The Canadians in Flanders Fields
What better place to start our tour of Flanders Fields than in the hub of the WWI commemoration - the ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’. Instead of a ticket, we get a white bracelet with a red poppy. The recently renovated museum, located in the impressive Cloth Hall in Ypres, highlights the story of the invasion, the trench war and the remembrance since the armistice, while focusing on personal stories. We take a deep breath and climb the bell-tower (231 steps!) to have a look at what were once the battlefields.
After lunch we leave Ypres and head over to Essex Farm Cemetery and Advanced Dressing Station, the very spot where the Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote his world-famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields‘, the day after his friend Alexis Helmer was buried here.
Since there was no chaplain present, McCrae conducted a simple service at the graveside. The grave has since been lost. Lieutenant Helmer is now commemorated on Panel 10 of the Menin Gate Memorial, which we will visit later today.
We continue towards the village of Langemark. Here is situated one of only four German war cemeteries in Flanders. Behind the monumental entrance lie more than 44,000 soldiers, half of them in a mass grave. Among them over 3000 cadets and student volunteers, which explains why the cemetery is also known as the ‘Studentenfriedhof‘. The bronze statue of four mourning soldiers by Emil Krieger is very impressive. Slightly larger than life they immediately capture the eye, the moment we enter the graveyard.
After a short drive we reach the ‘Vancouver’ crossroads where the Canadian Forces Memorial stands in a small park. The memorial, also known as “The Brooding Soldier”, commemorates the 2,000 casualties of the Canadian 1st Division who were killed in battle after the German gas attack of 22 April 1915. It is a 33 feet high tower of white granite with the helmed head and shoulders of a soldier at the top of the column. The soldier has his head bowed and is in the pose of a serviceman standing with “reversed arms”. He is resting his hands on the rifle butt and the rifle is pointing with its barrel to the ground, a traditional military salute to the fallen. Poignant detail: the soldiers’ head points in the direction from which the chlorine gas cloud came.
After dinner we attend the Last Post ceremony under the Menin Gate. The Menin Gate is a gigantic construction, but still not big enough to mention all the names of the fallen Commonwealth soldiers, who didn’t have a grave because their bodies were not identified. The Gate ‘only’ mentions 55,000 names on the walls. The other soldiers names are written on two other monuments.
Silent crowds wait beneath the Menin Gate for the stroke of 8 o’clock. Then the volunteer buglers from the local fire brigade raise their instruments to play the Last Post, the traditional final salute to the fallen soldiers. Ever since 1928, the notes of the Last Post have broken the silence across the cobbled streets of Ypres, a town entirely rebuilt after the devastation of the First World War. Nothing quite prepares you for the powerful emotion of experiencing this moving ceremony first hand.
We now get to the heart of the ‘Third Battle of Ypres’ or the ‘Battle of Passchendaele’ as it is more commonly known. The name is a symbol of senseless military violence. The dugout tunnel with communication and dressing post, headquarters, workplaces and dormitories, gives us an idea of how the soldiers had to live underground, like moles, because there was nothing left above ground. It’s impressive, as is the Museum with its collection of historical artefacts, images, movies and dioramas. We end our visit to the museum outside in the trenches before heading into the park that surrounds the museum.
With its arched wall and colonnades in white stone, the Missing Memorial of Tyne Cot Cemetery instils respect. This is the largest military cemetery of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the world. Almost 12,000 soldiers are buried here, of which 1,011 Canadians. 12,000 white crosses, row after row. We stand in awe. On the Memorial Wall are the names of 34,957 missing soldiers who fell after 15th, August 1917. It’s almost inconceivable.
We drive up to the Crest Farm Canadian Memorial. This monument commemorates soldiers of the Canadian Corps, which suffered heavy losses here during the Battle of Passchendaele. Even though Passchendaele church was only 700 metres away, it took the Canadians almost 10 days to reach it. Crest Farm is situated on high ground, offering an excellent view over the battlefield.
In the fields you can find the first monument to be erected in the region. It honours the memory of the 85th Canadian Nova Scotia Highlander battalion which suffered heavy losses here during the Battle of Passchendaele at the end of October 1917.
The road we are taking - ‘Maple Avenue’- leading us into the trees of the Canadian War Memorial Sanctuary wood, was once part of the Canadian Front line. At Hill 62, the highest point of Sanctuary Wood, an impressive Canadian Memorial dominates the area. It was the scene of fierce fighting in June 1916 but now offers peaceful views of the towers of Ypres. After the war, the avenue was planted with maple trees as a mark of respect for the Canadian sacrifice.