Canadian war memorials in Belgium and France
By Colleen Wileman
(Photo: Vimy Ridge War Memorial) This article was originally posted in the Advocate’s print edition on November 15 2019 as a Remembrance Day tribute. But as we get ready to celebrate Canada Day, it’s also a good time to remember those who made sacrifices to keep our nation free.
Ever since I was a kid, November 11 was a day off school, a day off work and watching the laying of wreaths in Ottawa on TV. Though I realized the significance of the day and memorized all the words to “In Flanders Fields”, it did not really hit home until we took a week of our journey and travelled war memorial sites in Belgium and France. To say it was emotional would be an understatement. To actually see those “crosses, row on row” in field after field gave us a new perspective and respect for the men and women that gave up their lives for the very freedoms that we still enjoy today.
We rented a car in Lille, France and headed into Belgium where we made our way to Hill 62 and Sanctuary Wood (a memorial commemorating the actions of the Canadian Corps in defending the southern stretches of the Ypres Salient between April and August 1916), Tyne Cot Cemetery (the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world), Passchendaele (where Canadian soldiers fought in the mud for months to regain the town), St. Julien and the Brooding Soldier, Essex Farm Cemetery (where Canadian John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields”) and then on to Ypres where we finished off the day.
Every day since 1927 and the opening of the Menin Memorial Gate into Ypres, a moving tribute to all the fallen soldiers is given at 8 PM. Every day the road is closed and people gather from all around the world to pay their respects and listen as the haunting sound of “The Last Post” is played. Every day people weep for family members that they never knew and every day we are blessed that these people made the sacrifices that they did.
On our way through France we stopped at many cemeteries and memorials including the beaches of Dunkirk and Calais, both very important battlegrounds during the Second World War. The magnificent
memorials at Vimy Ridge and Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland pay homage to the tens of thousands of Canadians that died during WW1. We wandered among the trenches and bunkers, trying to imagine what the days and nights were like for these young men. Of course, we can never know but as we stood on the ridge and felt the chilly wind tug at our jackets, we knew that every day was a struggle.
Very humbled and emotional, we made our final stop at Juno Beach. We walked along the boardwalk and crossed over the dunes to the beach. There are a number of storyboards along the way telling the story of the first offensive of the Allies on this day of days. Buried in the sand is a German bunker and we realized just how close the enemy really was to the beach. Even though many young men perished that day, it is amazing to me that any of them actually made it up out of the water onto the beach without being completely slaughtered. Their courage is amazing!!
Situated immediately behind the beach is the Juno Beach Centre. This museum, established in 2003, gives a history of Canada before the Second World War, our contributions during the war – both in Europe and at home, our current role as peacekeepers around the world and finishes off with a very moving twelve minute film of the landing and subsequent fighting on D-Day and the days that followed. It is emotional at times, very well organized and always informative. It was a perfect way to finish up our tour of the Canadian Memorials and we would recommend it to anyone.
As we left Normandy forever changed by our last few days, we vowed that we would take Remembrance Day much more seriously when we got home. This year our plan is to attend an outdoor service in Winnipeg and truly remember those young men and women that gave their lives for this great country. Because without them, and the ones that continue to represent us around the world, we would not be enjoying the freedoms that we do.
Lest We Forget.