On the trail of Canada’s war heroes in Belgium

A memorial to fallen Canadian troops at the Brooding Soldier monument at Vancouver Corner in St. Julian, Belgium.

Jim Byers photo

A memorial to fallen Canadian troops at the Brooding Soldier monument at Vancouver Corner in St. Julian, Belgium.

YPRES, BELGIUM – I take a train through rolling fields of prosperous farms and frisky Holsteins and small, black sheep grazing on deep, green grass. I dive into perfectly cooked sole at a stunning restaurant. I wander adorable streets filled with attractive brick buildings and drink rich Belgian beers on lovely squares and stroll through romantic parks with tiny bridges over pretty marshes and silent fishermen trying their luck

I have a lovely time in this small town and the surrounding area. But I also feel a tremendous, unshakeable sadness. An incredible appreciation. And, yes, a smattering of guilt. For this tranquil, harmless looking piece of lowland Europe was the heart of one of the most horrific chapters in world – and Canadian – history.

The words Ypres and Passchendale should be familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of World War I or of Canadian military history. I knew of the battles. But until I came here I knew nothing at all. Nothing, really, of the horrors of the first world war. Nothing of the tragedy and triumphs and victories and losses of our brave Canadian boys so far from home. For boys, for the most part, they were.

I arrived in Amsterdam and took three trains to get to Ypres. There were no taxis in sight and it didn’t look far to my hotel on my Google map that I had printed at home. Sadly, as is often the case, the map wasn’t what it could’ve been and it ended up being a 40 minute walk along streets wet with rain and heavy with cobblestones; not quite what the folks who designed my Heys luggage had in mind, I suspect.

I forgot my minor troubles when I thought about the war, of course. And I also was charmed by the owner of my B and B, Luc at the three-room Hotel Alegria . He’s a delightful fellow, just north of 60, who’s a retired teacher and active grandfather. He also does tours and knows his history and tells me how the first battle of Ypres was in October, 1914 and that some 8,700 people will be holding a torchlight parade in memory of the war in the fall of this year.

Ypres, Belgium, was almost entirely rebuilt after World War I.

Jim Byers photo

Ypres, Belgium, was almost entirely rebuilt after World War I.

I stroll down the road past what look like new/old Dutch-style buildings with those funky rooflines. I later learn that virtually the entire town was levelled by German shelling in the war and that the entire city had to be rebuilt from plans smuggled out of town by a local and kept safe until the fighting was over.

I snap photos of the gloriously rebuilt Cloth Hall in the centre of town and get a tour of the marvellous In Flanders Fields Museum . It’s a terrific facility where you get real human stories versus gazing at 100-year-old bayonets or gas masks. I see children’s games with war themes and enlistment posters and German uniforms, but I’m most shaken by a video showing a woman dressed as a nurse from the war.

The woman talks of fixing up soldiers on the front, only “to have them go back and shoulder 80 pounds of kit and get torn to pieces again.” She pauses and catches her breath. “It took all one’s skill,” she says. “All one’s humanity.”

They have an interactive feature where you register your name and country of residence and then scan a special bracelet at several stations inside the museum. The computers then click into gear and a visitor from Canada learns about Canadian heroes of the war, versus having to search a 1,000 word document for a mention of Canadian soldiers. It’s a brilliant idea.

Among others, I learn the story of native Canadian fighters and the sad tale of Desmond Gage of Innisfail,, Alberta. There’s a bit from his last conversation, where he says to a friend, “Tell them, Bradburn, that I died as a soldier.” Gage was at the Battle of Ypres in 1916 and was taking food rations to troops on the front line when he took a grenade to the heart. He wrote his last letter home on March 24, 1916. It’s said that his friends received that letter just one hour after the official word came of his death. And how chilling – and sad – is that?

There’s a small bit in the museum where they talk about the impact of the war.

“In Canada, Australia and New Zealand many consider the battlefields of the first world war as the birthplace of their status as separate nations.”

It all seems a bit surreal that night when I dine at on wonderful Dover sole and good frites and sip a great, local beer at De Fonderie , a restaurant not five minutes walk from the museum. I enjoy the dinner, but it’s hard not to roll the thoughts of the day around in my mind.

After the meal, I stand in the cold and grey of the evening and watch the Last Post, a ceremony that takes place at 8 p.m. every night at the Menin Gate, a memorial to fallen soldiers near the Flanders Fields museum that has names of far too many Canadians; members of the Princess Patricia and Canadian Light Horse unit and others. It’s a hugely moving ceremony (see my YouTube video) with marching soldiers, a bugle corps and the laying of many wreaths by friends or family members of the fallen. After the music fades, I walk about the gate and spot wreaths of red, plastic poppies left to honour veterans from Canada and other nations.

I stay the night in a small room with two single beds on the second floor at the Alegria. After a nice breakfast and a chat with Luc, I’m off to Passchendale to visit the Memorial Museum Passchendale . Guide Marc Olivier talks about how the 1917 offensive was supposed to take a couple days but ended up lasting 100, with the Canadians doing the final damage and charging into the hilltop village of Passchendale to end the Germany occupation. The Germans later retook Passchendale, much to the disgust of the Canadians and Australians and New Zealanders and Brits who had given so much to take it the previous year.

The museum is more old-fashioned than the one in Ypres, with some 6,000 artifacts from the war. You’ll find British officers’ tea sets, generations of gas masks and huge Big Bertha mortar shells, as well as German helmets, Howitzer guns and other memories of hell.

A drum used by Canadian soldiers in WWI, on display at the war museum in Passchendale.

Jim Byers photo

A drum used by Canadian soldiers in WWI, on display at the war museum in Passchendale.

The Canadian section of the museum shows Old Chum smoking tobacco from Montreal and a copy of the Canadian War magazine, published at 32 Church St.in Toronto. A map on the wall shows the positions of various Canadian infantry groups; the Victoria Rifles, the City of Winnipeg Regiment, the 19 th Battalion Toronto, even the Mississauga Battalion.

They also have a mock dugout to replicate the vast network of underground tunnels built during the war to provide shelter and safety from the shelling. Because there were virtually no buildings left, soldiers were forced to live and work and try to breathe in underground cities with no sanitation, mud and water all around and huge, ever-present rats.

You also can walk through a series of trenches and learn how the countryside here was littered with thousands of miles of them during the war. Outside are Flanders Fields filled with yellow and white daisy-like flowers and the odd, bright red poppy.

We also pass by the Brooding Soldier at what’s called Vancouver Corner in St. Julian, a monument to Canada’s role in the war. There’s a tall tower with the head of a soldier looking down and a large, round pedestal below. Nearby trees that look like bright yellow-green junipers were brought over from Canada, I’m told. Olivier also tells me that the Brooding Soldier finished second in the design competition for the Canada war memorial at Vimy Ridge.

From there we visit Tyne Cot cemetery for Commonwealth soldiers, not far from where the Australians and New Zealand troops handed over the last part of the drive to Passchendale to Canadian troops in 1917. I see the gorgeous, deep green grass and the splendid floral displays of red roses and blue lavender and tiny yellow flowers I can’t name and I’m strangely moved.

I turn to Olivier and tell him how honoured I am that the Belgian people take so much care to look after the souls of departed Brits, Aussies, Kiwis and Canadians. I look at the flowers and the endless line of tombstones and start to cry.

There are 35,000 graves or so, many of them sadly unmarked.

You walk past thousands of brilliant white stones with a stylized maple leaf on top and the words “A Canadian Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God.” Others honour equally brave Aussies, Kiwis and British or Scottish soldiers.

Olivier shows me a remarkable tombstone from Canadian private E. Grant, who died in the war at age 33 when he should’ve been home, hopefully with a wife and children. The words at the bottom also mark a spot on my soul: “Will some thoughtful hand in this distant land please scatter some flowers for me.”

Many have done so. Many, many, many and many more. Rest easy, Private Grant.

We also pass by the grave of a 17-year old from Newfoundland (not then part of Canada) who had won the Victoria Cross, a private named A. Barter.

In the nearby town of Poperinge, I tour Talbot House and the next-door museum. Poperinge was a garrison town that swelled from about 10,000 locals to 250,000 Allies (and Chinese labourers, I’m told) during the war. It was a safe haven just outside (mostly) of Germany firing range, and it was the staging point for supplies and a place where soldiers could rest and relax after time on the front. It was called a house for everyman as it was open to both soldiers and officers, a relative rarity at the time.

The museum tells the story of Poperinge and includes amusing – and awful – stories. One soldier is quoted talking about the glories of a hot bath in town, while another disparages the constant presence of plum jam, something he says he hopes to never taste again.

Other stories are more sobering. A video shows an old woman who was alive during the war talking about serving milk to dying soldiers, who she calls “children.” Another bit from a nurse talks about how soldiers near death lied back, with their tongues out of their mouths, crying out for “Mother or Momma or Mommy.”

I feel another catch in my throat and the salty sting in my eyes.

Minutes later I’m outside in a glorious garden behind Talbot House, with tiny pink and blue and white flowers and rolling green grass. I’m told the garden looks much the same today as it did in the day, and I can’t help but think it looked like paradise.

Talbot House in Poperinge, Belgium.


Talbot House in Poperinge, Belgium.

Talbot House was a place where troops could go and play the piano or listen to music or watch skits or even see Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton movies. On the second floor is a glass door leading out to the second floor roof. It’s jokingly called the Canadian Lounge, and was a place where soldiers would play ping pong or checkers or have a drink.

My tour of the war front over, I hop a train to Brussels. I roll past the countryside in supreme comfort and think back to how Olivier told me many folks thought the land would never recover because of the bombs and the chemicals used in gas attacks.

Today it’s a world away from the war. I spot a tiny, white-tailed rabbit ducking into a backyard bush and spot fields of endless great potato plants that will someday take the form of pommes frites on the plates of visiting Germans and Canadians and Aussies and Kiwis and Americans and South Africans and Indians and friends and family of others who fought in this horrible, horrible war.

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