Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Flander's Fields the Poppies Grow

Today is Veteran's Day in the States and Remembrance Day here in Canada. I didn't want to let this day past without posting my annual tribute to men and women everywhere that serve their country. To them we owe a debt of gratitude.

Several years ago, while studying in Paris, I had the opportunity to visit Flander's Fields in Belgium. That day will forever lay etched in my memory. It forever changed the way I think of Remembrance Day.

In honour of the occasion I would like to re-post the blog entry I wrote at the time. It's long but I do hope you will take the time to read it . . . even if Blogger completely decided to mangle my spacing.
Dear Faithful Readers:
In the last week I have managed to fall behind on my blog writing. That is because so much has been going on around here: including some bouts of illness, lots of school work, Bastille Day celebrations, and a trip to Vaux-le-Vicomte.

I will write about all of those things. But before I do so it is of vital importance to me that I write about my trip to Flanders Fields (the battlefields of World War I). It was at once an incredibly fascinating day and a horrifying one . . . .
I awoke on Sunday morning with the initial idea of going to take an early morning walk around the city. I am very much the shutter bug and Ididn't want to leave without taking more pictures. In the end, however, I decided that I would simply have to come back to Bruges another time -- and I headed down to breakfast. Let me tell you the spread was fantastic! There was coffee, tea, hot chocolate, milk, juice, various cold cuts, various cheeses, a multitude of fresh baked breads . . . it went on and on. Despite my weak stomach I decided to give the meal a go. It was super yummy and managed to tithe me over until my late lunch.
Very promptly I got my things in order and headed towards the check-out desk. Once the business side of things was taken over I walked approx. five minutes for my scheduled bus pick-up. I would be embarking on a Quasimodo tour of Flanders Fields( This was a trip that came highly recommended by a friend of mine and I was determined not to miss it!
Truth be told I wasn't really sure what to expect. When the bus came to get us, we discovered that in our small group of about 30 there were only 3 Brits and 2 Kiwis. Everyone else was either Australian or Canadian. I should stop at this point and say that I have never had any relatives who have fought in any wars. Indeed, I call myself  "A Canadian in Paris" but my blood isn't Canadian. My heart however is. And even so I wonder if I could ever come close to experiencing the feelings of some of my trip-mates.
Our group was guided by this lovely woman named Sharon. She proved to be very informative and seemed genuinely interested about what she was discussing. A true asset to my experience.
We began the trip with an approximately 30 min. drive from Bruges through the Flemish country side. There was to be no narration during that portion. This of course gave me the opportunity to admire the tranquility of the Flemish countryside. A notable observation given what we would learn later on in the day.
Soon thenarration started and my admiration for the Belgian people began. We were told
by our tour guide that as a result of the war not a single tree was left standing on the Flemish country-side. And most of the people fled. In fact, the majority of Belgians spent the war in refugee camps just outside of Paris. It wasn't until the mid-20s that they came back to their homes. At first there was nowhere for them to live. Their homes had been destroyed. There was nothing. Sothey lived in the only structures that were left standing -- the wartime bunkers. Eventually though, the determined Belgian people began to rebuild. And what was the first thing they reconstructed? The village church. The Belgians were a very religious people and the church was at the heart of their community. I can only imagine how they must have felt, living in a war-torn land and making clay bricks out of the local soil and rebuilding the Church brick by brick -- on the foundations of the original one. Even the non-religious had to admit that in and of itself that one act was a tremendous stand for hope and faith forbrighter days ahead.
Armed with this new information we continued on with our tour. It was at this point that at the side of the road I saw my first WWI cemetery. It is one thing to see it on television and quite another to see it in person. Nothing could have prepared me for the devastating site of those white-washed tomb stones, row upon row, appearing out of nowhere. It was a small cemetery at that but the impact was nonetheless tremendous. I will fully confess that I had to fight back tears. There in the midst of that small country, lies a permanent reminder of the ravages war and the countless lives that it destroys.
Whilst I was absorbing the shock of seeing the cemetery, Sharon continued to tell us stories of Passiondale Ridge. The area near where we were driving. She explained that it was 56metres above sea level and thus was of vital strategic importance in flat Belgium. As such, the Germans and the British Commonwealth forces fought for control over it for much of the war. It was important not only as higher ground but because whoever controlled Passiondale Ridge could easily control the city of Ypres. And if Ypres fell the Germans could easily reach Calais (in France) from where the White Cliffs of Dover where only 35km away. The importance of the entire area of Flanders was evident. So the two sides fought for four long years. And they died. So many of them died. Of those dead only 1/3rd of the bodies were ever identified. Even today 1/4 million bodies lay buried under the tranquil farm fields of Flanders.
Relations in between the two-sides were not always so strained though. Whilst Sharon was describing the area filled with trenches she told us of the events of Christmas morning 1914. On that day the British and the German troops met on "no man's land" (the area between the trenches) and shared Christmas together. They sang Christmas carols and exchanged holiday wishes. That was obviously the last time anything of that nature took place. Soon both sides realized that soldiers were more likely to desert if they knew the face of their enemy. Moreover, the next year the war had become so horrible that both sides grew to hate each other.
It was this melancholic tale that brought us to our first memorial -- fittingly a Canadian one. It was a single long column, made of what appeared to be granite. It stands alone in the middle of Flanders. On the top is a sculpture of a bust of a Canadian soldier. He is bowing his head and facing west -- towards Canada. The column is there because it marks the spot where 18,000 Canadians withstood the first German gas attacks on 22-24th of April, 1915. Of those men, 2,000 fell and lay buried nearby. It was a single solitary tribute -- standing in stark reminders of the events of the previous century -- in the midst of the otherwise peaceful landscape.
It was at this tribute where I took my favourite photo of the trip. At the base of the column was a carefully laid wreath. You could tell it had been there for a while and was slightly the worse for the wear. Nonetheless, its green leaves, red poppies, and red ribbon sash were plainly evident. But what caught my attention was a small pin that had been attached to the red sash. It was a small metallic pin with the flags of Canada and Germany beside each other. This was a moving tribute to forgiveness and the possibility of change for the better.
As we continued on, Sharon showed to us some very obvious examples of left over shells by the side of the road. Apparently, even today there are 4-5 deaths every year, in the area, from unexploded WWI shells going off. This to me was horrifying. For some reason I had always though of the WWI battlefields as something that in the present day was sanitized. But for the people of the area the terrible events of 1914-1918 are still a vivid part of their every day lives. Whilst we were driving through one particular farm, Sharon, recounted the tale of her friend who lived there. She told us of the gentleman that lives there: a couple of years ago he became very suspicious when his crops did very poorly. He began exploring and found a couple of shells. And so, following government instructions, he notified the army. They arrived and found 600 shells in his small farm alone!! The Belgian army, to this day, continues the task of destroying WWI remnants. They have at this moment enough work to last them an entire lifetime. But it is not only shells that are found in the farms. The clay soil of the area acts to preserve very well the bodies of WWI dead. Those are often, also, found and when enough are collected they are given a proper military burial at one of the nearby cemeteries. And that was
where we were headed next . . .
After driving for several minutes our bus stopped in front of Tyne Cot Cemetery -- the largest Commonwealth burial site in all of Belgium. If the site of the initial cemetery had shocked me -- this one was mind-numbing in proportion. We were given half an hour to wander the site. I took off amongst the rows and rows and rows and rows of tomb stones. Lying there are young men -- most around my age at the time they died. They were Canadian, British, Kiwis, Australian . . . they came from all corners of the world, with their youth and idealism and died in a desolate land far from home and those they loved. And those that lie buried there make up only a small percentage of the war dead.
Along the backside of the cemetery there is a wall that has a partial list of names. Those names belong to those whose bodies were never found. Whose families never had the finality of a burial or a tomb stone to visit. I walked and Iwalked and I couldn't help but think of the poem "In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses row and row." Never had the scale of the impact of the war been as palpable to me as it was in that very moment. There were crosses left at tomb stones with "In Remembrance" written on them. There was one in particular that caught my attention: it was wooden, clearly home-made, and clearly old. On it was etched "In loving Memory of Michael T. Dallimore." There were also the Canadian flags left at the graves of my country's native sons. And lastly, but equally moving the small rocks of remembrance placed on the top of the Jewish tomb stones.
I left the cemetery genuinely moved, fascinated, and torn apart all at once. But because of my particular situation in life what Sharon told us next really brought the point home for me. She said that a lot of young men enlisted in the war effort believing that it would be short lived. They knew if they enrolled they could go over to Flanders -- which was near France. Their hope was that at the end of the war they could visit Paris. Because they all wanted to visit Paris. It is in reference to these young men that the term "backpacker" was created. I am young and of the age of those men at the time they died. I am blessed and I know it. I am now in the midst of my second extended stay in the city of lights. I did not have to enlist in any war effort to come here.
How often we take our lives for granted. How often we overlook the blessings that are given to us . . .
This entry has been difficult to write but I can not end it without sharing with you the tale of one of my tour-mates. It was a family of four Australians who made a special request to visit Bedford House Cemetery. They wanted to visit the tomb of one of their war dead. Our tour guide gladly obliged and took them where they requested. They walked straight to the tomb stone of what turned out to be the grand-father of the mother of the family. Her mother had been only a couple of months old when he died. And they, on the 10th of July 2005, were the first of his descendants to ever visit his grave. They smiled and took pictures. Happy to
have finally visited the tomb of the man of whom they had heard so much about! I asked the tour guide if all visitors to tombs took it as well as this group. She answered "no." And shared that about two weeks earlier a very elderly couple, also Australian, had asked to be taken to the tomb stone of that lady's grand-father. They wept endlessly at his grave. They too were the first to visit his burial place. The elderly lady, however, had brought something special: she had smuggled-in from Australia a piece of eucalyptus and had attached it to a poppy. A symbol of home to stay forever at the tomb of her grand-father.
The events of my day in Flanders, and in particular the tale of those dear Australians calls to mind a poem that I have loved for many years. It is called "The Soldier" and was written by Rupert Brooke:

"If should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.
There shall be
In that earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts of peace, under an English heaven."

In remembrance,
A Canadian in Paris


Jocelyn said...

Really a great post!

A Toronto girl out West said...


Thank-you. I am genuinely thrilled you enjoyed it! :o)