Rediscovering Canadian WWI History in Ypres
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.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.
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.
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.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.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! 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.