Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Remembrance Day

We drove from Brugges, Belgium to Arras, France, visiting the WWI sites along the way. This area was the “front” where the trenches were located during the war. The Germans had advanced as far as west Belgium and the allies basically drew a line in the sand that said the Germans would advance no farther. They fought the war for four years in this location. Ypres, the town the allies were determined not to let the Germans take was completed devastated. That was the bad news. The good news was that the Germans never did set foot in it.

We began in Ypres, pronounced “Eee-per” by the Flemish (Dutch), “Eee-preh” by the French and bizarrely, “Wipers” by the English. Wipers. Really? Although the English chose a strange way to pronounce the word Ypres, they spent a lot of time helping Belgium rebuild the city and felt a certain affection for the area. We spent a lot of time driving around the area locating various Canadian memorials. The directions are not well marked and it is a bit like some sort of car rally trying to do it on your own. We were armed with two maps which clearly showed the roads and locations but neglected small details like the NAME of the road. In Europe you find your way by the heading to the next village which sounds reasonable but in practical terms is confusing unless you know all the village and city names. It does make for an exciting day, however.

Our first stop was at the Passendale memorial. This is where 18,000 Canadians and British soldiers withstood the first gas attack. Two thousand are buried nearby. We next located where John McRae had written “In Flanders Fields”. Tom commented it was interesting that the crosses at the cemetery had been replaced by headstones. McRae worked nearby in a dressing station tending the wounded. He was a military doctor. We saw the bunkers that functioned as a dressing station. I’m not sure what it looked like 100 years ago but it was no picnic site today. We then found Hill 62, a hill the Canadians had taken after losing huge numbers of men and fighting for months. We toured through a private collection of memorabilia from the war and saw some of the trenches. The holes from exploded mines still around the trenches were sobering. The land all around the area is still lumpy from the divots blown out of it 100 years ago. Driving around the countryside searching for sites, we passed numerous military cemeteries. It drove home the sheer numbers lost.

Our main task of the day was to try to locate Tom’s grand uncle, Herbert Edward Kersey’s name on the Vimy Ridge Memorial and his great grandfather, John Lloyd’s gravesite. We had the name of the cemetery John Lloyd was buried in but just could NOT find it in any of the literature. Eventually, we stopped at the tourist information for help and the lady looked it up and then smiled at me. “The first step in finding a cemetery is making sure you are in the right country,” she said pleasantly. Apparently, Dury Crucifix Cemetery is in France near Vimy, not in Belgium near Ypres. She then printed off a bunch of directions and we were on our way.

By the time we reached Vimy Ridge it was early evening and raining so hard we could barely see the memorial from the car parking lot. It was huge; of that we were certain. We decided to come back in the morning. It was an excellent call as the day dawned bright and sunny. Vimy Memorial is magnificent. It sits high on a ridge (go figure) and you can see it for miles around. In the early morning sun it was spectacular and moving. A few Canadian soldiers were setting up for a parade later in the day and one was sitting on the memorial meditating. It was somehow fitting. We found Herbert Kersey’s name. He was Jean’s uncle and his body was never located. In tribute to him, his name is chiseled into this beautiful monument. The area around the monument is Canadian land, given to Canada in gratitude for their help during the war. It is said that Canada became a country on Vimy Ridge. Thousands of Canadian soldiers came to help during this war and Vimy Ridge was a particularly strategic location to hold. The Canadian battalions were the ones to finally take it back and hold on to it, losing many men and gaining the respect of our European forefathers in the process. Some of the land has wire around it with signs warning that there are still unexploded mines and to stick to the paths at all times. While taking a picture of this, I noticed herds of goats and sheep grazing behind the fences. No sheep or goats located missing mines while we were there, thankfully.

We wandered some more trenches on the ridge and located HUGE holes made by bombs. Tom figured the bombs must have been from British and Canadian pilots blasting the Germans off the ridge because the trenches seemed to move around the holes.

Afterwards, we drove to Dury Crucifix Cemetery. The cemetery is on the edge of a little village amongst wide fields of wheat. It is a picturesque, quiet setting in the middle of the beautiful French countryside. We found Tom’s great grandfather’s grave without a problem. The headstones all have greenery and flowers planted in front. They look well tended and the cemetery is undergoing some upgrades at this time. The French are taking excellent care of our fallen ancestors. We stood by the side of his grave for some time before we all decided we needed to do something more so we drove back to the store in the next town and bought flowers. The kids arranged them by their great-great grandfather’s grave. I wished we’d brought a Canadian flag to place there too. We found the register and signed it. All of the graves in that row and the next held the same two or three dates; so many dead men. What a terrible time for the soldiers: the terror of fighting one day and the pain of digging comrades’ graves the next. Seeing the headstone and his name was sad and sentimental. It will make Remembrance Day just that much more significant in the future.


Anne Affleck said...

Thanks, Holly, for a lovely and loving post and to you all for taking the time to make the search. It is a great tribute to Vern's grandfather and our uncle. love, Auntie Anne

Tom said...

Vimy memorial is beautiful. It was a strange mix of pride and sadnesss when you were there. I talked with a Canadian soldier there who was marching from Amsterdam through Belgium and France as part of an anual event. People line the streets and cheer as the Canadians go by even Today. That is nearly 100 years later. Tom