Lest We Forget

In 2008, ninety years after the end of World War I, a few of us decided to visit Ypres (Ieper). Across Europe, many towns and cities were commemorating the end of the Great War and we wanted to visit one of the places that was of great significance to Canadians.  Standing directly in the path of Germany's march across Europe, Ypres and the surrounding fields, hills and valleys were subjected to heavy fighting and bombardment throughout the war. By its end, the town was in ruins.

Many Canadians gave their lives fighting in this region and their sacrifice is remembered and honoured by the Belgians and other European Allies. Memorials, churches, statues and cemeteries were surrounded and covered with remembrance crosses and poppies.

The train from Brussels left early in the morning and two hours later we arrived in Ypres to somber gray skies - suitable for the occasion. As we wandered through town, the streets were bustling with people and signs of Christmas were beginning to appear. 

After visiting the Cloth Hall, Flanders Fields Museum and St. Martin's Cathedral, we made our way to the Menin Gate.

The Menin Gate is a war memorial to the 54,395 missing Allied soldiers who died fighting in nearby battles but whose bodies were never found. The names of the missing are inscribed on the walls of the memorial. Flowers and wreaths, poppies and crosses filled the vast space. 

We met up with a local tour company for the afternoon. Our mixed group of Canadians and Europeans spent the afternoon touring cemeteries, memorial sites, trenches and a museum.

Our first stop was Essex Farm - where 15-year old V.J. Strudwick was laid to rest - and the John McCrae memorial site - where the doctor worked in a dressing station and wrote his famous poem. The young Canadian boy in our group read In Flanders Fields. The rest of us listened, remembering school Remembrance Day ceremonies of our youth.

The Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing is the largest commonwealth cemetery in the world. Many Canadian soldiers are buried here, including Victoria Cross recipient Private James Peter Robertson.

The St. Julien memorial marks the area where poison gas was used for the first time by the Germans in 1915 against 18,000 Canadians. Two thousand men died and were buried nearby beneath the gaze of the Brooding Soldier.

The nearby German cemetery, Langemark, is different from the many Allied cemeteries. The graves lie flat with groupings of three crosses scattered across the grounds.

The fields surrounding Ypres appear peaceful and fertile - it's difficult to imagine that war ever touched this place. Looking at old photos, however, a very different picture is revealed. Heavy rains turned the earth to mud - often drowning men and horses that fell off the walkways.

Australian soldiers on duckboard track over mud and water (Australia War Memorial)

Even today, the serene landscape hides a unseen menace - buried shells, bullets, grenades and mines that find their way to the surface. Some are dug up by farmers tilling their fields, others are discovered by work crews conducting road repairs and some pushed to the surface by growing trees.

Such dangerous and potentially deadly weapons, some of which contain poisonous chemicals, can explode at any time. They can be seen placed by the roadside to be picked up by an army unit that specializes in their removal and detonation.

One of the most devastating battles fought during the war occurred near the village of Passchendaele, where more than 4,000 Canadians died and almost 12,000 were wounded. It was at Passchendaele that Canada established itself as a strong and independent fighting force.

At the Yorkshire trench, we walked through the narrow passageways, clean and dry now but filled with mud and horror during wartime. 

Shell craters at Hill 62 reveal the destruction caused by a single explosion and the Sanctuary Wood Museum displayed odds and ends of war memorabilia, including a British Army Cook's wagon and some fascinating 3D photographs.

After returning to town, we found our way back to the Menin Gate to watch the remembrance ceremony that are held every evening.  Beneath the soaring arches, buglers played the Last Post in remembrance of the fallen. There was a moment of silence. A final Reveille. 

Let us never forget!