Monday, May 14, 2012

Day Six Part Two: Ypres, Salient, Flanders

After settling into our hotel in Ypres quickly we met our guide Sabine who was going to take us through some of the sites where Canadian troops had significant impact. We review the battles of Paschendale and the fight for Ypres and talk about the impact Canada had on this area.  Everywhere we turn it seems there are maple leafs on graves, or Canadian names.  Reminders that our young nation was instrumental in the success of WW1.

  Our first stop is probably one of the most famous sites as a result of the poem "In Flander's Fields"   These are the bunkers that Dr. John McCrae tended the wounded and the same spot in which he penned the famous poem that all Canadian children learn in school (and as far as I know it is known internationally).  Imagine trying to run a hospital in these conditions.

In the same location we are ushered to another gravesite. Essex farm Cemetery. This particular grave is visited so often they had to replace the grass with astroturf.   This marks the grave of the youngest known soldier in the Great War.  Aged 15.   Hard to imagine really.

Almost equally visited is Private Barret who won the Victoria Cross and died at age 22

Sabine is telling us that the soldiers had to be able to don a gas mask in 12 seconds or permanent injury would follow (if not death).   She has young Liam wear the mask as we make our way through some trenches and tunnels discovered in an industrial park.

The tunnels are not accessible due to the higher water table that has now flooded them

Concrete now replaces the original sand bags that once would have lined the trenches

It's time to test Liam.  Can he do it?

Already at 12 seconds and barely out of the bag

Dad has to step in to help.  Liam is amazed at how hard it is to put on a mask

Now safe from the gas.  Sadly he would have died in the time it took for him to get it on

He wears it for some time to get a feeling as to how claustrophobic and hot it gets.

Now off, we stop in a local farm.   Dad and Liam see live unexploded ordinance on the side of the road waiting for the bomb squad to pick up.  The scary part was our guide informed us that there were 3 there the day before.

Right across the street is a vending machine with fresh farm strawberries.  How neat is that?  3 Euros were inserted and we had the best tasting strawberries I think we've ever eaten....beside a bomb.

Less than 50 feet away is a table in a garage full of ordinance pulled from the farmer's field.   Every year the army and bomb squad retrieve hundreds of unexploded ordinance pulled from farmer's fields.  100 years later the war is still making it's mark on the area.

Ty Cot is our next stop.  The largest War grave in Belgium.  The site was so large I could not get even a quarter of it into frame on the camera.   Along these walls plus the walls of Menin Gate are the names of thousands and thousands of soldiers with no known grave. 

Each Cemetery has a registrar included in a binder and a guest book to sign and leave a note of respect.  We signed the book at every cemetery we visited.

Medals given to soldiers in a case at Ty Cot

Digs are always finding new personal items of troops

Conditions in the trenches

This was one of the few German cemeteries in Belgium.  The contrast to the Allied gravesites was remarkable.  The maintenance of the Allied sites is impeccable but not so much here.  There is a large mass grave on this site containing 20 000 bodies, including that of the famous Red Baron

The Red Baron's name on the mass grave
 The German graves seem forgotten vs those of the allied forces.

This is at what is named "Vancouver Corner"  Here is the famous  brooding soldier.  All of the greenery surrounding this memorial was imported from British Columbia

A close up of the unexploded shell

This memorial was actually dedicated to the Australian regiments I believe.  They most recently buried 3 more soldiers remains here that had been located during construction of a building and identified.

Ypres was decimated during the war.  It was pretty much flattened and left only in ruins.  A testimony to the resilience of people they rebuilt the ancient city to it's former glory.  It's hard to imagine that 100 years ago this was all ruins. 

The Cathedral

What was originally the cloth factory is now a tourist information site and inside a museum dedicated to WW1 "In Flander's Fields" museum.  Sadly it was closed for renovations when we visited.

Menin Gate, dedicated to all those who fought in the Great War.  Again, thousand upon thousands of names inscribed on it's walls.  Those that could not fit are inscribed at Ty Cot

We wait for the Last Post Ceremony, held daily at Menin Gate, so the children enjoy some milk shakes and I, a much needed cup of tea

The Last Post. Seigried Sasson wrote " Who will remember, passing through this Gate, The heroic Dead who fed the guns?...."  He is answered once a day, everyday of the year.
It is beautiful to behold that their memory is still alive and honoured every night and we will cherish we had the opportunity to share in it.

A veteran recites the above sonnet.

High school girls from Britain lay wreaths

So many names

Menin Gate.  A beautiful monument

We introduce the children to Frites with mayo (my favorite) and then head off to the Hotel Ariane for a lovely sleep until tomorrow.   Liam goofs off

It was an emotional day and a little steam let out is never a bad thing.   Approximately 65 000 Canadian soldiers died in WW1.   It's easy to forget when your country is across the ocean and has never suffered the atrocities of war on it's own soil. (to this degree).   We will never forget and now our children have a new respect and appreciation for the life they have today.

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