"Are there any Germans onboard?" queries Thomas, our Belgian battlefield tour guide, and when no hands go up on the bus that transports two dozen of us, "Good!" he shouts with enthusiasm, signifying that he still owns attitude traced back to the destruction of his native land.
Thomas provides us with vivid accounts of the battles and the experiences of the soldiers, backed up by maps, photographs, diary extracts and poems. How often have we heard "In Flanders Fields" written during the First World War by Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae? It is always so moving. We visit battlefield sites and cemeteries, trenches and medical stations, and spend plenty of time at the
At the end of the tour, I can hardly wait to get back home to read
Pierre Burton's books on WWI particularly Ypres where the Canadians distinguished themselves, holding back the Germans despite the use of chlorine gas, and in fact, pushing the enemy backwards in trench warfare that was caked in mud and blood and gore.
Thomas tells us that many were lost to the suffocating bluish Belgian mud that trapped soldiers in craters and sucked them down into its mire. We see underground staging areas where large groups of men collected prior to attacks and we meander amidst the extensive trenches with solid concrete now replacing the sandbags.
At 8 pm each night, there is a ceremony at the Menin Gate, where lost soldiers names are carved into its white walls and the "Last Post" is played by a bugle.
Ypres in Flanders is known for its wonderful architecture and troubled past. There were three major battles of the First World War fought here, the most famous being the
Battle of Passchendaele from July - November 1917. The many memorials and cemeteries of the fallen in and around Ypres draw thousands of visitors each year.
The town formed the centre of the
"Ypres Salient" during most of the First World War, an area of Allied-held land surrounded on three sides by the German front line that formed the northernmost section of the Western Front. Holding Ypres was vital for the Allies to prevent the Germans gaining control of all the channel ports. It was essential for the transport and supply of the British Expeditionary Force.
By 1918, German artillery bombardment reduced Ypres to shattered ruins surrounded by muddy, shell-pocked fields. Afterwards, most of central Ypres was rebuilt with German reparations money. The famous Cloth Hall was not completed until the 1960s.
The graveyard markers seem to stretch forever in their neat rows, standing at attention for those resting below. Most of the battlefields and cemeteries are located in several villages in the surrounding countryside.
The Menin Gate Memorial was dedicated on July 24, 1927 as a memorial to the missing British and Commonwealth soldiers who fell in Belgium during World War One. It contains huge panels into which are carved the names of the 54,896 officers and men of the British Empire forces who died in the Ypres Salient area with no known graves.
Cloth Hall was originally a center of Flemish wealth but completely destroyed by German artillery shelling in 1916. It was rebuilt in 1962 and the In Flanders Fields Museum is located here with an overview of WWI that transports one into daily life during the war. There is an admission fee for adults with children under 7 free.
Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetery, south of the village of Passchendaele, one experiences the largest Commonwealth war graves cemetery in the world.
There are notable German cemeteries -
Vladso German Cemetery and Langemark German Cemetery. The village of Vladslo is north of Ypres, close to the city of Diksmuide. In one of the few oak-tree woods in the area lie hundreds of square black stones with the names of the buried soldiers. The peace
treaty of Versailles denied the losers of the war the use of white stone. The stones lie in rigid lines in the grass under the trees.
Langemark was dedicated in 1932. A mass grave sits near the entrance. At the rear of the cemetery is a sculpture of four mourning figures created by Professor Emil Krieger.
The countryside here is perfect for walking and cycling and remembering the past!
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.
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.
70 Canadian servicemen were awarded the Victoria Cross during The Great War.
619,636 Canadian men and women served, 400,000 served overseas where
66,655 died and
172,950 were wounded. The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million.
Remembrance Day (also known as Poppy Day or Armistice Day) is a memorial day observed in Commonwealth countries since the end of World War I to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. This day, or alternative dates, are also recognised as special days for war remembrances in many non-Commonwealth countries. Remembrance Day is observed on 11 November to recall the end of hostilities of World War I on that date in 1918. Hostilities formally ended "at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month," in accordance with the Armistice, signed by representatives of Germany and the Entente between 5:12 and 5:20 that morning. ("At the 11th hour" refers to the passing of the 11th hour, or 11:00 am) World War I officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919.
The day was specifically dedicated by King George V on 7 November 1919 as a day of remembrance for members of the armed forces who were killed during World War I.