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Rediscovering Canadian WWI History in Ypres

Menin Gate

My parents came to visit me in Belgium for the week following Christmas. We explored Leuven and Brugge, enjoyed gluhwein and speculoos, and celebrated New Years Eve in the Oude Markt; but the highest on their “to do” list was a trip out to Ypres to visit Canadian WWI memorials. Both of my parents are members of the Royal Canadian Legion, an veteran’s organization dedicated to remembrance of our veterans and to serve to the community and country through various projects. Given their keen interest in WWI history, their trip to Belgium was a golden opportunity to visit the Menin Gate, Passchendaele, and the Tyne Cot memorial cemetery.

So we jumped on the train in Leuven, only for a mere 2 hours, to arrive in Ypres. We hoped to gain some perspective on Canadian participation in WWI and find the gravestones of four veterans from our hometown. With the help of our guide Soren, we accomplished all of our goals. He really went the extra mile and did a lot of extra research on Canadian military history for us. After the day was finished, Soren told us that we were his first tour – we couldn’t believe it! The whole day was organized so well; we saw everything we wanted and more, in addition to his impressive knowledge of the area and WWI history. Soren is also an artist and he surprised us with two pencil drawings to thank us for being his first tour. We highly recommend him; please check out his website, Passchendaele Prints for more information on his tours and artwork.

Canadian Memorial for Mustard-gas attacks - The Brooding Soldier

During WW1 (1914-1918), Canada was still a small nation of seven million people. By the end of the war, our nation had lost 68,000 soldiers. However, it is said that Canada emerged as a more confident and independent nation after their involvement in the war. During the fighting our soldiers earned much respect on the battlefield and earned more independence from British command. The respect for Canada resulted in being granted a seat at the Paris Peace Conference as its own nation rather than a part of the British Commonwealth and marked the beginning of a unifying national identity.

In Belgium, Ypres was the centre of a particularly long and intense battles between the Germans and the Allied forces. Ypres (Ieper in Flemish) history is full of tales of invasion dating as far back as Roman times because the location is militarily strategic. During WWI, Ypres was in the path of the German route to carry out the Schlieffen Plan, a plan to quickly defeat the French on the Western Front and avoid a two front war. Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium brought Britain into the war, and Canada quickly sprang to arms in support.

The Battle of Passchendaele is particularly famous in Canadian history because our troops were instrumental in securing victory and earned 9 Victoria Crosses for valour; one being Cecil John Kinross who was from my hometown. The offensive was long and difficult. It began July 21, 1917 until November 6, 1917 when Passchedaele Ridge was captured after months of heavy casualties. During the battle, the Ypres Salient had been destroyed, the green field changing into a sea of mud making it impossible to dig trenches.

We were very fortunate that during our tour day the sun came out, but it was still cold and wet. It was a cold that would sink down into my bones; I can’t imagine how soldiers endured those muddy and miserable conditions for months in wool jackets and wet boots.

Hard to imagine this land was once completely decimated

We visited seven cemeteries, four of which have the gravestones of our fallen WWI soldiers. We visited Private John Barton in Oostaverne Wood Cemetery, Private Patrick Balfour Watson in the Railway Dugouts Burial Ground, Private William Cockbain in Tyne Cot Cemetery, Captain John Lucas Higginson in St. Quentin Cabaret Military Cemetery, and Private John Wilson London who is listed on the Menin Gate.

Under the arch of the Menin Gate

Soren showed us a few other interesting sites. There was Hill 60, where we were able to walk among the dips and hills that resulted from land mines.

The gravestone on the right belongs Lieutenant George Llewelyn Davies, who was the step-son of J.M Barrie. Davies was around ten years old when Barrie began to write the play “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up”. It is said that Peter and the Lost Boys were inspired by George and his brothers. According to the tale, Barrie would tell stories to the boys about babies who died and went to live in Neverland and George exclaimed, “To die would be an awfully big adventure” which the most famous line in Peter Pan.

The German Gravestone is in the middle

While we were walking around the cemeteries, Soren pointed out some differences between the Allied graves and the German ones. As you can see the Allied headstones have rounded tops that give a more hopeful and peaceful feeling compared to the square and angular German headstones. It is hard to see in the photo but the stone inscription style of the German headstones is much more understated and muted in comparison to the Allied headstones.

Soren also told us that German WWI cemeteries are maintained by donated funds as opposed to being government-funded. I thought this was interesting and gave a bit of insight into the different perspectives regarding memory of war for each side. The German headstones and cemeteries give the visitor a sad and ominous feeling compared to the Allied headstones and cemeteries that give the impression of glory and achievement.

German Messines Mine Crater

This is a photo of a crater that was created during the Messines Battle. The crater, called Spanbroekmolen, was created after the mine was blown and is said to be forty feet deep!

The Bunkers of the Essex Farm Hospital

Above is a photo of Essex Farm, previously an advanced dressing station for those with serious wounds and now a memorial and cemetery. The famous John McCrae, author of the poem “In Flanders Fields”, was at this station as a doctor. He was inspired to write the poem after the death of his friend Alexis Helmer. The cement bunkers shown here were not built when John McCrae was there. The bunkers he was in would have been made of timber but the cement bunkers still give some indication to the conditions that the soldiers and doctors were in. It was pretty cool to visit in the evening, everything was damp, dark, and quiet. I definitely enjoyed my trip out to Ypres and would suggest that anyone with a mild to wild interest in WWI history to go check it out.



11 Responses to “Rediscovering Canadian WWI History in Ypres”

  1. Fascinating post! I’ve been trying to plan a Europe trip for ages and this definitely makes me want to stop off in Ypres. The comment on the differences between German and allied grave stones was particularly interesting. Also, did you take all the photos yourself, because if so, they are spectacular! One question though, what are “gluhwein” and “speculoos”?

    • Thanks Adriana! I did take the pictures myself :) Glad it got the pass from my history buddy because it’s been a while since I have written anything educational! “Gluhwein” is hot mulled red wine with a variety of spices in it, super popular during Christmas, and “speculoos” are a traditional Flemish spice cookies (think: cinnamon), my favourite to dip in tea.

    • Denise says:

      Hi Adriana, nice to see your smiling face!

  2. Denise says:

    Fabulous job on this story my dear. One thing that differed in my head is that I thought Soren said the Messines Crater is 90 ft. deep, but maybe you found another source that was different. Anyway we are very impressed and happy with your attention and interest. Thanks for this and for your company on that journey into our proud Canadian past.

    • Thanks Ma! About the Messine mine crater… I also remember Soren mentioning it was 90 ft deep but I did a bit of research also. It seems that the crater is 90 ft wide and 40 feet deep. When the mine shaft was originally created it was 88 ft deep, perhaps after the explosion some of the debris and earth would fall back in the hole? I thought that this made a bit more sense, but I am not positive. It definitely was a lovely trip to take with my parents :D

  3. Ellen Keith says:

    Great article Meredith. Especially the anecdotes about John McCrae and J.M. Barrie.
    :) Are they called Speculoos in Belgium? In Holland, they’re called Speculaas. Either way, they are delicious! (So, after this visit, are you compelled to take some more WWI-era history classes? :P)

    • Thanks Ellen! We are definitely thinking about the same cookie… I have seen it as Speculaas and Speculoos. Could this be a grammar thing? I am slowly working on my Dutch but I tend to get distracted and it falls by the wayside a bit. I do wish that I had taken more WWI era classes now, then I would have been able to contribute more to Sunday family dinner conversations. My parents are fairly passionate about military and World War history and have passed some of their knowledge to me over the years ;)

  4. Jerry-Lynn says:

    Hey Meredith…so glad you could do this with your folks. I remember stephanie, Graham’s German friend, telling us that her school classes used to go on camping weekends to clean up gravestones and cemeteries. When are you coming home? Will be great to see you!

    • Hi Jerry! Great to hear from you… Bgang will be seeing me very soon :) I come home Feb 4th! That is really cool about Graham’s friend, I was really surprised to learn that the cemeteries were maintained by civilians. Definitely a nice idea for schools to do that for remembrance and an educational activity.

  5. A big thanks to Soren for providing me with some more information on Lieutenant Davies and J.M Barrie. I revised the post this morning and it’s correct now. I loved all the feedback from friends and family on this post!

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