th anniversary, and it is certainly looking its age. I skipped the wax museum. Expecting more from the visitor centre, I was quite disappointed by the similarly dated audio-visual interpretations of the battle. One of the highlights (?) was an extended excerpt from the 1970 film Waterloo, starring Christopher Plummer. The bookstore exhibited a definite preference for works on Napoleon. Curious, I thought; Wellington (with help from Blucher) won the battle, yet there was nothing on the shelves about the Iron Duke. I suppose it was just as well since I hadn't come for souvenirs but to see the ground, and it did not disappoint.

From the lion's perspective, one is offered a commanding view of the battlefield, this section of which has changed very little since June of 1815. After exploring battlefields of the First and Second World Wars, one is struck by how much smaller a Napoleonic battlefield was by comparison. The white building visible in the top-left section of the photo is La Belle Alliance, which sat at the centre of Napoleon's line. Two other prominent landmarks of the battle, the farms of La Haie Sainte and Hougoumont, are just out of frame to the left and right.

After a too-brief look at the field, I headed to the town of Waterloo itself and the Wellington Museum, housed within the inn that served as the Duke's headquarters on the nights before and after the battle. It, too, was rather disappointing and appeared to be in major need of an update. After the state of the art museums I have seen in the Somme and Ypres salient areas, I expected more.

Next up was a walk around the tourist quarter of Brussels. My hotel was in a very sketchy part of the city, but walking distance to the centre so I wasted no time in hunting down another waffle on the way to see the famous Mannequin Pis. It is definitely an over-hyped and underwhelming "attraction." The crowd queueing up for a photo of the cheeky statue apparently disagreed, but I was more impressed when, as a youngster, I found my uncle's facsimile rye-dispenser at a Winnipeg Christmas party.

The rye-dispenser looked just like him, and worked the same way!

Then it was on to the Grand Place, to which this photo does no justice whatsoever.

First thing next morning I left Brussels for a return to Ypres to scout out a few sites that we didn't have time for on the group tour. The Bayernwald trenches are situated in the southern part of the Ypres salient. The trenches were discovered in 1971, but only opened to visitors in their current state in 2004. The interest lies in the fact that these are preserved German trenches, so somewhat unique. These two photos display a different method of trench construction than one normally imagines -- using wattle frames. There are also a number of small bunkers on the site, each made of pre-fabricated concrete blocks assembled in situ.

One can walk through a set of model trenches at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 in Zonnebeke. These reconstructions show a variety of trench-building techniques that will impress anyone who thought the soldiers just dug ditches in the ground and linked them together. The real thing surely didn't look this tidy during the fighting, however.

On my way back into Ypres for dinner I stopped at the memorial to Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry at Frezenberg. The memorial has received a facelift (since I first saw it some years ago) to mark the 100th anniversary of the unit's introduction to battle on 8 May 1915.

When I was in the salient with our tour group earlier in the month, we watched the PPCLI march past the Cloth Hall down to the Menin Gate. The battalion was awarded the Freedom of the City and participated in the Last Post Ceremony, held under the gate every night since 1928. A few members of our tour group even make a cameo in the video linked here PPCLI at the Menin Gate, 8 May 2015.

There are just too many sites of interest in the Salient for me to go directly from one point to another without becoming side-tracked. In this case, dinner would have to wait for a visit to Polygon Wood. This interesting little cemetery reveals a big difference between the concentration cemeteries like the ones in Normandy, Vis-en-Artois, or Tyne Cot. Polygon Wood was a front-line cemetery, and according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission plaque near the site, "the random layout of the graves paints a vivid picture of the dangers involved in the hasty burial of the dead under the constant threat of sniper and shell fire."

The last stop before dinner (really!) was the small memorial on the edge of what used to be Kitcheners Wood. This was the location of First Canadian Division's baptism by fire during the Second Ypres battle in April 1915.

My trip extension ended with a second Last Post ceremony followed by dinner across from the Cloth Hall in Ypres. I got one last waffle and one last photo of the gate before driving to Lille for the night and an early train to the airport in Paris next morning.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

2015 Canadian Battlefields tour post-script: the Hundred Days of 1918 -- Amiens to Bourlon Wood

After the Canadian Battlefields tour ended and I bid adieu to my group, I rented a car and headed back up to the Somme, Arras, and Ypres for a few days of solo exploration. Leaving Paris behind, my first stop was Amiens. I have read a fair bit about the battle over the years but had never had the chance to go over the ground in any detail so this was a treat.

Hangard Wood British Cemetery lies just in front of the portion of the front line held by the 13th Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) -- the Black Watch -- at the beginning of the Battle of Amiens. The immediate area had been captured by the Germans during the 1918 spring offensive but was quickly taken by the Canadians once the Amiens show kicked off on 8 August.
The cemetery contains a number of French burials from earlier fighting in the area, alongside those from the Commonwealth.
Among the Canadian casualties in Hangard Wood is Victoria Cross winner Private John Bernard Croak of the 13th Battalion, who fell on the first day of the Battle of Amiens. The inscription chosen by his family suggests a different sort of message than one usually sees on the headstones: "Do you wish to show your gratitude? Kneel down and pray for my soul."
An ironic and somewhat chilling name is found on this headstone: Private J. Death of The Queen's (Royal West Surrey Regiment), killed during the German spring offensive of 1918.
After leaving Hangard Wood and the Canadian start line for the Battle of Amiens, I headed toward Caix British Cemetery, the location of which was right in the middle of the Canadian portion of the Amiens battlefield. The Canadian Corps, in fact, stopped on a line just east of Caix at the end of the day on 8 August, having advanced eight miles. The battle resumed on 9 August and continued for another ten days until it was called off in the face of stiffening German resistance as the enemy retreated into the old 1916 Somme defences. On the way to the Commonwealth cemetery, I passed this rather neglected German cemetery.

This is the first military cemetery from either World War that I have seen looking so run-down, whether German, Commonwealth, French, Polish, or American.
A short way up the road from the German cemetery, I found the reason for my visit to this part of the battlefield. Back in 2006 a collection of human remains was found on private property near the easternmost edge of the Amiens battlefield. Casualty investigation by Canada's Department of National Defence identified the eight bodies as members of the 78th Battalion (Winnipeg Grenadiers). The men had died on 11 August as the battalion pushed into the town of Hallu, part of the old German trench system. Five of the eight men were positively identified from DNA evidence, and they had been reinterred at Caix a couple of days before my visit. The previous summer, I had been present at Minto Armoury in Winnipeg on the day of the announcement that these men had been identified, and this trip brought me too close not to pay my respects at their final resting place.

After leaving Caix, I headed northwards to explore the Canadian battlefields along the road from Arras to Cambrai. Before I left the Somme battlefields, I passed by the Australian memorial at Bullecourt. As the Canadian Corps was completing its capture of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, the Australians launched a hasty attack to the south, targeting a section of the formidable Hindenburg Line defences. In a series of actions extending into early May 1917, the Australians lost over 10,000 casualties. Their gains were subsequently lost the next year during the German spring offensive.
"The Digger."
It was getting late by the time I reached the battle area south-east of Arras, which was the scene of the Canadian Corps' greatest achievements -- according to Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie, at least. I took a quick look at the Canadian memorial at Dury, which marks the breaking of the Drocourt-Queant Line -- the northern hinge of the Hindenburg Line defences -- at the beginning of September 1918.

The inscription on the stone reads: "The Canadian Corps 100,000 strong attacked at Arras on August 26th 1918, stormed successive German lines and here on Sept. 2nd broke and turned the main German position on the Western Front and reached the Canal du Nord."

Before heading to my hotel in Cambrai I drove back up the road toward Arras for a hurried look at the ground over which the Germans had constructed some of their strongest defences on the Western Front. Amidst a series of hills and valleys stretching over roughly five kilometers that surely constituted a major barrier to the Canadian advance -- judging from the terrain it seems obvious why the Germans chose to make their stand here -- I found Vis-en-Artois British Cemetery. The area was captured by the Canadians on 27 August and a primarily Canadian cemetery was created immediately. After the fighting ended Vis-en-Artois became a concentration cemetery and burials from smaller plots in the surrounding region were reinterred here. The cemetery now contains over 2300 burials, more than 1400 of which remain unknown.

First thing next morning I headed for the site where the Canadian Corps made its assault crossing of the Canal du Nord, catching this site en route.
This is the spot where the Canadians crossed the canal on 27 September. Recognizing that this section of the canal had not yet been completed and remained dry, it is difficult now to appreciate how difficult an obstacle it presented. This is the "Canadian" side of the canal.

Things look quite different from the "German" side of the canal. The steep bank is visible in the middle of the photo. Little cover from German fire was available to the Canadians coming over the canal bank here.

Once over the canal, the next main objective was Bourlon Wood. Seen here at a distance of roughly five kilometres from the eastern side of the Canal du Nord, the importance of the high ground at the wood seems obvious.

The Canadian memorial park at Bourlon Wood. These trees lining the path up to the memorial survived the battle.

This was the last, chronologically, of the eight major Canadian battles that were memorialized in stone. Apart from the unique projects at Vimy Ridge and St. Julien (Ypres), these octagonal granite blocks were placed to commemorate the battles for Courcelette, Hill 62 (Mount Sorrel -- Ypres), Passchendaele, Amiens, Dury (the DQ Line), and, here, Bourlon Wood. The inscription reads: "The Canadian Corps on 27th Sep. 1918 forced the Canal du Nord and captured this hill. They took Cambrai, Denain, Valenciennes & Mons, then marched to the Rhine with the victorious Allies."

The Canadian battles of the Last Hundred Days constituted the highest achievement of Canadian military forces in our history. At a time when the British Army was largely worn out, the Canadian Corps -- bolstered by reinforcements from the disbanded 5th Division in Britain and by conscription -- spearheaded the Allied advance on the northern part of the Western Front. In three months of unrelenting offensive action, the Canadians led the way in breaking the last German defences in France and Belgium, leaving the enemy with little option but to ask for an armistice. The intensity of the operations was revealed by its cost: over the course of the Hundred Days, the Canadian Corps suffered 20 per cent of the casualties it sustained over the entire course of the war dating back to the spring of 1915. It is a real shame that these battles -- overshadowed as they are by the stunning success at Vimy Ridge -- are so little known by Canadians. So too the man who played such an important role in orchestrating the Corps' operations after Vimy, Sir Arthur Currie.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

2015 Canadian Battlefields tour post-script: Paris interlude

Following three nights in Caen, we left Normandy for Paris, our last stop on the trip. After a quick sightseeing tour and a farewell dinner, the formal tour came to an end and I said goodbye to a wonderful group.

I decided to stick around for a few extra days, rent a car, and head back north on my own to go over some of the First War battlefields in greater depth. Before picking up my car I spent a couple of hours at Notre Dame. This is my favourite spot in Paris and I've been there a number of times. This was my first trip up the towers to see the cathedral from another perspective.
It was about 400 steps to the top of the bell tower. On the way, I passed these guys, who have arguably the best view of the city. More amazing was the young couple who went up with two young children plus the baby which dad took up on his back. Did I mention it was 400 steps to the top? Up a narrow, twisty, and crowded stairway? I thought they were nuts, and certainly more ambitious than I. Turned out they were also from Winnipeg!

And finally, this photo just to show that the French do, in fact, have a sense of humour.

Next up, Ypres and the Last Hundred Days from the backroads where we can't take a motor coach... Stay tuned.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

2015 Canadian Battlefields Tour summary: Normandy

From Dieppe we took the road for the Normandy battlefields. Our first stop, on the way in to Caen, was the Abbaye Ardenne. This medieval abbey was the headquarters of Kurt Meyer's 25th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment of the 12th SS Hitler Youth Division. On the night of 7-8 June 1944, troops under Meyer's command interrogated and then murdered 18 Canadian prisoners of war in the abbey garden. Two more were murdered in similar fashion later in the month. This was just one site among a number in Normandy where similar war crimes were committed by the SS.

The following day, we hit the D-Day beaches. We began at Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery. Most of the burials are for the casualties of the fighting in the early stages of the Battle of Normandy.

This group shot was taken right outside the cemetery.

Next stop was Juno Beach, and the town of Bernieres-sur-Mer. The Queen's Own Rifles assaulted this beach, assisted by tanks from the Fort Garry Horse. The large house on the beach is visible in many period photos taken during the assault.

After Bernieres, we headed for the Juno Beach Centre, in Courseulles-sur-Mer. Courseulles was taken by the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and the Regina Rifles. It was the toughest of the Canadian targets on D-Day owing to the number of German strongpoints on this sector of the beach. This photo shows a 25-pounder, the primary field gun in the British and Canadian armies.

This bunker at Courseulles was taken by the Royal Winnipeg Rifles.

 The plaque reads: "'Cosy's Bunker.' This bunker was stormed and taken by Lt. W.F. (Cosy) Aitken and 10 Platoon of 'B' Company, The Royal Winnipeg Rifles, on 6 June 1944. 'B' Company suffered 78% casualties assaulting 'Mike Green' Beach."

Churchill tank on Juno Beach at Courseulles.
Remains of the Mulberry harbour are visible in the English Channel at Arromanches on Gold Beach. The Dieppe raid taught the Allies how difficult it would be to capture a defended port, and port facilities were crucial to the logistical build-up that would accompany the invasion. So, the Allies simply towed their own pre-fab harbours across the Channel and assembled them off the beaches! The American harbour off Omaha Beach succumbed to the great storm that hit the area beginning on 17 June, but remnants of the British harbour survive to this day.

Our last stop of the day was at the American cemetery at Omaha Beach. The mood and the message is quite different here than it is at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries. For me, the large monuments and ringing bells suggest almost a Disneyfication of remembrance. "Our" cemeteries seem (to me) much more reserved, thoughtful, and touching.

Omaha Beach. German bunker visible at centre.

The next day we explored the battlefields south of Caen in the rain, so the next few photos are from the 2014 tour, which was graced with better weather! This is the Canadian memorial at Point 67, taken by the Calgary Highlanders during Operation Atlantic. This position overlooks the towns of St-Andre-sur-Orne and St-Martin-de-Fontenay, with Verrieres Ridge in the distance.

A better look at Verrieres Ridge and St-Martin, from where the Black Watch made their disastrous assault on the ridge during Operation Spring, 25 July 1944. The ridge was not taken until 7-8 August, during Operation Totalize.
Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery is the resting place of those casualties who fell during the latter stages of the Battle of Normandy.

We stopped in Falaise for a very rainy lunch break. Last year it was much sunnier!

Here is William the Conqueror's statue and his castle, with the hotel de ville in between.

After lunch we looked at the closing of the Falaise gap. This field of poppies overlooks the gap near St-Lambert-sur-Dives.

Major David Currie of the South Alberta Regiment won the Victoria Cross at St-Lambert-sur-Dives, for holding the town amidst determined counterattacks from German troops trying to escape the Falaise pocket.

This is the Polish memorial at Mont Ormel, which overlooks the Germans' escape route out of the the pocket.

This Tiger tank outside Vimoutiers broke down and was abandoned by its crew during the final stages of the battle to close the Falaise gap.