In Flanders Fields

Today we picked up our car rental in Lille, France and headed back in to Belgium to see some World War I Canadian Memorial sites in and around the town of Ypres (now called Ieper). Flanders Fields is the name given to the battlegrounds located around this area.

We basically did a loop around a number of battlefields and Canadian memorials, stopping at each one to take pictures, read the story boards and contemplate the lives of the men that faced the horror of war every day. We made our way to Hill 62 and Sanctuary Wood (a memorial commemorating the actions of the Canadian Corps in defending the southern stretches of the Ypres Salient between April and August 1916), Tyne Cot Cemetery (the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world), Passchendaele (where Canadian soldiers fought in the mud for months to regain the town), St. Julien and the Brooding Soldier, Essex Farm Cemetery (where Canadian John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” and then on to Ypres where we finished off the day with “The Last Post”.  Every day since 1927 and the opening of the Menin Memorial Gate into Ypres, this moving tribute to all the fallen soldiers is given at 8 PM. Every day the road is closed and people gather from all around the world to pay their respects and listen as the haunting sound of “The Last Post” is played. Every day people weep for family members that they never knew and every day we are blessed that these people made the sacrifices that they did.

It was an emotional day but we also could not stop admiring the beauty of this part of the world. The houses are quaint. The farms are neat and tidy. The landscape is so green with horses and cattle everywhere. So peaceful.

Hill 62.

Hill 62 (Sanctuary Wood) Canadian Memorial is a block of white Quebec granite weighing almost 15 tonnes, set in a large circle of green lawn at the top of three landscaped terraces, each ablaze with solid beds of roses in season. It bears the inscription:

HERE AT MOUNT SORREL ON THE LINE FROM HOOGE TO ST. ELOI, THE CANADIAN CORPS FOUGHT IN THE DEFENSE OF YPRES APRIL – AUGUST 1916

From the top of the steps leading up to the Hill 62 (Sanctuary Wood) Canadian Memorial,  looking down past Sanctuary Wood and Maple Copse along the broad spur of Observatory Ridge, you can see the church towers of Ypres, five kilometres to the west. A great many of the Canadian headstones in the Maple Copse and Hooge Crater Cemeteries nearby bear a date in June 1916.

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Colleen signing the guest registry.  We signed as many as were available.img_4287

Tyne Cot Cemetery.

The Tyne Cot Cemetery is now the resting-place of nearly 12,000 soldiers of the Commonwealth Forces, the largest number of burials of any Commonwealth cemetery of either world war. It first came into being in October 1917 when one of the captured pillboxes was used as an Advanced Dressing Station, resulting in some 350 burials between then and the end of March 1918. The cemetery was much enlarged after the Armistice by more than 11,500 graves from the battlefields of Passchendaele and Langemarck and from a few small burial grounds. The dates of death cover the four years from October 1914 to September 1918 inclusive. Unnamed graves in the cemetery number nearly 8,400, or 70% of the total, and the names of the unidentified soldiers who lie in them are inscribed on the Menin Gate in Ypres and on the panels of the Memorial which stands to the rear of this cemetery.

The site of the Memorial is on the high ground of the western slopes of the Passchendaele Ridge. It is in the middle of an agricultural district, with widely scattered farms and small villages. It represents the most desperate offensive fighting and stubborn resistance of the Commonwealth Armies in Belgium.  It is the farthest point in Belgium reached by Commonwealth arms in the First World War until the final advance to victory.

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As we traveled through the Flanders area today we experienced some of the most beautiful land we have seen for a while.  It stands in stark contrast to the devastation that took place all around it. img_4304

We stopped for lunch in a town called Zonnebeke which is near Passchendaele and these young people came marching by dressed in WW1 fatigues.

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Passchendaele.

On the slopes overlooking the peaceful fields that today carpet the valley of the Ravebeek, this Canadian Battlefield Memorial marks the site of Crest Farm, where Canadian soldiers encountered some of the fiercest resistance they were to meet during the war. A large block of Canadian granite set in a grove of maple trees and encircled with a low hedge of holly carries the inscription:

THE CANADIAN CORPS IN OCT.- NOV. 1917 ADVANCED ACROSS THIS VALLEY – THEN A TREACHEROUS MORASS – CAPTURED AND HELD THE PASSCHENDAELE RIDGE.

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When Passchendaele was rebuilt, a new road was constructed that ran straight from the the center of the town to the Canadian memorial site. The road is called Canada Lane.img_4327

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What the town of Passchendaele looked like after the war.  Like many towns in the area it was completely destroyed.img_4324

The houses are so cute and quaint in the Flanders area. Here’s an example:

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St. Julien Memorial and the Brooding Soldier.

Visible for several miles from its site beside the main road from Ypres to Bruges, the impressive Canadian Memorial at St. Julien stands like a sentinel over those who died during the heroic stand of Canadians during the first gas attacks of the First World War.

It is one of the most striking of all the battlefield memorials on the Western Front. Rising almost 11 metres from a stone-flagged court, “The Brooding Soldier” surmounts a single shaft of granite – the bowed head and shoulders of a Canadian soldier with folded hands resting on arms reversed. The expression on the face beneath the steel helmet is resolute yet sympathetic, as though its owner meditates on the battle in which his comrades displayed such great valour. The statue is set in the middle of a garden surrounded by tall cedars, which are kept trimmed to perfect cones to match and complement the towering granite shaft.

The inscription on the Memorial recalls the Canadian participation in the Second Battle of Ypres:

THIS COLUMN MARKS THE BATTLEFIELD WHERE 18,000 CANADIANS ON THE BRITISH LEFT WITHSTOOD THE FIRST GERMAN GAS ATTACKS THE 22ND-24TH OF APRIL 1915. 2,000 FELL AND HERE LIE BURIED

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Essex Farm Cemetery.

There are 1,200 WWI servicemen buried or commemorated in this cemetery. Of these burials 103 are not identified. There are special memorials commemorating 19 casualties who are known or believed to be buried among the unidentified burials.

The cemetery was used by several British divisions holding this sector from 1915 to August 1917. Men from these divisions are buried throughout the cemetery. Plot I contains the dead of the 49th (West Riding) Division from 1915. The dead of the 38th (Welsh) Division dated in the autumn of 1916 are buried in Plot III.

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Bunkers that still remain at Essex Farm.

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The bunkers of Essex Farm ran along the canal. Across the canal, German combatants huddled in their bunkers as the two sides fired at each other.

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Essex Farm Cemetery is probably one of the most visited sites in the Salient, and this is principally because of its association with John McCrae. John McCrae was a Canadian, born in Ontario in 1871, who qualified in medicine at Toronto in 1898. He served with the Artillery during the Boer War. From 1901 until 1914, he practiced as a doctor in Canada and in England.

On the outbreak of the First World War, he enlisted within the first few weeks and was sent overseas in September 1914, again with the Canadian Field Artillery. While stationed at Essex Farm, in May 1915 he wrote the famous poem “In Flanders Fields“, after one of his friends, Alexis Helmer, was killed and buried.

Below is a memorial to John McCrae.

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Seeing the poppies blow around the graves led to the best known image of this poem. “In Flanders Fields” was published for the first time in Punch in December that year, and has since come to encapsulate the sacrifice of those who fought.

 

Colleen and I have both read this poem many times, but when you are reading it in the exact location it was written and standing among the many graves of fallen young men it hits you in a way that is difficult to explain.

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This last picture was taken while standing on one side of the fence of the Essex Cemetery.  So peaceful and again such a contrast to what we were experiencing that day.

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Ypres (Ieper) and the Menin Gate.
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The Menin Gate.

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The names of the Canadian Soldiers who perished defending Ypres.img_4379img_4374img_4399

The Start of the Ceremony.

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The young people in red below were part of the choir that took part in the ceremony.  On this occasion it was sponsored by a local school.

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The end of the Ceremony.

On a personal note, today was probably the most emotional day I have had so far while on our journey.  The memorials are kept in impeccable shape. They are just beautiful.  So Proud to be a Canadian today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving The Netherlands for Belgium

Sunday was travel day and we sadly said goodbye to the cute little town of Baarn and hopped on the train for Brussels, Belgium. The two and half hour train ride turned into three and a half as we sat on the tracks for about an hour with a mechanical breakdown. It gave us time to reflect on what we had seen in Holland and we wished that we had booked more time there. Everything is so clean and tidy, with street sweepers going by every half hour or so in Amsterdam. The tulips are starting to bloom, hedges are trimmed and out in the countryside, horses are frolicking in the new green grass. It’s all as pretty as a picture and we are so fortunate that we were able to experience it.

We arrived in Brussels about 7:30 PM and after stopping in at the BNB, and having a pleasant conversation with our hostess as she was finishing up changing the bedding, we headed out for a bite to eat. We found a wonderful Italian place that made everything fresh and it was delicious!! Back at our apartment we couldn’t help but notice that it was not very clean and in fact had spoiled food in the fridge and fruit flies and regular flies everywhere. We debated about leaving and going to a hotel but in the end we sucked it up, bought some Raid and paper towels, did some cleaning and decided that we wouldn’t be spending much time here. Considering all the BNB’s that we have been to in the last 9 months, this is only the second one that has given us the heebie-jeebies. That’s not so bad.

As April 8th is Richard’s birthday, we headed out for a day on the town. We walked the forty minutes to the downtown stopping along the way for a birthday drink at a cute little cafe, having lunch at McDonald’s (Richard’s favorite made even more so because they serve beer at the McDonalds here) and just looking at the sites. The downtown is vibrant and very busy with tourists. We checked out some churches, walked past the palaces and courthouse, checked out the government house before heading back home. Richard’s birthday supper was Chinese ordered in with Uber Eats. Now that’s slick!! Just order online from anywhere in the city and Uber delivers to your door. Sweet.

Today is laundry day and as it is raining we probably won’t stray too far from the apartment although we do have to go to the train station to reserve our tickets. We’ve cleaned ourselves a nice little area in the living room where we can settle in and watch some Netflix. Tomorrow we head to Lille, France where we rent a car and start following the path of Canadian war memorial sites. That should be very interesting.

The Manneken Pis.  Little Pee Man in Flemish.

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The peeing boy is a small bronze fountain statue from the 17th century that is tall just 61cm (24 inches). One would not normally call this art piece ‘majestic’, but the locals have so many stories and ways of celebrating with this little boy that even the toughest critic would find some fondness for the bronze doll.

Many great legends bring this little statue to life in the hearts of visitors, and the question is why was this statue erected? One story tells of a tourist father who lost his son in the city and after receiving help from villagers to find the boy, he gifted this statue to them. Another, more daring, tale is one where the boy was a spy during a siege of the city. He literally put out a ploy to bomb the city by urinating on the explosives! Many stories such as this have given the Manneken Pis a firm place in Brussels’ city-life but none would compete with its present-day glory.

The people of Brussels don’t simply look upon the cute statuette and show it to tourists. The Manneken Pis plays a full part in the city’s annual calendar and even has an outfit for every occasion. Peeing boy’s wardrobe ranges from Santa suits to national costumes from countries around the world. One of the recent additions is a red leather Chinese costume presented by the city of Haining, China. On special occasions, brass-bands would play here and Manneken Pis would be hooked up to different flavours of Belgian beer, which is poured from his fountain tip and given out to the public. With such love and care for the peeing boy, who needs Big Ben? 🙂

To give peeing boy a playmate, another statue was built called Jeanneke Pis in the 80s. This other statue is a little girl fountain, but she is lesser known and hides in an alleyway a short distance away from Mannekin Pis.

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Some images from Brussels.

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I snapped this last picture as we were finishing up our last meal in Amsterdam before catching the train to Brussels.  Now I know that Amsterdam is a progressive city and the Dutch are little ahead of us on some things such as their laws on prostitution and drugs,  but I thought this one might be a bit much.

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The Man With Two Hats.

One of the things I (Richard) really wanted to do while in Western Europe was to visit as many Canadian war memorial sites as I could. First stop, Apeldoorn in the Netherlands. Apeldoorn is host to the Man with two hats.

In the City of Apeldoorn, The Man With Two Hats monument symbolizes many dualities. The two hats in and of themselves represent a time when to come through the war with one hat was something of a feat. It represents the end of the horrors of war but in the same vein the peace and freedom that continue to elude many countries today. It symbolizes the two countries of Canada and the Netherlands. The outstretched arms symbolize the liberation of the Netherlands and also the reaching out of country to country, people to people. The visage, one of sadness and deep meditation and also one of serenity and peace. With the donation of this monument, the Netherlands pays a lasting tribute to Canada. A statue identical to this one stands in Ottawa, Ontario. The twin monuments symbolically link Canada and the Netherlands, forever close friends.

The monument, which was sculpted by Dutch artist Henk Visch, is made of bronze and measures 4.6 metres. Entitled “The Man with Two Hats” (De man met de twee hoeden), it symbolizes the historic bonds between Canada and the Netherlands.

This was just the first of a few Canadian war memorials to come.  I don’t know how my emotions will be as I / we experience these, but I have to say that even today I could feel my emotions coming to the surface.  I am eager to share these with you as we will be continuing our journey through Belgium and France.

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The translation of the plaque below reads:  This tree was planted on December 29, 1945 by Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds,  Commander of the Canadian army corps that liberated the Netherlands. At the time I took this picture I didn’t know what the translation was so I didn’t take a picture of the tree.   Trust me, it is a beautiful tree.

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Canada Avenue.

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More of the Man With Two Hats.

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A Day in Amsterdam

We are staying in the little town of Baarn about an hour’s train ride from Amsterdam. When we arrived from Berlin on Thursday afternoon, we dropped our bags and walked into the downtown for a few groceries and/or a bite to eat. What we found were pretty streets lined with gorgeous homes, some with thatched roofs, and quaint, little shops. We wandered around for a while soaking in the ambience. Richard found a barber so he got a quick haircut. I found several hairdresser shops but all were closed for the day. We settled on getting a few groceries and headed back to our room for the night.

We were up bright and early Friday morning and headed into Amsterdam on the train. What an amazing city! We jumped on a Hop On-Hop Off bus and took the tour around the city. We then hopped onto one of the many boats that make their way around the canals and spent a couple of stress free hours watching the city glide by. As we had no real plans or expectations of the city, we decided to take in a tour of the Heineken museum. This ended up being very informative and a whole lot of fun. The museum is obviously geared towards the younger population with loud music, bright light shows and interactive gadgetry but we enjoyed it a lot. A very pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. We were also hoping to take a tour of the Anne Frank museum but found out when we got there that tickets need to be purchased online, many months in advance. The next available ticket was April 24th so we were SOL for that tour. We hoped to at least take some pictures from outside the building but it has been completely redone and is so modern looking that it does not even fit in with the structures around it. That was probably the most disappointing of all. That, and not being able to get into the Hard Rock Cafe for supper!! LOL!!

We thoroughly enjoyed Amsterdam and though we just walked, rode buses and boats most of the day, we thought that it was very unique and totally worth a visit. We have a free day in Baarn today so may see about checking out some war sites or may just kick back at one of the local pubs and enjoy a relaxing afternoon. Enjoy your weekend!!

You see a few of these along the Dutch countryside

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Of course we had to start the day off with a traditional Dutch breakfast.

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The Heineken experience.

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The bikes.

While in Amsterdam keep your head on a swivel and look out for the bikes because there are a million of them and they will run you over before you can blink.  It seems the preferred mode of transportation in the Netherlands is the bicycle.   Below is a couple of pictures of a bike parking lot by the train station and I hope you can get a idea of the size of it.

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As Col mentioned we had a boat ride around some of the canals in Amsterdam.  What was interesting was the amount of permanent houseboats on the canals which ranged from run down to the very exquisite.

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On a personal note (Richard) after visiting both Venice and Amsterdam, both cities with canals, I would recommend Amsterdam over Venice even though the canals of Venice outnumber Amsterdams 50 to 1 or more.  Compared to Venice, Amsterdam is much cleaner, the buildings have been kept up much better and it has a nice vibe.  Also if you are one who feels more comfortable where a lot of English is spoken than Amsterdam also fits that bill.  And that my friends is one man’s opinion.

 

 

Goodbye Berlin, Hello Amsterdam

The last couple of days in Berlin were spent planning the last portion of our journey. Can you believe that we will be back in Canada in less than two months? It is hard to imagine that we have been travelling for almost 9 months now. We have seen so much. We have experienced so much. And we have missed so much at home. We’ll be coming back to not one, but two new grandchildren. Friends and family have had birthdays and gone on holidays. There have been weddings and retirements. Christmas and New Year’s has come and gone. We head to the Netherlands today and then spend some time in Belgium and France. We meet our friends Kim and Jack in Paris at the end of April and spend May in the UK. Our flight home is May 31 from Dublin to Edmonton. We have so loved this adventure but will be so very excited to arrive home.

We took a break from planning and slipped out for a few hours to see a few more sights before we left Berlin. We took the lift up to the observation deck of the Fernsehtrum Radio Tower. This tower, situated in the Eastern Bloc was used during the Cold War to transmit propaganda and other preapproved programming to the masses. It also tried to block Western radio signals as well, even though it was only partially successful. The views from the panoramic viewing deck were amazing. It was a clear day so we were able to see for miles over the city. Each viewing window had a labelled picture below it detailing the buildings and parks that we were seeing from the deck. We had seen many of the sites from the ground so it was really neat seeing them in perspective to one another from 203 Meters above the surface.

Our last official stop in Berlin was the DDR Museum. This interactive museum lets you experience the lives of East Berliners from the end of the war until the Wall fell in 1989.  One of the first items that we saw was a Trabant Car – made exclusively for the East. In fact, I even got in the driver’s seat and through a simulator, drove through the streets of 1960’s East Berlin. Many of these cars did not have brakes, gas gauges or, in some cases, even a radiator but the people that were lucky enough to have one simply kept fixing it over and over again to keep it running. We saw a school room (with actual school work), a grocery store (with very little on the shelves), a movie theatre (which showed mostly propaganda films), a typical apartment (given to a family after several years of waiting), a house of one of the top officials (much nicer than the apartment!), a typical family vacation (many families enjoyed the nudist beaches) and other items from everyday life. We enjoyed this museum because it was a lot of fun. There were lots of kids there and it was a great way for them to learn about an era that existed long before they were born. We would definitely recommend this museum to anyone visiting Berlin.

So, it is that we say goodbye to Berlin and ultimately Germany. While in Berlin, we could see from day to day that spring was arriving as the trees were beginning to turn green and flowers started to poke up through the ground. The view from the train window today has been many green fields, acres of cattle and horses and even a few sheep here and there. Yes, spring has definitely arrived in Europe.

Col taking the Trabant for a test drive through old East Berlin.

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The picture below was from the DDR museum.  I thought it was an interesting concept on the electric lawn mower.

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A City Divided

Imagine our surprise this morning when we headed to our favourite Underground Subway Station to find that the gates were locked. We then walked to the first tram station down the street and as we were beginning to suspect, there was no public transportation today due to a work stoppage. So, the day we had planned was much too far away to walk so we had to improvise. I remembered that on one of our trips downtown I had seen a Berlin Wall Memorial. It was on my list but hadn’t made it into the schedule yet. So, guess what? It was now scheduled for today as it was within walking distance.

I won’t bore you with a bunch more details about the Wall and all the politics about it etc. etc. etc. What we saw today was actually a portion of the wall that ran along one of the main streets – Bernauer Strasse. The houses along one side of the street belonged to the East side. However, the sidewalks that ran along the front of the houses belonged to the West side. This resulted in a lot of people walking out of their front doors and jumping out of front windows to get to the west side as the wall started to come up in 1961. To combat this problem, the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and border security bricked up the doors and windows facing the street and put barbed wire on the roof so that there could be no more escaping from the east this way. Eastern Berliners became quite inventive and started to dig tunnels under the wall. Many escaped through these tunnels until they were caught and imprisoned or shot. Others tried to escape through subway tunnels but as I mentioned in an earlier post, after there had been a few escapes, the tunnels were either guarded and the train went straight through the “ghost stations” or the tunnels were bricked up as well.

The open air Berlin Wall Memorial museum documents the lives of families that lived on this street and became divided by the wall. Though East and West had been divided for about twelve years before the wall, movement back and forth was fairly easy with a pass. Even though rumours of a physical wall had started circulating in 1961, there were many that did not think much would change. As a result, family members did not make it out before the borders were completely closed and the wall became a physical barrier that could not be penetrated. There are pictures of families waving to each other across the barriers and even of a wedding taking place on the front street in the west so that the family in the east could see the bride and groom.

Many people lost their families. Many people lost their lives. We cannot even imagine. So many wasted lives. So many wasted years. So many wasted resources.

Olga Segler

Two thousand people were to be moved out of their apartments, most of them against their will. The West Berlin police and fire department expected that many residents “would in the last minute try to flee to freedom before their apartments are evacuated.  Olga Segler (80 years old) decided to jump from the window of her second story apartment on September 25, 1961. Her daughter waited down below on the sidewalk, encouraging her to jump. The firemen caught the eighty-year-old woman in their rescue net but she injured her back on impact and had to be taken by ambulance to the nearby Lazarus Hospital. Olga Segler died the next day.   Her heart had given out as a consequence of the overexcitement she experienced during the escape.  The picture of the plaque in the sidewalk shows the spot where she jumped.

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The bars on the ground show the location of one of the many escape tunnels.

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The Reconciliation Sculpture.  There are also copies in the Coventry Cathedral in England along with one in the Hiroshima Peace Museum.

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