Sunday, June 7, 2015

On the Trail of the Great Wars - Belgium & France

It has been 100 years since the Great War in Europe where thousands of our Canadian soldiers died in the name of freedom and democracy. This spring a small group of guests equipped with war stories  from their grandfathers or fathers set off on a one week visit of the memorial sites of WWI and WWII on the battle fields of Belgium and France.
We started off on a lighter note – beer, chocolate and fries in Brugge, a small town dating back to the 14th century which, miraculously was untouched by either war! What fun wandering the cobblestone streets, climbing the 366 steps to the Belfy Tower for a magnificent view and staying in the quaint Hotel Groeninghe with host Laurence. Did you know that Belgium produces over 400 kinds of beer ! –yes we tried to taste them all!
Early the next morning we had to defog our brain cells as we set off on our quest to relive the lives of our soldiers.  In Belgium we concentrated our efforts on WWI.  Our first surprise was discovering the Atlantikwall,  a German Battery just outside of Oostend  which was built for WWI to protect Belgium from the invasion of the Brits and then refitted by the Nazis for the same purpose in WWII. Amazingly we wandered through bunkers, armory storage units and past artillery guns for 2 hours!! . A real” diamond in the rough” as the guests commented.
On to Ypres, Belgium.This town was flattened in WWI and the citizens rebuilt it to the original – amazing feat!  We checked into our family run Hotel Ambrosia before attending the Last Post at the Menin Gate at 8pm sharp. This was followed by a quiet moment strolling by the names of thousands of soldiers lost in the war, bodies never recovered. The Flander’s Museum in the centre of town is housed in the rebuilt Cloth Hall – again a vivid explanation of the Great War.
Driving in Belgium is not easy!!! After all who understands Flemish??? It was quite the challenge for me at the helm and Dez in the navigator’s seat! Nice thing about roundabouts, you can go around as many times as you like!!  However, on our excursion  we managed to find the monument “The Brooding Soldier”, Tyncot cemetery and the Passchendaele museum in Zonnebeke, a somber drive through the countryside once decimated by bombs craters, trenches, and fallen soldiers. The culmination to our WWI circuit was the fabulous monument at Vimy Ridge, Canadian soil as they took the ridge on April 9, 1917 and helped change the course of the war.
Switching wars was a challenge for the head as we headed off to Dieppe where the Canadians played a vital role in the “raid”, most losing their lives! M Jaspart welcomed us to the Operation Jubilee Canadian War Memorial and was overcome with emotion for the sacrifice the Canadians made to the liberation of France!  Carol located the beret of soldier of the South Sask. Regiment, the only uniform they are missing in their grand collection of artifacts. 

From the defeat in Dieppe to the huge success on June 6, 1994 on the beaches of Normandy, we understood its significance.  Juno Beach, where the Canadians land , Dez’s grandfather for one, portrayed the D Day landings with videos real footage of our Canadian Soldiers! A happier end to this story compared to Dieppe!

Yes, our brains were full of war details and after 5 days were tired of reading, but what an insight to this aspect of Canadian history! 

Lest We Forget!