Gassed an oil painting completed in March 1919 by John Singer Sargent depicts the aftermath of a mustard gas attack during
the First World War, with a line of wounded soldiers walking towards a dressing station.
Belgium and France are drawing up 'battle plans' for a peaceful invasion in 2014. The invading forces will carry cameras and credit cards, not rifles and bayonets this time around, but war will still be uppermost in their minds. The year 2014 is particularly significant for Belgium and France since it marks the centennial of the beginning of World War One. Much of the fighting took place on what came to be known as
the Western Front
in those two countries.
The combatants are all gone now, but interest in "
The Great War" is still high. Over the next four years, millions of visitors are expected to descend upon the battlefields, war cemeteries and military museums in memory of the fallen.
Hotels and restaurants anticipate a healthy upsurge in traffic while municipalities in both countries are planning major events to commemorate those who fought, and in all too many cases died, in a victorious effort to restore the peace.
With so many victims of the 1914 to 1918 campaign - military and civilian alike - buried in unmarked graves, the exact number of casualties is unknown. Historians generally agree that about 10 million military personnel were killed. Roughly seven million civilians also died from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another 20 million individuals were wounded.
As research for a book entitled Rising from the Ashes, my wife and I recently visited cities and towns in Northern France and Belgium destroyed or badly damaged between 1914 and 1918 and subsequently rebuilt by those determined to get their lives back together.
The idea for a book about the indomitable spirit of people who rose above overwhelming adversity came to us as we stared up at the clock tower of the magnificent
in Ypres, Belgium several years ago. Completed in 1304, this ornate building, originally a marketplace for locally-made textiles, was reduced to rubble during major battles that took place a century ago in this city of Flanders - the Dutch-speaking area of Belgium.
Like most tourists, we believed we were standing in a medieval city square steeped in centuries of history. Upon entering the building to tour the information-packed
In Flanders Fields Museum
, we soon realized that the Cloth Hall, the adjacent Saint Martin's Church and other soaring edifices we'd been admiring had actually been built within the past hundred years. Structurally speaking, Ypres is not as old as Hamilton or Burlington.
With the signing of the
1919 Treaty of Versailles
, Germany found itself on the hook for huge reparation payments, much of which would be used for rebuilding the communities their aggression had brutally affected.
There were three options for post-war Ypres. One faction wanted the city left in ruins as an anti-war statement. Others, including architect
Frank Lloyd Wright
, lobbied to create a brand-new city showcasing early 20th-century design. The prevailing opinion saw the city returned to its earlier magnificence using the many drawings still in existence.
- or Wipers as Allied soldiers dubbed it - is one of many beautifully refurbished towns and cities of Belgium that can be toured on day trips using Brussels as a base. And the Belgian capital itself is a great place to explore on days when the wandering spirit flags.
But if time is short, two other reconstructed communities in addition to Ypres warrant a visit. The first,
, is about 30 km east of Brussels and can be reached by train in 20 minutes. The downtown train station exits onto a square dominated by a massive bas relief monument to the citizens who were either killed in a bloodbath of atrocities by German troops or were forced to flee the city.
Today, vibrant and colourful Leuven offers a number of must-see attractions within walking distance of the train station. High on the list is the multi-spired and intricately carved town hall that was spared during the German occupation since it served as the conquering army's headquarters. Less fortunate was the nearby Catholic University Library that was burned to the ground, with the loss of irreplaceable manuscripts, books and other documents.
The library was rebuilt after the war with donations from around the world - most notably from universities and fundraising groups in the United States and Great Britain.
is another Belgian community extensively damaged during World War One. Located astride the Meuse River about 90 km southeast of Brussels, Dinant is the birthplace of
, inventor of the saxophone. A museum to his memory is a hornblower's delight and the city capitalizes on the Sax connection by hosting various jazz festivals. Gigantic multi-coloured saxophones line both sides of the bridge over the Meuse.
That span is named for a French lieutenant wounded there during fighting that devastated the city in 1914. The officer,
Charles de Gaulle
, would go on to lead the Free French during World War Two and eventually become president of France. The bridge gives an unobstructed view of the Collegiate Church of Notre Dame, nestled against a sheer rock cliff topped by a fortress called The Citadel. A cable car ride affords a breathtaking panoramic view of the Meuse valley.
Moving on to the battle areas of France, we set up temporary headquarters in
, the capital of the Somme Region of Picardy about 120 km north of Paris. For Canadians,
conjures up horrific mind pictures of bursting shells, muddy quagmires and men dying in agony during one of the most fiercely fought campaigns of the war. In Amiens alone, more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed.
Today, the area is serene and picturesque. In Amiens, the Saint-Leu section of the city features colourful waterside cafés that have earned the community the nickname of "Little Venice". Diners enjoying a crêpe and cider lunch can glance up at Amiens Cathedral, a World Heritage site situated several blocks away, and plan an afternoon tour of this lofty structure - perhaps after another glass of cider.
One city that used reparation payments to rebuild itself in the style of the early 20th century is Saint-Quentin, about 70 km east of Amiens. The community is an Art Deco showplace. And the beautiful Saint-Quentin Basilica, damaged by heavy shelling and repaired after the war, offers a mixture of ancient and modern stained glass windows as well as a post-war pipe organ replacing the one melted down by the Germans for use in the manufacture of munitions.
A visit to the nearby town of
can turn into an all-day affair due to the extensive collection of World War One artifacts at the Historial de la Grande Guerre museum housed within an ancient chateau. Uniforms, weaponry, patriotic posters, newspapers, magazines and myriad other war memorabilia are informatively exhibited in glass cases throughout the building.
On a par with the Péronne historical display - and unique in some of its imaginative approaches to the social aspects of World War One - is
the Musée de la Grande Guerre du pays de Meaux
, located about 150 km southeast of Amiens and just 40 km east of Paris. Built near the site of the Battle of the Marne that stopped the Germans from overrunning the French capital, the museum features a small theatre that, through newsreels and slides, simulates a time machine back through history.
In addition to displays similar to those at Péronne, the museum at Meaux (pronounced Mo) houses a number of military vehicles, including a pigeon truck that served as an avian condo for the carrier pigeons used for communication in those archaic pre-digital times. Another vehicular offering parked in the building is one of the 600 jaunty little taxis that transported emergency French troops from Paris to the
In his immortal poem In Flanders Fields,
urges us to hold the torch high in memory of those who paid the supreme sacrifice. One way to do so is to take in the commemorative ceremonies being held in various European centres over the next four years. The experience might underline once and for all the futility and insanity of war.
At the outbreak of war Canada was totally unprepared with little if anything it could use to battle the Germans with - a regular army of only 3,110 men and a fledgling navy. Yet, from Halifax to Vancouver, thousands of young Canadians hastened to the recruiting offices. Within a few weeks more than thirty-two thousand men gathered at Valcartier Camp near Quebec City; and within two months the First Contingent, Canadian Expeditionary Force, was on its way to England in the largest convoy ever to cross the Atlantic. Also sailing in this convoy was a contingent from the still separate British self governing colony of Newfoundland. They landed in England and trained until the spring of 1915 and were moved into trenches in the Armentières sector in French Flanders.
The first Canadian troops to arrive in France were the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, which had been formed at the outbreak of war entirely from ex-British army regular soldiers. The "Princess Pats" landed in France in December 1914 with the British 27th Division and saw action near St. Eloi and at Polygon Wood in the Ypres Salient.
Battles, France & Flanders:
Gravenstafel: Apr. 22-23
St Julien: Apr. 24-May 4
Frezenberg: May 8-13
Bellewaarde: May 24-25
Festubert 1915: May 15-25
Mount Sorrel: June 2-13
Somme 1916: July 1-Nov. 18
Beaumont Hamel July 1
Bazentin: July 14-17
Pozières: July 23-Sep. 3
Flers Courcelette: September 15-22
Thiepval: September 2-28
Ancre Heights: Oct. 1-Nov. 11
Ancre 1916: Nov. 13-18
Arras 1917: Apr. 19-May 4
Vimy Ridge 1917: Apr. 9-14
Scarpe 1917: Apr. 9-14,
Apr. 23-24, May 3-4
Arleux: Apr. 28-29
Hill 70: Aug. 15-25
Ypres 1917: July 31-Nov. 10
Pilckem: July 31-Aug. 2
Langemarck 1917: Aug. 16-18
Menin Road: Sep. 20-25
At the start of the war, in August 1914, Amiens had been the Advance Base for the British Expeditionary Force. It was captured by the German Army on 31 August 1914, but recaptured by the French on 28 September. The proximity of Amiens to the Western Front and its importance as a rail hub, made it a vital British logistic centre, especially during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.