Day 6 C – Passchendaele and Hill 62

Continuing along the Ypres Salient
One of the reasons for making this trip goes back almost 15 years. I was attending a Mess Diner at the officers Mess of the Seaforth Highlanders in Vancouver. In the glass case was the regimental silver, and the colours of the regiment. Hanging there as well were all the Battle Pennants – the honours that a regiment receives for participating in an action. And on the top of them I saw the name Passchendaele. I didn’t know exactly were that was but I new the significance. Seeing that pennant was a stirring experience.

Well today I stood at the Canadian Memorial at Crest Farm, and looked at the Church Steeple of Passchendaele. This was the line of attack of the 72nd Bd (Seaforth Highlanders) with the Canadian Corp. The memorial was quiet and their was a young family out for a walk, sitting there. It is impossible to imagine the Moon-like surface that was the Battle of Passchendaele. Artillery fire in WWI appears to be the first reaction to anything. The towns of Ypres, Passchendaele, and others were pounded to ruble and then the ruble was turned to dust by following barrages. Even standing on this ground you can’t see how that is possible.

From Passchendaele I made a small detour to the Memorial to the PPCLI, This was a small circular memorial, beside a farmers field. In addition to the major memorials there are memorials to individual units like this around the salient.

Now I have moved on to the last Canadian national memorial here, the Memorial at Hill 62 commemorating the Battle of Mount Sorrel. There are 8 national memorials that Canada commissioned after WWI, I have now stood at 7 of them. I sit here on a sunny Sunday in Belgium and despite my desire to see what this place meant to the battle – the calm and beautiful memorial makes it impossible to conceive the landscape of 1916.

Day 6 B – Tyne Cot

The largest British Cemetery
Stopping at the Cemetery at Tyne Cot, you see a massive collection of graves, plus the walls of names of the missing. The walls here were used to continue the names of the Soliders with no known graves as there was not enough space on the Menin Gate for all of them.

Buried at this location is a number of Victoria Cross winners. I took the time to fine Private Robertson, VC, whose family comes from Medicine Hat but he was a member of the Manitoba Regiment. I have never stood in the presence of a Canadian VC recipient. Our last living one died recently so it is unlikely that I will ever meet a living one so standing at the grave of Private Roberston is as close as I will likely ever come.

I noticed below one of the walls a laminated card had been placed, it read

“Lance Corporal Henry John Martin, Royal West Kent Regiment, Born Islington 14th October 1880I was mobilised from the reserve in August 1914 and fought at St Ghislain, Mons, retreated down to the Marne, raced toward the sea via the Aisne and survived Neuve Chapelle despite being almost surrounded.
With C Company I helped to take Hill 60 on 17th April 1915, fought through 2nd Ypres and was wounded at High Wood, Somme on 22nd July 1916. I spent 14 months convalescing in Blighty only to return to Passchendaele and be blown to pieces at Poelcapelle on 27th November 1917. I have no know grave, only my name on this panel and a plaque dedicated to me at St Georges Memorial Church, Ieper.

I did my Best

Please Remember me.”

Day 6 A – Vancouver Corner

Trip one around the Ypres Salient
I met a group of Canadians at the Hotel in Arras before I left. They are stationed with the NATO AWACS group in Germany. Apparently we are on a similar itinerary. They were heading to Ypres as well. We were both at the Menin Gate last night, and we are both were driving around the Salient today. We crossed paths at the hotel this morning and at the Monument at St Julian. The memorial is called the brooding solider. A large collumn of granite with the head of a solider at the top, head bowed, and hands on the butt of a rifle – which is held in the ‘reversed arms position’ – pointing down. The pose is the same one taken by those standing post at the cenotaph on November 11th. The location is near the town of St Julian but its WWI landmark name was Vancouver Corner.

As I walked past the Canadian group group from the AWACS squadron in Germany, one put out his hand and said – “Welcome to Vancouver”. I was the most chilling feeling of my trip.

Day 6 – Prelude

Belgian Medical Care
After suffering with a Achilles problem for almost a week, it was getting to the point I needed to decide whether it was bad enough to warrant going home or if I could make my trip to Paris next week. Following some prompting from home, I asked about a Doctor at the front desk of the hotel here in Ieper. I didn’t know when I could get in but I wanted to see what was possible. Two phone calls later, the lady at the front desk told me the doctor would be here by 8 – this was at 7:20 on a Sunday morning asking for a hotel – housecall in Belgium.

About 8:20 the doctor arrived, pronounced it a inflammation from over exertion – probably one of the two half-marathons I did in the last month – or the cumulative effect of both. Wrote me a quick prescription and advised me to fill it with the pharmacy on call in Grote Markt. Up to this point I hadn’t inquired about what this would cost – I was in enough pain not to care and my next alternative was a $4000 one way trip from Charles De Gaulle back to Victoria. He asked for 35 Euros and the prescription – that I had filled in about 10 minutes was another 17. All of this was done before 9 in the morning on a Sunday.

Other than the fact this ate through most of my cash, this was pretty sucessful. Apparently there is a problem using my bank card here in Belgium that I didn’t have in France. So I will be stopping at a few banks on the road today. Even if this means a 30 minute drive back to France.

Day 5 B – Last Post

The last post ceremony – Menin Gate Ieper, Belgium
Following the Great War a Monument was designed to hold the names of those with no know grave who were lost in the Ypres Salient. The Menin Gate was built for that purpose and stands on the Ieper-Menin Road at the edge of – what was – a walled city. Every day at 2000hrs the buglers come to play the last post.

I arrived at about 7:30 and a crowd had already gathered, by 10 to 8 the inside of the gate was full and the crowd was starting to spill onto the streets at each side. This is one of the ‘must do’ when you come to Ieper.

Saturday is apparently extra special as this is when any guests buglers perform and when names of the fallen – representing the same week during one of the war years are read. At tonight’s ceremony, 5 names were read out to represent the fallen. At the end, the verse common to November 11th that ends – “We shall remember them” is read, followed by the buglers. In the somewhat enclosed arch of the gate the bugles sound very rich.

This ceremony is performed every day – with the exception of the German Occupation in WWII. It has taken on a somewhat ‘touristy’ look in the attendance but the fact that it has been maintained for almost 90 years is exceptional.

I couldn’t help thinking what it will be like to hear the bugles this November 11th at home. Knowing I have attended the Last Post at Menin Gate, watched the Canadian Flag raised at Vimy Ridge, and looked on the graves and names of hundreds of thousands that fell. This trip is emotional but not in a abrupt way. You realize slowly what looking at all these places means to you.

I make a point of signing the Visitors book at every Monument and Cemetery. I think it is important to demonstrate that these sites are not forgotten

Day 5 Arras to Ieper (Ypres)

Driving to Ypres
It was a hazy/foggy day again in Northern France. I headed to the coast for a couple of reasons. I was hoping to view the Channel from the coast and look across to Britain. That didn’t work. I did however stop at Wimereux Cemetery to pay my respects to John McCrae. There are two great war poems that I know by heart, both created by Canadian Military Officers. High Flight was done by officer in the RCAF during World War II and In Flanders Fields was done by MrCrae in WWI. He died due to illness and was buried in the cemetery along with many war casualties that were treated behind the lines. There is a significant number of German Graves there, I presume prisoners that were receiving treatment at the hospital. There are also the first female war casualties I saw; Nursing Sisters and Canteen staff caught in bombing raids.

In a mild diversion from the WWI flavor I stopped at Cite d Europe, which is an industrial, shopping, and travel complex that has grown up around the channel tunnel.

Arriving in Ieper (Ypres), I got to see the Saturday Market in the square. Unfortunately it was just wrapping up when I got here.

Then did a walking tour of Ieper. The Cloth Hall of the main square is an imposing building. Completely rebuilt (along with the rest of the town) after the Great War. there is a model of the town after the war. There is barely anything over 4 feet tall in the entire town. Looking at the town now that seems completely amazing. The buildings look like they have been this way for hundreds of years. There is a small church call St George’s that has been the repository of plaques and dedications from almost every Commonwealth unit.

Tonight I will take in the Last Post at the Menin Gate .

Day 4B – Visit to the Memorials N.D. de Lorette, Cabaret Rouge, and La Targette

The French, British, Czech and Polish Memorials West of Vimy
After finishing the drive from Arras to Cambrai in the footsteps of the Canadian Corp. I had time to follow up on a couple of items that Zac (faithful guide from my Vimy Trip) had suggested. Notre Dame De Lorette and the Abbey at Mont Etoi.

I drove to the Site of N.D de Lorette, which is located on a hill to the west of Vimy Ridge. A tower, Abbey, and large cemetery are at the top of the hill. The cemetery simple goes on as far as you can see along the hill in both directions. It is simply massive. If I read the french explination correctly, it indicates 60,000 dead in the cemetery and crypt. This dates to the early part of the war when there was little British or Canadian Forces in France. The French Army bore the attacks of 1914 and 1915 which overran their territory.

Moving down the road to Cabaret Rouge Cemetery – a British Cemetery named after the destroyed public house that sat at this location – I saw the largest British Cemetery I had so far. Over 7,000. It was from a plot in this Cemetery that an unknown solider, killed in the battle for Vimy Ridge was exhumed and moved to the National War Memorial in Ottawa. A marker still remains in the plot, explaining the movement of the remains.

Further down the road there are two other memorials. A Czech one that commemorates both WWI and WWII loses and a Polish Memorial from WWI. These two plus the Morocan memorial on Vimy recognize the other Allied forces of the Great War.

Last, I drove to Mount Eloi, there are the ruins of an Abbey, mostly destroyed long before WWI but commanding a view that made it an ideal command post and artillery observation site for the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Day 4 – The road to Cambrai

Tracing the advance of the Canadians in the last 60 days of WWI – Canal du Nord to Cambrai
Prior to leaving home I picked up one of Norm Christie’s series – King & Empire. This one ‘The Canadians at Cambrai’ Traces the advance and capture of the town of Cambrai in October 1918. The drive from Arras to Canal du Nord is about 20 minutes. I made one stop at the Canadian Memorial at Dury. Canada has 8 WWI memorials on the western front I have now seen 4 of them and I hope to make it 7 out of 8 before I leave. The day was hazy so many of my attempts to find a photograph landmarks were thwarted.

Starting at the Canal du Nord I followed the travel path outlined in the book. It took me to a number of cemeteries, again mostly in out of the way places. The most dramatic part of the day was the drive from the Drumond Cemetery – down a rough road outside Ste-Ole to the Sancourt Cemetery which is in the middle of both a farmer’s field and the approach path for the runway at a French Airforce base. The distance between these two points was about 2 km. The thought of tens of thousands of Canadian soliders crossing the farm fields was almost unimaginable.

There were compelling items all along. The commanding officer of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (a fine unit both then and now) was lost in the advance on Cambrai, he is buried at Ontario Cemetery. At the Drummond Cemetery there are 2 german soliders buried with the Canadians. At the “Canadian Cemetery” – yes that is the name, in addition to the WWI burials there is a Lancaster Crew from 408 squadron RCAF shot down while attacking Cambrai in June of 1944 as the Allies were advancing from Normandy. This bombing attack was to disrupt German supplies through the transport hub of Cambrai. Basically the same reason that they Canadians attacked in 1918.

The tour finished by driving in to Cambrai for lunch. The city had to be almost completely rebuilt after both WWI and WWII. The former because of Artillery and the Germans burning the city before while being forced to retreat under the weight of the Canadian advance. The second because of Allied bombers attacking the transportation routes that ran through Cambrai.

Day 3C – More notes from Vimy

Personal Tours and other discussion
I had a tour guide to myself this morning, a great guy called Zac from Sudbury. All the guides at Vimy and Beaumont Hamel are University students on a federal work program. They do a 4 month rotation. Apparently they have a couple of houses that the guides share while living here. When I get back I have to write a letter to support the restoration of the Memorials and the student guide program.

So a couple of items that I didn’t really know. First there is a significant amount of articles that refer to the differences between the German and British approaches on trench warfare. I remember comments about how the British Generals didn’t want the troops improving the trenches as it worked against the intention to move forward and attack. The fortifications at Vimy were large, well developed and appears to have worked to protect troops entering and exiting the line.

Another item was the view of trench warfare as static, men living in squalid conditions for an extended period of time. While this may have been the early conditions on the Somme, by the 1917 battle at Vimy their was regular rotation of troops from the line to the rear areas. Most of the troops were billeted in houses and other shelter in towns like Arras (15km) from the front. They were still subject to artillery while in Arras and machine gun and motar fire on the way to and from the line. This is a very different view that what I had in my head for the war on the western front.

It should be noted that none of these types of well developed fortifications appeared to be in place at Beaumont Hamel for the 1916 battle but that may be the difference in strategy after the initial battles on the Somme.

Lastly, after looking at some of the additional items added to war memorials to ‘adapt’ the message – I had to ask myself what happened in 1940-1944. Once again my guide Zac to the rescue. Since almost all the WWI memorials were completed in the 1920s and 1930s, It occurred to me that if these memorials of the WWI victors was offensive to Germany, they would have destroyed them when France was occupied by Nazi forces in WWII. Zac produced a picture of Hitler touring the Vimy Memorial. Despite the other policies of the Reich, there was a general order that none of the memorials were to be touched. And with the exception of some scrounging of iron from some sites to be sold as scrap because the lack of raw materials.

A last story of was of the 51st Highland memorial at Beaumont Hamel, apparently there was some looting of metal artifacts at the site and a scaffolding was erected to remove the large solider at the top of the monument. When this was observed by a passing allied (RAF) fighter pilot, daily strafing runs were conducted to ‘discourage’ this from happening.

Moral of this story – well the easiest one – go to these places, talk to the guides – what you find is amazing.

Tomorrow, I follow the final battles of the Canadian Army in World War I, with the advance on Canal d’Nord and Cambrai.

Day 3B – Vimy Part 2

Tour of tunnels, walk to the top of hill 145.
Thanks to a miscommunication on the tour booking, apparently they thought I was a tour group not an individual so they booked the entire 10AM tour in my name. As a result I had a personal tour of the tunnels of Vimy Ridge. The tunnel system was incredible well developed. It extended kilometers into the rear. The tunnels themselves are primarily 33ft below the surface, away from most dangers. they are 6-foot high and wide enough to allow 2 soldiers to pass in full gear. Various chambers allow for medical treatment, supplies, command and communication. A limited electrical system provided some light in 1917.

below the main tunnels, fighting tunnels were dug to try an intercept enemy tunnel systems. Either by breaking into them, collapsing them, or placing large amounts of explosives for cratering activity. The results of the British 1916 – Grange crater then became the edge of the combat line. In this cast the forward positions of Canadian and German forces were about 25m apart. Apparently, keeping your head down was a good policy for both sides.

The area was occupied by Canadian Forces for about 8 months prior to the main battle. Although the sniping, artillery, and mortar fire would be a daily occurrence.

On the top of hill 145 the view is commanding. Making the military value of the position obvious.

Finished this morning’s travel with a stop at the German Cemetery at Neuville St Vaast.