Thursday, 14 January 2016

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.

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