Chez WW in England

Chez WW in England

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Archive for August 2011

Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium

31 August 2011

In doing research for our European Adventure, I discovered Menin Gate. Ypres is very close to the French border and and since the roads going there were major roads it was added to the trip. Attending the Last Post ceremony at Menin Gate would be a prefect way to conclude our tour which had included so many battle sites and war memorials. Menin Gate was completed in 1928 and since then every evening at 8pm a Last Post ceremony takes place. The only time this halted was when Ypres was occupied by the Germans in World War Two and started again the very evening the Germans left. 54,896 names of British and Commonwealth troops are engraved on the white stone gate. 54,896 people with no known graves. To see 54,896 names was more than I could take in. I had never seen 54,896 of anything in my life. War has a cost. It is easy to see numbers but when there is a name attached to each of those numbers… I have no words for the feelings that enveloped me. Gratitude. Sorrow. Anger. Sorrow.

As a child, my nan would take us to the graveyard. She would trim the grass and tell us about our families. We would have picnics with our great-grandparents…on their graves. This may seem weird to some but it was normal for us. To visit a grave is something that 54,896 families were denied. Nothing in my life has ever made as sad as that.

I thought that Canada had a great respect for it’s veterans and honoured them with touching tributes on Remembrance Day. Travelling through the Somme and the D-Day beaches in France and visiting Ypres in Belgium showed me the true meaning of Remembrance. Flags of all of the Allied countries fly everywhere. Not tattered flags with frayed edges. Perfect flags flying with pride. Flying to say “Thank You”. Thank you for World War One and World War Two. In Europe, Remembrance is lived each and every day by all generations. I mean no dis-respect to the way we remember in Canada. It is just different in Europe. The scars of war can be seen everywhere and that is something that is lived with every day. It is something that is remembered everyday.

We arrived at Ypres mid-afternoon. Belgian chocolate had to be bought. The city centre was explored. It was like something out of a fairy tale. The architecture was stunning. It is hard to believe that this ancient city lay in complete ruins in 1918. After the most expensive meal of our holiday (Belgium is not cheap), we explored Menin Gate. As the sun was setting, the crowds gathered. Crowds that have been gathering since 1928. Each evening, along with the Last Post, there is a wreath laying ceremony. War had denied these men a proper grave with a proper headstone with their name. But, They are not forgotten. Every night they are honoured in a ceremony that was more moving than anything I have ever seen.

Menin Gate is a two-storey enormous gate filled with names that seem to go on forever. And these are just the men who died in the fighting at Ypres who have no known grave. It is one thing to read about war in a history book – it is another to be at Menin Gate for Last Post. Out of the brutality and inhumanity of war, Ypres has risen to show the very best of humanity.

If Ypres can take time EVERY evening to remember, we should feel ashamed if we do not take time on November 11th to remember.

Valley of the Somme & Vimy Ridge, France

Leaving Arras, we drove through the Valley of the Somme heading towards Beaumont Hamel and Vimy Ridge. Poppies and graves litter the landscape. At every intersection there are signs pointing to cemeteries and memorials in every direction. Reading about the Western Front in a history book is one thing. Seeing the magnitude of it is another. It is on a scale unlike anything I had ever seen before. 700,000 men died on the Western Front and that is just from the British Empire. All of the graves are in pristine condition. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission does an incredible job ensuring that the cemeteries are peaceful and respectful.

After Beaumont Hamel, we headed to Vimy Ridge. For years I had watched the Remembrance Day Ceremony at the Vimy Ridge Memorial. The site, like Beaumont Hamel and Juno Beach, is staffed with Canadian students. Like Beaumont Hamel, Vimy Ridge has been left as it was. The mine craters dot the area. Sheep graze the area and act as lawn mowers since it is not safe to have people in certain areas. The trenches still exist and can be toured.

The Battle at Vimy Ridge, fought between the 9th – 12th april 1917,  was a huge victory for the four divisions of the Canadian Corps. It was the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Corps had fought together.The ridge protected a vital part of the German war machine. The German position was very well defended and they were not going to give up without a fight. The Canadian and British soldiers had to fight their way across No Man’s Land, avoiding machine gun fire, mine craters and wire defences. Their objective was to reach the German Front Lines and push them back, to take away land from the enemy. It could take months and cost thousands of lives just to push the enemy back a few feet. The Canadian Corps obtained their objective. The Vimy Ridge Memorial stand as a monument of the fighting spirit of the Canadian Corps.

We took a tour of the trenches and tunnels that have been preserved since The Great War. As bad as the conditions were in the tunnels, there was at least cover from gun-fire. A maple leaf is carved into the wall of one of the tunnels.