Tag Archives: WWI

“In death we are all equal”

In Wimereux Cemetery not far from the grave of the Lt Col John McRae lies the graves of nurses killed during bombing raids of the hospitals.

After hearing of the death of Captain Nichola Goddard, my thoughts ran to standing in Wimereux by the grave of Sister Lucy Duncan being suprised by the thought of women dying in the Great War. Apparently I wasn’t the only one to put these two thoughts together because in a story on Captain Goddard in the Globe and Mail included the following timeline

1914-1918: Enemy action during the First World War kills 29 Canadian military women.

1988: Canadian Human Rights Tribunal orders the Canadian Forces to achieve complete integration within 10 years.

2006: First Canadian woman in a combat role killed in battle.

We can not think war and sacrifice is either long ago or far away.

To quote a Jewish Phrase “In death we are all equal”
Captain Nichola Kathleen Sarah Goddard, 1st Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery

In Rememberance

A postscript to my trip
Back at home after almost 3 weeks away, I walk to my favorite Coffee House past the inner harbour in Victoria. I look at the cenotaph where the annual ceremony of remembrance will happen at the end of the week.

I think of what I would say if I got the chance to speak on Friday. I think it would go something like this:

—–
This day is not about triumph or celebration.
We are here to honour those that serve
We morn those that gave their lives
And we express gratitude that we have not had to do either.

I think about the Canadian Flag being raised at the Vimy memorial and the 90 year old monument of 60,000 Canadian dead being restore for the next 100 years of remembrance. But it is hard to relate to large numbers, and despite standing on that ground there is nothing in my experience that lets me imagine how it really was. It is easier to think of individuals.
In going to Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth Cemetery, I saw two names that have stayed with me and I think that is who I will think of on Friday – Private Robertson and Lance Corporal Martin.
In addition to holding over 10,000 graves Tyne Cot has walls of 30,000 names of those that have no grave. The names are there because the Menin Gate Memorial wasn’t large enough to hold all the names.

They couldn’t build a memorial big enough to hold all the names, that says alot.

Tyne Cot has the grave of Private James Robertson, Victoria Cross of the Manitoba Regiment. One of the names on the wall was Lance Corporal Henry Martin.

I still remember the note below the name of Corporal Martin – placed there by a student or a family member that was written in the voice of Corporal Martin.

“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.”

Both Private Robertson and Corporal Martin died in November of 1917.

Day 8 – Return to Arras

Driving from Ieper to Arras, with a small stop
First, It needs to be said how this EU thing works. I drive from Belgium to France and there are border crossings with the usual inspection booths – but their is no one there. The first time I saw it on the way to Belgium I reached for my passport, then realized no one was stopping. Feels very weird. The grass is over grown and the traffic whips through them at 90km/h.

Today I went the other way, there wasn’t even a border crossing, couldn’t really tell where the border was but when the signs changed language I figured I was in France.

I was about a 90 min drive from Ieper to Arras. I had to return my rental before the closed for lunch. By the way, everything around here seems to take a break from noon until two. Very different.

Well I had a few minutes, and I had to stop at Vimy one more time. I snapped a few more pictures for the album (http://www.flickr.com/photos/bkempthorne) I think I will be back, I need to see what it will look like after the restoration.

Day 7 – The last tour

Tour 2 from Ieper
I have used a few different books to find my way around the various battlefields and cemeteries. Today I was on Itinerary Two from Holt’s Guide to the Ypres Salient. This started northeast of Ieper and worked back to the west. The first major point of interest on this tour was the German Cemetery at Langmark. Like the allies, German war dead were buried in many cemeteries around the Western Front. However, following the war France and Belgium were less generous in given land to Germany for their fallen. While both Allied and German cemeteries were redone and consolidated, there were fewer places for the German dead. As a result german headstones have several names on them because of the need to use common graves.

On leaving Langmark I ran into a tour group lead by Norm Christie. Norm has written many of the guides to Canadian Battlefields as well as hosting TV shows on the subject. We had a chance to talk briefly and I made sure to that him for his great work. He probably has done more to re-inspire interest in the Great War for Canadians than anything in the last couple decades.

I then headed to Essex Farm. This is a cemetery but also has the remains of a Advanced Dressing station (the First War’s equivalent of a MASH). This was the site where John McCrae wrote ‘In Flanders Fields’. This classic verse is used extensively around Ypres. In addition to this site, there is the ‘In Flanders Field’ Museum, and ‘In Flanders Fields Autoroute’ and posters and banners all over the town. There are enough references to Lt Col McCrae to call him a local hero – that would be Belgium’s local Canadian Hero.

This was an appropriate place to end this part of my trip. Tomorrow I head toward Paris for the ‘fun’ part of the trip. I enjoyed the touring around Arras and Ypres and all the historical spots. But there is a sense of emotional exhaustion. I think of looking at thousands of graves and hundreds of thousands of names on monuments. The magnitude is not obvious at any given point but today I have a sense of the weight of what I have seen.

I am ‘proud’ of my country and in these fields a country that had never fought a war on this scale – in the words of John McCrae – took up the torch. You can’t really feel good or happy about any of this, all you can do is think about it and remember.

And in the end that is all the millions that died here are asking.

I know I will.

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 .