Thursday, 28 May 2015

Canadian Battlefields 2015 tour summary: Ypres salient

We left Bruges in the afternoon on the way to Kortrijk, our base to explore the Ypres salient. Normally we would stay in Ypres itself, but there were hotel issues. In any case, we stopped en route at Vladslo German war cemetery. In the past I have stopped at the German cemetery in Langemarck in order to show people the contrast with the style of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries. This year, however, we were drawn to Vladslo by Kathe Kollwitz' moving sculptures, the parents in mourning. Kollwitz sculpted the figures as both a memorial to her son Peter, killed in the salient in October 1914, and a reflection of her grief over his loss. The faces on the sculptures are those of Kollwitz herself, and her husband.

Vladslo, on this day, was in the midst of a maintenance cycle and there were numerous cut branches and tractor tire marks on the ground to marr the serenity of the place. Our communion, if that's the right word, with the sculptures was disrupted by the protective cages around them, but the group still saw the main differences between the German cemeteries and "ours." The former are darker in mood, with mass graves
in place of individual headstones. It only took a moment to find Peter Kollwitz' grave, marked by a stone with twenty names on it, in front of his grieving parents. Here was a profoundly touching indication of the main similarity between the German and Commonwealth cemeteries, the holes left in so many families by the war. Kathe Kollwitz died in 1945, but her grief at the loss of her only son remains tangible in these two stone figures at Vladslo.

We began the next day at Sanctuary Wood and the Canadian memorial on Hill 62 a short distance up the road beyond. The wood, of course, was blasted to splinters by the fighting around Ypres, but the trenches were preserved by the landowners and the trees obviously grew back. Trench maps show this as the location of the British / Canadian support line, though I'm sure the trenches themselves did not look so tidy while they were being shelled. And evidence of the artillery's work is all around the site in the many shell holes lying here and there, often filled with water.

The trenches here clearly demonstrate the idea of the reverse-slope position often referenced in the history books, though the rise in the ground toward the front of the position is not completely evident from these photographs.

Next stop was Essex Farm, just to the north of Ypres. This was an advanced dressing station and cemetery where John McCrae, a doctor with the Canadian artillery, composed his famous poem, "In Flanders Fields." McCrae and the poem -- written in grief at the death of a friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer, in the spring of 1915 -- are commemorated here, a few steps away from the bunker that served as the dressing station. Helmer's grave, like so many others, was lost in the subsequent shelling, and he is now commemorated on the Menin Gate.

The Cloth Hall in Ypres. It was reduced by four years of shelling to a pile of rubble, and painstakingly rebuilt after the war. Restoration was only completed in 1967. It now houses the very good In Flanders Fields Museum.

After lunch we stopped near St. Julien to see Frederick Clemesha's memorial, the brooding soldier. It was placed at the so-called Vancouver Corner, where the Germans used chlorine gas to buckle the northern edge of the Ypres salient in April 1915. When French territorial troops broke and ran, Canadians from the 1st Division held the line here, at great cost, and prevented a disaster. Clemesha's design was second only to Walter Allward's in the competition that selected the form of the Vimy Memorial.

The Canadian government selected the sites of eight key battles fought by the Canadian Corps for commemoration. Reproducing Allward's and Clemesha's works would have been prohibitively expensive so after St. Julien and Vimy, the other sites received granite memorial stones like the one pictured here, at the Crest Farm site near Passchendaele.

Next up was Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world, with 12,000 burials. The site is also notable for the presence of three German bunkers, captured by the Australians during the Third Ypres campaign, and for its memorial wall commemorating 35,000 troops of the Commonwealth who fell in the salient after Passchendaele and who have no known grave. Two of the German bunkers are easy enough to spot on the site (one is in the centre of the photo), while the Cross of Sacrifice was built over top of the third.

At Tyne Cot I had to search out the grave of a Manitoban, J.P. Robertson, who was killed at Passchendaele while serving with the 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion, and who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Later that evening, back in Ypres, another unit with (post-war) Winnipeg connections, the PPCLI, were given the Freedom of the City in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the unit's stand at Frezenberg on 8 May 1915. After parading in front of the Cloth Hall with pipes skirling, the PPCLI participated in the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate, held every night since 1928.

The gate was inaugurated in 1927 to commemorate 55,000 Commonwealth troops who fell in the salient up to the Passchendaele campaign (Third Ypres) in 1917 and who have no known grave.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Canadian Battlefields 2015 tour summary: Adegem and Bruges

After leaving the Netherlands, our next stop was the Canada-Poland Museum near Adegem, Belgium. This museum was built with private funds by Mr. Gilbert van Landschoot, to honour the soldiers who liberated his country. My first trip to this museum was in 1996, and Mr. van Landschoot's stories about the "water rats and the lover boys" of the Canadian army have only become more colourful over the years. This museum is a regular feature of my tours, and our guests are always incredibly impressed with what is obviously a labour of love.


My approach on these tours is to tell people the story of a particular battle or campaign on the fields and beaches where events occurred, and then visit the cemeteries to see the human cost to which the history books and movies rarely do justice. This is how I was first introduced to the battlefields nearly 20 years ago, and it's a privilege to help people discover their military history and, sometimes, a piece of family history. After leaving the museum it was a short detour to the Adegem Canadian War Cemetery, where one of our group found her uncle's grave.

 Our group also found the Canada Bridge in Bruges. The 12th Manitoba Dragoons -- recce regiment for II Canadian Corps -- got credit for liberating the city, hence the bison on the bridge.
 Bruges is one of the most picturesque towns in Europe...

 ...with medieval squares...

...ornate buildings...

...and parties-in-your-mouth.

Oh yeah, they also have a statue at the Church of Our Lady which was apparently the only one of Michelangelo's sculptures to leave Italy during his lifetime. The Bruges Madonna was a big-enough deal to be featured in the recent film, The Monuments Men, but I get a bigger charge out of trenches and other battlefield remnants. I guess you just can't put culture into some people.


Monday, 25 May 2015

Canadian Battlefields 2015 tour summary: the Deventer Tattoo

After the parade in Wageningen, we attended the tattoo in Deventer. I may be partial, but I enjoyed the Canadian pipes and drums the most.
The best laugh of the night was earned by this Dutch band, performing in traditional garb -- though I'm not sure what was up with the guy in the dress.

 And the award for the highest degree of difficulty went to Crescendo, another Dutch band. Ever seen a marching band play while riding their bikes?


The tattoo ended with perhaps the most intense fireworks barrage I've ever seen. Deventer is not a large city, but they certainly rivalled anything you'll find in Ottawa on Canada Day. And the finale featured an incendiary "Thank You Veterans" display which made the spine tingle.

One often hears about the warmth of the Dutch welcome for Canadians. It was fantastic to witness it first hand. This was an experience I doubt anyone in our group will soon forget.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Canadian Battlefields of Europe 2015 tour summary: Amsterdam, Holten, and Wageningen



I've returned from this year's battlefield tour, and over the next few days I'll be posting some of the trip's highlights. First up, the Netherlands, 4-5 May. This year's tour started in Amsterdam.

After meeting our group in Amsterdam, we soon moved to Holten for a special service at the Canadian War Cemetery on 4 May, the Dutch Remembrance Day.

The service at Holten included a Spitfire flypast, which was by itself worth the effort to get there.

What really makes the service special is the participation local school children, who come out to lay flowers on the graves of their grandparents' liberators. I don't know how much of it is based on sincere appreciation from a generation untouched by war and how much is a result of their teachers' instructions, but what matters most is that the younger generations are taught the price of their freedom, and who secured it for them.

The next day, 5 May, was Liberation Day. Every five years the Netherlands observes a national holiday, and this year was probably the last time we'll see large numbers of Canadian veterans able to make the trip. That's why I felt it was important to include these events in the itinerary.

Organizers raise the Maple Leaf at the Dreijen grounds for the Foulkes Festival in Wageningen, named after the Canadian general in command of I Canadian Corps who accepted the German surrender in the Netherlands.

The celebrations in Wageningen included parades with vets, marching bands, and period vehicles. There were even a few re-enactors demonstrating the proper (?) organization of a slit trench.

This OP was in good hands...

There's something about seeing kids from another country waving the Maple Leaf that stirs up more pride than just about anything else.

This B-25 Mitchell medium bomber circled over the parade. 


The vets obviously enjoyed the chance to re-live the happier moments of the liberation. Some threw out flowers to the crowd, others stole kisses.