remembering: passchendaele, flanders and beyond

This was the most impressive war museum I have encountered, the Passchendaele…

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With the underground “communities”, aka sophisticated recreated trench towns, one would think the Allies would be safe, I commented to one of the girls. “Ya, unless there was a bomb. Then the whole thing would implode”, one daughter cleverly quipped.

There were real people that died, but they weren’t just people on the news, people out of reach. They were neighbours and sons and fathers and husbands. And there were weekly pronouncements of the death of them all over the world. Imagine the collective stories, the horrible, aching, depressed stories from trenches and destroyed villages and bombed cities—I’d think that would overwhelm, but I know that the human spirit has a will to overcome and good can come still.

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We had a whiff of the fragrances that gassed many army personnel, both the ones intended to receive them, and the ones that sent them. That’s what happens when the wind changes direction. Are they safe in small concentration? I hope so.

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A costume that looks awful similar to that on the news.

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Naturally, ammunition…

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The somber military personnel…

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And the not-so-somber…

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Many allied countries fought at Passchendaele. I was entranced with the glory of the Canadian board and the Canadian contribution.

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The kids learning SOS and their names in Morse Code…

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The happy soldier…

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Imagine how cold the trenches were… Cold, damp north coastal weather, no dryers to tumble dry the clothes, no open air laundry lines to dry the wool socks.

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I had no idea how many trenches veined their way through Western Europe, till I watched a documentary of something on Netflix. Entire community networks, both Allied and Axis, attempted to divert aerial research in military strategy. On ground, the trenches would have been uncomfortable homes. There were underground bunks, public hallway toilets, a kitchen, even a metalworks room–all attached by underground hallways.

Looks an awful lot like classic African fare. It was what they ate regularly in the trenches…

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We would finish our afternoon at the Flanders’s Field museum, where we’d be museumed up for a good long time. There is just so much World War 1 history that one can jam into one day.

Zach studied the military maneuvers as the lights flashed from one of the geographic zones to the next, indicating ammunition set at precise times against a digital clock. Incredible accounting of history. Jim had a Twitter feed of each day in history reflecting the events of World War 2. There’s no end to reliving those horrific times.

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And for all those Canadians who’ve memorized ‘Flanders’s Fields’: we stopped at the site of John McCrae’s penning of the famous poem. It was situated just outside the military hospital where his friend was said to have died.

The tour guide asked my daughter if we had to memorize this poem in our Canadian school. She looked at me and smiled. Nope. And I grabbed my iPod to write it down in Notes: memorize Flanders’s Fields! A roll of the eyes from my girl, and an amused snicker on the tour guide’s face.

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The Menin Gate where World War 1 troops passed through on their way from Ypres to the battlefields, many to their deaths.

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We had a chance to get some Belgian beer with our lunch, visited the Flanders’s Field museum and stopped for a Belgian waffle with Europe’s most famous topping, giant tubs of Nutella, and saw the magnificently recreated Ypres. Every 1500-built building in town was flattened. Not a home standing. Cloth was sent by sea and recreated as in the old days. I certainly wouldn’t know the difference, but the neighbouring city of Bruges suggests this is Disneyland for Belgium, because not a lick of the town is original.

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In hopes that we’ll never see a Third World War, the final statement in this significant museum…

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I walked down the Flanders’s Fields exit stairs, swathed in light, emotionally illuminated by the remembrances of tragedy, trauma, hard-fought and hard-won military victories at the expense of millions of people’s happy homes.

Each may have lived one story, but many heartaches. The museum spoke of endless gut-sickening stories: woven together, they represent unspeakable, overwhelming awfulness that should never be repeated. But it was. World War 2, only twenty years later.

The League of Nations, the United Nations, American military endeavors around the world–no matter what attempts there may be to gain people’s freedom and safety, there is only one way.

This war wasn’t just the embodiment of suffering. It had a purpose. Of peace. Which the world will never claim entirely. Peace is earned in the individual heart, and awful hard to maintain, a gift from God, learned through great difficulty many days. But strive toward it, we each can choose.

Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me…

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And let us not forget… 




remembering world war 1: on-site in ypres

There’s nothing like a third world experience, a dose of traveler’s diarrhea and malaria, having a military coup an hour away, experiencing airport scanning for Ebola, and visiting World War 1 sites to wake me up to the harshness of this world.

But this is the season to remember. And in remembering the hard things of life, we more sweetly appreciate the joys.

There’s been debate in Canadian media as to whether we should continue to mark this day with holiday status. There’s been a diminished interest of youth in the marking of the day at all. So I asked my resident expert, the husband, what his thoughts were on the significance of remembering world war history.

Remembrance is a worthy endeavor. Millions of soldiers and civilians were casualties of WW1.   However misguided in their militaristic adventures, however unfortunate in their unintended entanglement, they all died directly or indirectly in the pursuit of noble causes.  The war and the post- war negotiations had a cascade of historical impact:  WWII, the political divisions of the Middle East, the rise of fascism and communism sprung from the events and decisions of those years.  In order to go forward with clarity and precision, we must understand the past.  Visiting, learning, and absorbing facilitates wisdom for future decision-making.”

Last week Wednesday, we triple-trained it from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, to Brussels, then to Bruges.

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We were picked up the next morning by a tour guide, and drove forty five minutes to the countryside around Ypres.

Our first stop was at Lange Mark.

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A mass cemetery of 27,000 ‘kindermorten’…fifteen to eighteen year old German boys that were an easy target for the Boer War-seasoned British military veterans. 44,000 Germans are buried there.

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These people died for reasons that weren’t well understood in a military-strategist’s eyes. But the battle played out for years on this flat land.

This location would set the scene for a return battle in World War 2 as Adolph Hitler fought and was injured here in World War 1 and believed it imperative that he conquer Ypres.

Names of those buried in this grave…

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Each of these grave markers have seven men buried, one on top of another.

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Our next stop was to St. Juliaan to visit the Brooding Soldier monument — the second Battle of Ypres.

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Four years, four battles in this sector. In the second battle, tanks of chemical warfare were sent with the westerly wind toward the Allies. That backfired. The wind changed direction and the mustard gas killed many Germans.

On this site, all the soil, stones, gravel and trees were contributed by the Canadian government.

In the stand is a Canadian guest book where we wrote our names and hometown.

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Madelyn pored over a laminated letter written by a fellow Canadian to her grandfather, who was memorialized at this site.

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Sad, very sad, so sad”.  We’d hear this repeated every time we stopped at another location. I even heard muttered from the eleven year old, “May you rest in peace”. Indeed, rest in peace.

I’d switch back and forth between iPod and camera because both had low charge, attaching them to my computer sitting on my lap between stops. But there wasn’t much time between because the locations, though discussed in separate battles, separate account, separate books, were actually very close, perhaps a few miles apart, so I didn’t have much time.

We stopped at the largest British military cemetery on European mainland, the Tyne Cot cemetery. A soft, young female voice read the names of the military personnel buried at this site, photos flashing as Zach watched mesmerized.

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35, 000 MIA soldier’s names were inscripted on the surrounding wall.

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There were many named too, and King George of England acknowledged them each.

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Touching letters from wife to husband were maintained for our viewing. I can only imagine…

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And the letters she would receive would break her heart…

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This private was buried by his fellow soldiers in September 1917, believed to be dead. His friends unburied him because they didn’t believe he was dead. He wasn’t.

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But on the ninth of October he would die as he came out of the trenches to use the latrine.

Being sent a letter of your son’s death in war must have been heartbreaking…

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I found this story especially interesting, as the fellow’s last name is a family name, Young.

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Interesting to me is the resemblance of the young man to a cousin of mine.

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Imagine never receiving a letter of regret, but never knowing whatever happened to your husband…

A melted gas mask…

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Summer of 1917 was known as the “Big Push”. Not much had happened for a year, Germans sitting on one side and the Allies on the other, and attempts at taking Ypres failed. But the Third Battle of Ypres, well known as Passchendaele, with its flooded field of clay muck, would be the hardest won.

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Here it is in present day, recently harvested of canola…

Tomorrow, I will continue remembering as I trek through one of the most impressive museums I’ve walked through, called the Passchendaele.


planes, trains & automobiles–turning intense travel into overdrive

I’m kinda sad this adventure is coming to an end—but I might be too tired to feel feelings anymore, so I think I’ll make it.

I’ll relish in the lessons I’ve been taught—about gratitude, not filling my days with meaningless stuff, like doing too much and cleaning (at the end of a trip, I’m always ready to hire a housekeeper) and trying to be someone other than who I actually am. Travel, aka being away from who I think I’m supposed to be, to having time with myself to figure out who I actually am, helps to bring life into better focus. Travel in the third world does something I can’t fully put into words, but gratitude and sharing come to mind.

Since I am developing a pressure sore on my back, I’d say it was time to call the travel time. Planes, trains and automobiles—all in a 48 hour period. Whew! We know how to stretch the kids and jam our schedules full.

The Belgian countryside was akin to that stretch between Chilliwack and Abbotsford, British Columbia, but more pastoral, architecturally older, and dotted with robust, brie-producing, edam-producing, gouda-producing cows. The kids can refill their empty dairy tanks.

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Oh, you think we were in the Netherlands? Right, right. We did fly in from Ghana a couple days ago. But we took a breather long enough to gear ourselves for say, twelve hours or so, and trained it to Belgium. Amsterdam to Antwerp to I forget to Bruges. Yup, that would be three trains with a one hour layover.

No Belgian waffles for breakfast. Instead the kids saw one of the most unique and luxurious breakfasts they might ever see. Proscuitto, brie, Nutella, chocolate croissants and pate. “What’s pate”, Rachel asked. Hannah pipes up: “It’s kinda like spam, but only good”. “What’s spam?” Rachel asks. “I don’t know, pretend meat from a can”. We’re a family that doesn’t do spam, but doesn’t do pate…

Madelyn pulled out her English accent to formalize her behavior. Ya, you’re right, we’re in Belgium, not Britain. They’re either Flemish or French, not English. Kind of hard to resist when the packed dining room is as silent as a library. I suppose my four could have stopped talking altogether, but…we’re a family that doesn’t do rollicking laughter, but doesn’t do silence… So serene was the environment that I declined my tourist food selfie.

A canal cruise through this tiny ‘Amsterdam’, table d’hote for 80 euros, Belgian chocolate boutiques. Bruges doesn’t see a lot of kiddos. We were .2 km from one of the most famous Belgian chocolatiers in the world… Disneyland for premenstrual forty year olds. Bruges is so charming, so romantic that the next time we head here, it will be minus four little people.

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No matter. We weren’t here for long. After we’d settled in our new room for nine hours, we were picked up for a forty five minute ride into Ypres, famous for its World War 1 four long year battle.

We listened to Jim and the tour guide talk about FIFA and cow C-sections and Canadian politics. We learned that our tour guide grew up in Ypres. When I asked him if he was a world war history buff, he responded, “Of course”. What was I thinking? A tour guide. From Ypres.

Today would be the day that I could fully explain to Zach why the world war really started. He spontaneously asked me a few months ago. “I dunno. A guy named Archduke Ferdinand something something was shot”. Apparently that wasn’t enough of an explanation.

I would actually think that my husband’s world war history prowess would be genetically delivered. This day was cool for Zach, but Disneyland for Jim. And it was a delight to share it with him. Who knew that all that grade twelve history stuff, that I thoroughly ignored a few years ago, would surface as one of my husband-to-be’s favourite topics. Ida never guessed.

It was a day of stopping and starting, more museums than even I could take in. But profoundly affecting. From Lange mark, Passchendaele, Flanders’s Fields, Ypres, the Brooding Soldier and John McCrae, we have covered the Belgian front.

We did get those Belgian waffles—those sticky sweet grids smeared with Nutella.

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We tried a Belgian beer with lunch.

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And we did find a chocolate shop.

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Then we took a three hour taxi ride ‘home’…

With Remembrance Day just around the corner, I will save the fantastic Ypres tour for next week.

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Follow me over to my regularly scheduled blog, some time next week, after I’ve recovered from jetlag.

So now that we’re thoroughly blitzed (ha, no, this wasn’t site of the Blitzkrieg), we are heading to Schiphol for a nine hour return flight to Canada tomorrow morning. Planes, trains and automobiles, and planes again…