Flanders Pilgrimage ? Part 1
Ypres. Passchendaele. St. Julien. Names I?ve read about and revered since childhood. Names drenched in Canadian blood. Names forever associated with perseverance, bravery and sacrifice. How to adequately express what it means to be standing there, on such hallowed ground where thousands of young Canadians perished ninety years ago in their quest for peace. To preserve the freedoms future generations would cherish, but all too often take for granted.
As I write this on the plane returning home, memories of the past three days spent in Flanders flood back! The visits to the Memorial Museum of Passchendaele and ?In Flanders Fields? Museum in Ypres. Museums of the Great War, dedicated to the pursuit of an everlasting peace. A peace that tragically lasted little more than 20 years.
The hour spent at the Tyne Cot Cemetery where time seemed to stand still. The roll call of the dead, their ages sombrely emanating from speakers as we softly walk past the rows upon rows of white headstones. With 12,000 graves and 35,000 names of missing soldiers, this is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world. Silent testament to the ferocity of the fighting that took place on this very ground. In amongst the graves are the remains of the German concrete pill boxes. An icy wind off the distant North Sea and a light drizzle added to our sense of desolation and loss.
The honour of the private visit and wreath laying at the Newfoundland Memorial in Courtrai, followed by another at the overpowering statue of the ?Brooding Soldier? at the top of the ridge at St. Julien. The tragic stories of the long ago battles retold for us by a local historian.
The afternoon stop at Waterfields Farm that hosted a Canadian War Museum exhibition simply entitled ?The Canadians at Passchendaele? . . . an unbelievably moving tribute to the impossibility of the mission assigned the Canadians. Their reputation forged at Vimy Ridge in France six months prior at enormous cost, they accomplished the impossible, captured and held the remains of the town. Both Minister Jim Prentice and myself were privileged to briefly address the packed crowd which overflowed outside into the farmyard.
The horror of the battle at Passchendaele is virtually impossible to imagine for anyone living today. Two years of shelling and persistent heavy autumn rains had turned the surrounding fields into a quagmire of mud. It was here that animals, men and the bodies of their fallen comrades co-existed throughout the battle. Many wounded soldiers who slid into the slimy water-filled shell holes drowned.
The Germans above on the Passchendaele Ridge were protected by their concrete pillboxes. Despite those odds, the battle ended on November 10, 1917 when the First and Second Divisions of the Canadian Corps advanced so quickly German shells were falling behind them. The cost of the Canadian victory at Passchendale was high: 12,000 wounded and 4,000 dead.
Next week I?ll tell you more about how the sacrifice of Canadians continues to be honoured each and every day of the year in Ypres. These people have never forgotten, and will never forget how their freedom was won.