Thursday, 24 March 2016

Our Canadian Battlefields Tour According to my iPhone

The 4 days that followed our tour of London, England were very emotional. We were taken to Belgium and France where we visited more cemeteries and monuments than I can count. We stood on ground that had once been thick with war and death, and we heard personal stories of loss. But we also remembered. We visited specific graves, read poems, laid wreaths, held moments of silence, and let the power of where we were sink into our hearts. The other adults on the trip and I all agreed that we had never cried so many different times on one "holiday".

There were still many moments of light and laughter within this tour. We ate Belgian waffles, Belgian chocolate, and multiple French croissants a day. We caught a beautiful sunset in Dieppe and another stunning sunrise in Caen.

I have to believe that those are the moments for which those men were fighting. So that we could openly and always enjoy life, happiness, friendship, and freedom.

Our first stop in this second part of our trip was in Ypres, Belgium where we had a two-night stay in the Ypres Salient.

We visited the place where John McCrae was stationed, and where he is said to have written his famous poem In Flanders Fields.

The Brooding Solider. A monument that commemorates a Canadian division that was victim to the first-ever large-scale gas attack. 2000 men died or were wounded.

Tyne Cot Cemetery. This picture shows 1/4 of the cemetery. In the Tyne Cot cemetery, there are nearly 12 000 burials. Over 8000 of which are unnamed. All men who died during WWI.

In Commonwealth/British cemeteries, unknown soldiers were marked by graves that looked like this.

If a Commonwealth or British soldier has an unmarked grave, their name will also appear on another monument, either at Tyne Cot, or, because they ran out of room at Tyne Cot, at the Menin Gate. The Menin Gate is a memorial in Ypres that lists another 55 000 names. They are engraved on the inside walls of this monument.

What is absolutely remarkable about this monument is that every single night, the town of Ypres shuts down the road that runs through the monument and at exactly 8pm, there is a Last Post ceremony inside the Menin Gate. Except for the time of German occupation during WWII, this ceremony has carried on uninterrupted since 1928. We participated in the Menin Gate ceremony by laying a wreath on behalf of our school. We were there on a Sunday night, and I estimate there were probably 500 people who came to the ceremony.

In addition to British and Canadian monuments, we visited a German cemetery. One striking difference I learned about German graves at this time is that they were actually mini mass graves, with 5 or so men for each plot.

And no trip to Belgium would be complete without chocolate and waffles!

The next day we were off to France. Our first stop was Vimy Ridge. This is the second time I've had the opportunity to visit this powerful monument, and it was still as breathtaking as ever.

Vimy is an interesting place because there are many parts of Vimy Ridge on which you are not allowed to walk because there are still undetonated mines in the ground. You can also plainly see evidence of shells hitting the ground and areas where mines created craters in the earth.

Trenches at Beaumont-Hamel where a division from Newfoundland was nearly wiped out at a failed assault during WWI.

That evening, we caught the most beautiful sunset at Dieppe.

As we made our way from Dieppe to Caen the next day, we stopped for lunch in the most beautiful little French town of Honfleur.

When we arrived in Caen, we visited Juno Beach and Gold Beach.

80% of Caen was destroyed during the D-Day landing attacks. This house is one that survived (and can often been seen in WWII movies).

For me, the most powerful part of this tour, and the moments when I felt most rocked to my core, was when I was reading the personalized inscriptions on the bottom of the gravestones. Heartbreaking goodbyes to husbands, fathers, and sons. This just shows that while these men were absolutely brave and strong, so were the ones they left behind. 

This is not the exact quote, but there was one man speaking in a video at the Juno Beach Centre who said something to the effect of "I had no idea how the simple act of loving your family, could push you to move forward one step at a time in the battle of war."

We were pretty emotionally spent after these 4 days, but they were so important to everyone, and I am grateful for the opportunities to visit these cemeteries and offer my silent thanks to these men and their families.

Our last stop before home was Paris. As we packed up and headed out, I caught this lovely morning sunrise over a Caen harbour.


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