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.

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