Thursday, 26 May 2011

Honouring 300,000 lost souls

We got back yesterday from a 3 day trip to Ypres, Belgium, site of numerous World War 1 battles that were fought by many Canadian soldiers (among a whole lot of others, including Australians, New Zealanders, British, Indian, French, Belgians and others, but being Canadian, my focus was the Canadian involvement). You cannot help but be struck while traveling in the area of the enormity of the hell that occurred there.

We were based in Ypres, a pretty little town that takes no more than 15 min to walk across, has been here since it was founded about 1,000 AD, and that WW1 flattened. Eradicated. Laid to waste. There's no building in this town that was standing after the war. Everything was rebuilt, and in the case of the main buildings, from the original plans. Like the great Cloth Hall, which was the home of the silk and fabric trade that this city was known for for about 1,000 years.
Cloth Hall and the Grote Markt main square
The hall is now home to the main (of many) museums in the area, the "In Flanders Fields" museum. The church, built in the 1200's, was blown to bits but rebuilt, too. The top half of the tower was always planned but never built until the 1920's. The church steeple makes for an outstanding landmark as your tour the area, because being basically as flat as a pancake, you can see the centre of town from the entire battlefield.
The outside, complete with flying buttresses
The rather gargantuan interior
The town was originally built in classic fashion and is surrounded by a moat with rampart fortifications. While the tops were shelled to bits, the walls were mostly untouched by the war.
50' tall walls with access for protected boats
One of the entry gates
Now a road tunnel
Starting from scratch means you get to build new stuff, and I thought these cantilevered sunrooms on this apartment building were creative.
Gives new meaning to the term "hanging out"
The city sits on one of the many main canals in the area, now underutilized, but for hundreds of years a main thoroughfare with access to the port of Dunkirk.
The Ypres-Ijzer Canal
The town would be a peaceful little place to visit were it not for what happened here. In order to understand that, permit me one paragraph of history.

In 1914, using the Von Schlieffen plan, the Germans planned to invade France by running an end-run around the fixed French Maginot line defenses through Belgium. The Belgians didn't like this and slowed them down. The British and the French arrived in time to stop the Germans moving forward, and did so in a semi-circular arc of 5-10 km radius around the town of Ypres. And there, for 4 solid years, neither side could gain enough advantage to move the line despite 4 main multiple-month battles. They (and when I say "they", I'm talking both sides) dug into to trenches. The blew up a LOT of mines, especially under the trenches. They (the Germans first, then the British and French) tried mustard gas, phosgene gas and chlorine gas. They tried flame throwers for the first time ever. They tried tanks for the first time ever. They put down so much artillery that on average, one shell exploded every square meter of ground. They turned the place into a swampy wasteland devoid of trees and full of rats. And with all this work, the line moved back and forth just 5 km between the towns of Ypres and Passchendale several times between 1914 and 1918. This four years resulted in over 300,000 Allied forces killed including over 90,000 missing, and total casualties in both sides broke 1,000,000.

We started our tour about 5 km north of town where the bulge that starts the semicircle begins. Here, Yorkshire Trench was unearthed in 1992 when they wanted to turn the land into an industrial park. It not only features a trench, but (now flooded) access to one of the many underground bunker/command posts that were used by the British, plus the added bonus of seeing what three years of war achieved here.
1917 on right. 1914 trench under the boardwalk
From inside the trench
The old and the new; down into the bunker
From here, we went to Kitchener Wood (yes, there are a lot of places here that in WW1 were named after parts of Canada). The first use of gas in the war was in 1915 by the Germans as the first assault of the 2nd Battle of Ypres, and the cloud came as far as here where there was once a forest, wiping out and incapacitating a French and Algerian division. The attack was launched from about 3 km away (just past the red buildings in the photo below if you enlarge it). In those days of the war, 3 km was a HUGE advance, and the Germans were poised for a breakthrough. But they were stopped by the Canadian forces, who were gassed again two days later. The Canadians did not budge despite terrible losses and no gas masks. The line stopped moving again here, ending the German offensive.
The gas cloud shaped memorial
There are bunkers all over the place. While the Allied forces build underground installations, the Germans built above ground bunkers out of pre-fab concrete, and when the lines were stalemated, these strongpoints propped up. This one not only survived WW1 and WW2, it's now part of the guy's barn.
Bunker at Cheddar Villa
This one was once a German HQ
Now halfway to Passchendale, we ran across our first main Canadian memorial.
35' tall
The Brooding Soldier
Why it's here
Somewhat stirring
Just down the road is the Tyne Cot cemetery. It's really hard to grasp the enormity of this cemetery. It's the largest British war cemetery in the world. There are 11,956 headstones, 8,366 of which are unknown.
Between the crosses, row on row
Some 8,000 are unknown
And the place has lots of Canadians; 966 to be exact.
Known and unknown
And if all the headstones aren't enough, the back curved wall of the cemetery...
Note the back wall...
A little closer... covered in panels listing another 35,000 names of folks with no graves anywhere.
Names, names and more names
Tyne Cot also contains 2 German pillboxes...
Damaged but intact
...from which (in this way too art-y and unsuccessful photo) you can clearly see the spires of the church in Ypres a mere 9 km away.
Okay, so I focused on the wrong thing
Tyne Cot lies just short of Passchendale. The area here was re-taken by the Australians at the start of the 3rd Battle of the Ypres in 1917. They were eventually relieved by the Canadians who made it to just short of the town to a place called Crest Farm (at the crest of a weak but important ridge overlooking the entire area back to Ypres). They got there up a road currently known as Canadalaan.
The Canadian Memorial at Crest Farm
Towards the town of Passchendale
Here, on November 6, 1917 (then in the middle of no-man's land), the Canadians began the assault on the village, and took it in just over an hour, bring the 3rd battle of the Ypres to a close. This is the location and story that was the setting the final scenes of Paul Gross' movie "Passchendale".

The Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), in which Karen's dad served and Karen's nephew-in-law currently serves, have a memorial near here. In May 1915, they withstood a fierce German attack with substantial losses but gave up no ground.
The memorial, with a Canadian flag

50th Anniversary Plaque
A plaque as old as me
Once trenches were built, a big strategy of both sides was to tunnel under them and blow them up, creating rather big craters. This is one such crater, the Hooge crater, blown up in 1916 by the Germans under Allied trenches.
Peaceful and idyllic if you forget why it's there
Perhaps of more interest than the crater are the trenches -- real ones -- that were left behind.
Pretend for a moment the trees aren't there
Imagine living, eating & sleeping in here
By the way, it was here that the flamethrower was first ever used in military combat, at 0315 on July 30, 1915.

There aren't a lot of trenches still left. There are also some on Hill 62, also referred to as Mount Sorrell.
A typical zig zag British trench
Muddy to me, probably dry to someone back then

However at Hill 62, you also get to see what artillery shell holes looked like, because they are still here and not filled in.
Again, for a moment, imagine the trees are not there
They are literally a step apart
How many hit the trenches themselves?
Hill 62/Mount Sorrell and the surrounding area (Sanctuary Wood, which wasn't a wood any more) was the site of a fierce German offensive in May 1915, an offensive stopped by the Canadians. The Germans took Hill 62 (one Canadian regiment lost 637 out of 680 men, the PPCLI was overrun and were shooting both directions), but the Canadians took most of it back, holding the front line for almost a year. And this results in another Canadian memorial.
The memorial from the Hill 62 trenches
Ypres, a mere 4 km away
You may note that all the Canadian memorials are surrounded by maple trees.

Just north of Ypres lies an Advanced Dressing Station...
The bunkers of the ADS
...the 2nd line of medical care beyond the front line. A young Canadian doctor was stationed here during the 2nd Battle of Ypres (the one with the gas attacks at Kitchener Wood). In 3 days he had witnessed a force of 10,000 Canadians suffer 6,000 casualties. One of his patients, who was also a friend, received a direct hit from an artillery shell. Reading the last words in his friend's diary, our doctor was moved to write a poem.
In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow
King Albert memorial to John McCrae
Inside one of the ADS bunkers
At 8:00 PM every day, every day since 1927 (with a break only for WW2), a ceremony marking all this tragedy occurs under the Menin Gate in Ypres. Being a walled city, the Menin Gate is one of the only ways out of the city, and given that it leads directly to the battlefields, it was through here most soldiers passed. In this little gate...
Menin Gate, from the Ypres side
...are commemorated yet another 55,000 soldiers with no known grave, in panel after panel of names, sorted by regiment.
The inside of the gate
Lots of names
They seem to go on forever
There are a lot of Canadian names.
A lot of names
A whole lot of names
Nowhere near all of the Canadian names
The ceremony is stirring to say the least. It starts with the playing of the "Last Post", and closes with the "Reveille" by Buglers of the Last Post Association. This video clip (I'm an awful film maker) should give you a flavour of the ceremony, the gate and the crowd that night, a typical night with some 1,000 people in attendance.

We rode 63 km around the edge of the battle lines and saw less than 10% of the cemeteries, memorials and markers that are within a 30 min drive of Ypres. We visited incredible museums, some great, some full of junk, showing the weapons, life in the bunkers, life in the trenches, filled with the sounds and the smells of the battlefield that the soldiers endured for 4 years. I have tons of photos of it all, but they don't add value to this story. It took us 20 min to bike across a strip of ground that took the Allied forces 4 months to fight their way across on one particular occasion. Farmers today continue to unearth fragments of war. The still-charged gas canisters they find are stockpiled because they still don't know how to dispose of them.

Our ride only served to hammer home the tragedy of it all. Poet and philosopher George Santayana said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Let us never forget, and let us not do this again.
Tombs of the unknown

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