A Daytrip to Belgium

The day after the ceremonies at Vimy Ridge, we piled into the car and took a roadtrip to Belgium. It’s really rather neat to drive past what was once, obviously, a border crossing and the only acknowledgement is the sat nav (GPS for those in North America) telling you that you’ve just entered another country and providing a list of differing driving regulations. Belgium is an interesting mix of French and German, but there is definitely something more Germanic in the language.

We stopped at a Trappist Monastery for an absolutely divine lunch, made from vegetables, cheese, pâté and bread produced on the grounds, and the best beer I have ever tasted (I am not a beer drinker, but this was more like nectar than beer, I swear).

Belgium is a flat country, with mile upon mile of country lanes across farmland that stretches before you. Farm buildings break the flatness, and windmills stand out, their wonderful great sails catching the wind. We sped past people on bicycles, mostly modern slick bikes with younger people in up-to-date helmets and gear. Every so often, however, we would come upon an old-timer, in black suit and hat, wheeling along on a bike he’d probably owned his whole life.

We, along with about 10,000 other Canadians, had decided there were a few WWI sites we wanted to visit while in the vicinity for the ceremonies at Vimy. Every one we visited had one or two busloads also visiting. It really was kind of neat.

Our first stop was at the Canadian monument at St-Julien. This monument is remarkable in its poignancy, dedicated as it is to the 2,000 Canadians of the Canadian 1st Division, who died in the first ever gas attack by Germans on April 22, 1915. When the Germans unleashed their chlorine gas, the wind carried it over the French trenches with the result that the soldiers ran, their lungs burning from the gas. This left a hole in the Allied lines that the Germans couldn’t fill as their soldiers were afraid of the gas having just witnessed its effect. The Canadians stepped in, regardless of the gas, and bolstered by the remains of the French troops, held the line for two days until relief. One in three of the Canadians who had gone into the battle became casualties, 6,035 of them, with 2,000 killed.

As two more busses arrived, we decamped to Passchendaele.

The Battle of Passchendaele was fought between July and November 1917 for control of the ridges to the east of Ypres. The weather was horrible, extremely wet during August, and it was fought in a series of battles. The four Canadian Divisions fought three battles at what is called the Second Battle of Passchendaele – October 26, 1917, October 30, 1917, and November 6, 1917, when they took Crest Farm, and stormed up what is now known as Canadalaan to the church. Once again through mud and rain, they took their objective. There was one more battle, on November 10, 1917, when the Canadians took the rest of the village and the ridge. The number of casualties during the four months of battle has been hotly debated over the decades, but the reckoning now is about 250,000 on both sides, including the 15,654 Canadian dead.

First we went into the Passchendaele Museum, located in a reconstructed chateau standing on what is now a park. There is a memorial garden containing stylized poppies set at the base of the flags of the nations, including the Germans, who fought. Afterward we drove to the site of Crest Farm to see the Canadian monument there.

And then it was time for Ypres. The battle of Mount Sorrel in particular, as we headed for the Canadian Memorial at Hill 62 overlooking Sanctuary Wood. The Canadians initially had taken Hill 62, but were driven off it by the Germans who held the high ground for the next 13 days, until the Canadians, entrenched at Sanctuary Wood at the foot of the hill, retook it. Approaching the hill from the wood, we parked at the side of the road. There was a small cafe with a museum not far away, but we went first to the top of the hill to see the Memorial.

It was easy to see, once we got there, why this was so heavily fought over. The land spread out before us and there in the distance, far beyond Sanctuary Wood, were the famed church spires of Ypres. There we met more Canadians and a discussion on military history ensued. I left them to it and took pictures.

The museum at Sanctuary Wood advertised the restored trenches of the Canadians. They were preserved by the farmer who owned the land at the time and have never been filled in. Slowly, over the decades, the museum has grown up of the bits and pieces of uniforms and munitions left in the area. I wanted very much to walk the trenches, to try to find some semblance of understanding of what Thomas Kerr Hall might have experienced in the trenches at Vimy Ridge. Truth be told, what I saw was pristine as compared to what he must have known, but it gave me a pretty good idea. It was easy to imagine what the men must have seen, the hilltop visible above them, the German and their guns.

The story of the preservation of the trenches is quite something. Until the 1990s, they’d been walked periodically but not frequently enough to stop Mother Nature from performing her healing work. The grass had softened the area and it was somewhat overgrown. A the 2000s progressed toward the 100th anniversary of WWI, the number of visitors increased. Slowly the trenches began to deteriorate and the grass to disappear. The owner started lining them with corrugated iron to protect them from erosion. It’s an eerie landscape.

Finally it was time to head back to Bethune. I was forever changed by our trip, by my increased understanding of the journey taken by Thomas Kerr Hall and the hundreds of thousands of young Canadian men who also served. It is an experience for which I will always be grateful.

Me in the trenches at Sanctuary Hill, seeing a little of what they must have seen.

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