remembering world war 1: on-site in ypres

There’s nothing like a third world experience, a dose of traveler’s diarrhea and malaria, having a military coup an hour away, experiencing airport scanning for Ebola, and visiting World War 1 sites to wake me up to the harshness of this world.

But this is the season to remember. And in remembering the hard things of life, we more sweetly appreciate the joys.

There’s been debate in Canadian media as to whether we should continue to mark this day with holiday status. There’s been a diminished interest of youth in the marking of the day at all. So I asked my resident expert, the husband, what his thoughts were on the significance of remembering world war history.

Remembrance is a worthy endeavor. Millions of soldiers and civilians were casualties of WW1.   However misguided in their militaristic adventures, however unfortunate in their unintended entanglement, they all died directly or indirectly in the pursuit of noble causes.  The war and the post- war negotiations had a cascade of historical impact:  WWII, the political divisions of the Middle East, the rise of fascism and communism sprung from the events and decisions of those years.  In order to go forward with clarity and precision, we must understand the past.  Visiting, learning, and absorbing facilitates wisdom for future decision-making.”

Last week Wednesday, we triple-trained it from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, to Brussels, then to Bruges.

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We were picked up the next morning by a tour guide, and drove forty five minutes to the countryside around Ypres.

Our first stop was at Lange Mark.

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A mass cemetery of 27,000 ‘kindermorten’…fifteen to eighteen year old German boys that were an easy target for the Boer War-seasoned British military veterans. 44,000 Germans are buried there.

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These people died for reasons that weren’t well understood in a military-strategist’s eyes. But the battle played out for years on this flat land.

This location would set the scene for a return battle in World War 2 as Adolph Hitler fought and was injured here in World War 1 and believed it imperative that he conquer Ypres.

Names of those buried in this grave…

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Each of these grave markers have seven men buried, one on top of another.

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Our next stop was to St. Juliaan to visit the Brooding Soldier monument — the second Battle of Ypres.

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Four years, four battles in this sector. In the second battle, tanks of chemical warfare were sent with the westerly wind toward the Allies. That backfired. The wind changed direction and the mustard gas killed many Germans.

On this site, all the soil, stones, gravel and trees were contributed by the Canadian government.

In the stand is a Canadian guest book where we wrote our names and hometown.

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Madelyn pored over a laminated letter written by a fellow Canadian to her grandfather, who was memorialized at this site.

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Sad, very sad, so sad”.  We’d hear this repeated every time we stopped at another location. I even heard muttered from the eleven year old, “May you rest in peace”. Indeed, rest in peace.

I’d switch back and forth between iPod and camera because both had low charge, attaching them to my computer sitting on my lap between stops. But there wasn’t much time between because the locations, though discussed in separate battles, separate account, separate books, were actually very close, perhaps a few miles apart, so I didn’t have much time.

We stopped at the largest British military cemetery on European mainland, the Tyne Cot cemetery. A soft, young female voice read the names of the military personnel buried at this site, photos flashing as Zach watched mesmerized.

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35, 000 MIA soldier’s names were inscripted on the surrounding wall.

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There were many named too, and King George of England acknowledged them each.

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Touching letters from wife to husband were maintained for our viewing. I can only imagine…

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And the letters she would receive would break her heart…

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This private was buried by his fellow soldiers in September 1917, believed to be dead. His friends unburied him because they didn’t believe he was dead. He wasn’t.

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But on the ninth of October he would die as he came out of the trenches to use the latrine.

Being sent a letter of your son’s death in war must have been heartbreaking…

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I found this story especially interesting, as the fellow’s last name is a family name, Young.

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Interesting to me is the resemblance of the young man to a cousin of mine.

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Imagine never receiving a letter of regret, but never knowing whatever happened to your husband…

A melted gas mask…

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Summer of 1917 was known as the “Big Push”. Not much had happened for a year, Germans sitting on one side and the Allies on the other, and attempts at taking Ypres failed. But the Third Battle of Ypres, well known as Passchendaele, with its flooded field of clay muck, would be the hardest won.

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Here it is in present day, recently harvested of canola…

Tomorrow, I will continue remembering as I trek through one of the most impressive museums I’ve walked through, called the Passchendaele.


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