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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Belgium & France trip 2009

NOTE: You can click on the pictures to expand them and have a bigger view.

From Oct 14th to Oct 29th I was in Belgium and France as part of an organized tour visiting sites specific towards Canada's contribution to WW1 and WW2. I also visited a few non world war sites.

Here follows the story of this incredible experience.

The Tour was hosted by Norm Christie, who is a premiere historian on Canada's military history. He's been doing these tours for over 12 years. You might have seen his shows on the History Channel: For King and Empire, For King and Country and In Korea.

Our first stop was a 5 night stay in Ypres, Belgium a city totally destroyed in WW1 as it was within German artillery range for 4 years .

We visited the Menin Gate a memorial dedicated to Commonwealth soldiers who died in WW1 and who's remains were never found, leaving them without a grave. 54,896 names are on the walls (6983 Canadians).

A photo of my attendance at the Last Post Cerermony, my father is in the white jacket. They have the ceremony every night at 20h00 to remember those fallen in WW1, there is always a crowd even during the work week, allot of the locals turn out with their kids, even teenagers come with their friends. This has been occurring since the end of WW1 over 90 years ago.

Names inscribed on the Menin Gate.

During those 4 days we visited numerous WW1 cemeteries around Ypres, know as the Ypres Salient, this area was the bloodiest of WW1 and cemeteries are countless. The major one is Tyne Cot Cemetery which has 11 954 buried Allied soldiers and a memorial to the missing consisting of 33 783 Allied soldiers whose remains were never found. In total 88 679 soldiers are on the Menin Gate and Tyne Cot Memorial as nothing was ever found to identify them.

We visited the town of Passchendale where the bloodiest battles of WW1 occurred, 260 000 Germans died and 300 000 British Commonwealth troops died at the battle for Passchendale. It has a museum and monument commemorating Canada's role at Passchendale (two pictures bellow).

 My father in front of the cube commemorating Canada's role at Passchendale.

A visit to the Brooding Soldier memorial was a must see. The expression on the soldier's face is very striking, you get a real sense of the sadness for the losses of fallen comrades.

Me and my father in the heavy rain that came out of nowhere while visiting the Brooding Soldier, see the wind blowing my dad's head cover on his head. It was important for me to have a picture next to the memorial.

A visit to the biggest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the world: Tyne Cot where 11 954 WW1 Soldiers are buried of which 8367 are unmarked graves. This happened allot in WW1 because of constant shelling a body was often found blown apart and there was noway to identify the remains. This is one of the most visited cemeteries in the world.

All Commonwealth cemeteries around the world are cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, they care for 23 000 burial sites over 150 countries around the world with over 1.7 million dead from WW1 and WW2.

It does not matter the size of the cemetery, the following has just one grave, the soldier was a WW2 bomber pilot who was shot down and his body was recovered in a small village, he was buried by the locals during the war and so they left him at this location.

You will also find Germans buried in Commonwealth cemeteries, both sides showed respect for the dead by giving proper burials to the enemy, you'll find Allied soldiers buried in German cemeteries.

Here is one example, notice the design of tombstone is different.

The French have their own cross design. The headstone in the foreground is a different cross design, the family probably paid for it, I've seen a few other headstones with a different design (less than 5 in over 100000+ headstones I viewed). This is no longer permitted.

NOTE: In the background of this picture you see more German soldiers buried in a Commonwealth cemetery.

I was surprised to see a headstone with Chinese markings, I knew some had fought on our side (Chinese Labor Corps) but for many it was pretty much forced labor and yet if they died respect was shown for their culture.

The headstone bellow shows a Canadian Victoria Cross winner (the symbol at the bottom). Only 1356 have been awarded since the first one in 1856. The medal is the highest possible honor you can receive from the British / Commonwealth military. 94 Canadians received it. As of 1993 Canadians can no longer received this British Victoria Cross as we now have our own, the Canandian Victoria Cross and like the British it is not freely given, no one has yet received the Canadian Victoria Cross.

A WW1 medical facility ( Essex Farm ) on the front lines was restored in the mid 90s, they would be so close to the front that they would get hit by some enemy artillery.

This is the location where Major John McRAE composed his famous In Flanders Field poem.

Inside you would stack as many as 12 beds, you can see small wooden crosses left by frequent visitors.

Close to the facility was a small trench system that was discovered in the 90s, they started to excavate it and found a very big underground area that goes 10 meters deep that was flooded, the water was pumped out and they discovered bodies, as many as over 150 are estimated. It was decided to flood the tunnels again and cease excavation in respect for all the dead, it now serves as a burial site and only the top part is accessible.

Here is another example of how they preserve the memory of war in Europe, this pole was used by the Allies as an execution spot for deserters. All the names of those executed at this location are put on display. Since the psychological factors of war were virtually unknown these soldiers are no longer considered disgraced.

The pole is in the backyard of a business who made it accessible to the general public, it is the original pole that was last used in 1918 for the last man executed.

The town of Ypres is surrounded by a fortification, I walked around and on top, it is very impressive. It was started in the 14th century and the town was completely fortified by the 18th century. A moat was also dug so as to surround the city with water.

This was an exit to a small boat, they have quite a few around the city. If the city was under siege it gave them possible exits to send messengers for communication with the outside.

There is a beautiful little cemetery on top of the fortification named Rampart Cemetery. I think I remember counting 12 Canadians buried at the location out of 193 graves. I found it to be the cemetery with the most beautiful location.

We visited a V2 WW2 Bunker at La Coupole that place is humongous, the size inside cannot be expressed properly. It is 3 story's high inside.

Entrance to the bunker.

The size of the tunnels.

This should give you a feeling of the size, from the entrance to where it shows on the map where I am located when I took the picture it takes about 10 minutes to get there on foot.

Inside I saw something that showed how the Nazi's were pure evil. They were so desperate to eliminate the Jews they even built vehicles with gas tanks on top and would put people in them, turn on the gas and kill them.

A car used to gas people...

We proceeded to a visit the German Todt Battery Museum, a huge WW2 bunker that had a gun who could hit the town of Dover in England across the channel sea.

Inside is a collection of authentic items, a few examples:

German officers uniform, picture of Hitler and mini Nazi Germany flag, all authentic.

The bunker how it looked from the front with the big gun that could reach the UK coast.

Me and my father outside on top of the biggest gun of WW2, the Schwerer Gustav. Only two were built and were moved via railways, this is the only one left.

A pic from the side

Here is a pic of me by a cemetery, look at my feet you will see two unexploded WW1 shells that were found by the farmer, after 90 years you still find tons of stuff. The sign points to another cemetery named Québec.

When we visited a cemetery there was a farm next to it and a WW1 bunker was still there, it is the only one left of 6 that were built in the area by Germany. The other 5 were destroyed after the war and when they got to this one the farmers had already built the farm next to it and were using it as a stall for animals so it was left in place.

The farmer found a very big WW1 unexploded shell in Oct-2009

A visit to John McRae's grave at Wimereux cemetery, he's the one who composed the poem In Flander's Field, the most popular piece of Canadian literature in the world.

A plaque honoring him.

His headstone.

In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below...
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields...
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands, we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields...

The cemetery is the only War Graves Cemetery that the headstones are laid on the ground, this is due to the cemetery being on a sandy hillside.

A private museum in Belgium honoring Canada named Canada Museum. The museum is absolutely amazing, by far the most incredible war museum I have ever seen this is THE must see museum if you are in Belgium. The most amazing thing is he built this all via donations from various collectors in less then a year around 1988.

All the radio equipment is operational. A single one of these sells for over 20 000$.

All the items are original.

This is all original propaganda, there is 3 times more than what is seen here and a single poster can easily go for over 1000$.

All the household items are also original. Did I mention how amazing the museum is? ;-)

 A half day was in Bruges, Belgium for simple leisure. A historic city that is a UNESCO world heritage site. The city has waterways all through the center, it is often referred to "Venice of the north". The city center was never destroyed during the wars and so it is like walking back through time with all the medieval architecture.

The highest point in the center is the tower.

We took a boat ride, it lasts 45 minutes and is definitely a must, the driver gives a history lesson. He did it in 4 languages! (French, English, Dutch and German).

Main Square of Bruges.

Bruges is definitely a must see city if you ever go to Belgium, especially for couples =) .

We visited two German cemeteries, the Langemarck Cemetary has 44 234 soldiers buried. They have plaques on the ground listing the soldiers names that were buried with a few crosses laid out throughout the cemetery.

Their cemeteries have a very dark somber atmosphere.

They have these big plaques with the names of soldiers whose remains were never found, at Langemarck they have 11 813 names of men who never returned home and nothing was ever found of them. Some British cadets can be seen, they had come to pay their respects, the British government now makes it mandatory for school children to have a trip to come and visit graves of both sides.

A close up.

There is a small but very well done memorial to Australian troops in Fromelles, the remnants of bunkers at the location can be seen.

The statue is very touching and my favorite after the Brooding Soldier.

We took a group picture outside a WW1 bunker Hitler visited in WW2. We had a fantastic group, all Canadians from BC (4), Alberta (1), Ontario (16) and Québec (2). It was a great pleasure meeting them.

We followed this by a visit to the Neuve Chapelle Memorial for the British Indian Army's role in WW1, the sad thing is that it is never mentioned in both India and Pakistan because they do not want people visiting it since it has soldier of both nationalities. At that time India and Pakistan were one country, the British eventually separated it in two and made Pakistan a Muslim country and they have been at odds ever since.

The cemetery has a beautiful artwork.

One of the last visits around Ypres was an old fortification where WW2 French resistance people were executed by Nazis.

The plaques show the names of the 200+ that were executed on the pole seen on the right.

After 5 days in and around Ypres we left for Arras, France for a 4 night stay.

Our first day was a visit to the Vimy Memorial. The Canadian National Vimy Memorial is a memorial site in France dedicated to the memory of Canadian Expeditionary Force members killed during the First World War. It also serves as the place of commemoration for First World War Canadian soldiers killed, or presumed dead, in France that have no known grave (11 169). The 250 acre land is given in perpetuity to Canada. It was unveiled in 1936. The battle of Vimy Ridge is what brought Canada international recognition overnight as Canadians had taken the one spot from the Germans that everyone felt was impossobile to do and they did it with a united Canadian force, the first time in the war.

It was a gray day which really added to the atmosphere.

We visited some of the underground at Vimy.

Officers quarters in the Vimy underground, this was luxury...

The Maple Leaf was already a symbol of Canadian pride in WW1, you can see a maple leaf carved in the wall.

This is up top showing some of the preserved trenches, you can partially see the entrance to the underground.

A picture of a German mortar that was left where it was found, it is damaged from being hit by a shell.

Picture of me and my father at the front of the monument.

Me next to the spirit of sacrifice passing the torch.

In the evening I went to the restaurant in front of our hotel where I was told the owner had a dog who roamed freely, being the dog lover I am I could not resist! :-D

He then proceeded to give me a hug. The next day me and my dad had ribs at another place and I brought him all the bones. His expression when he saw the jackpot was priceless.

This bombed out church in a small village has been left as it was after the war as a remembrance to the destruction of war (WW1). It's very impressive.

We visited Beaumont-Hamel park a memorial for Newfoundland troops, they served separate from Canada as they were not part of Canada in WW1. The site is quite big with 74 acres preserved. I had no idea of its existence.

The official symbol of Newfoundland, the Caribou!

Overlooking the battlefield from where the caribou is located. The trenches you see were Allied trenches. The the Germans were located by the first line of trees you see in the back.

The only tree that remains in the park from WW1.

This is the WW1 Lochnagar crater, craters were blown up by soldiers digging mines under the enemy trenches and then packing it with explosives, it was one way to try and blow past enemy trenches, it did not prove as effective as one would think. This one was blown at the same time as 19 others, the total blast of all mines was heard as far away as Dublin in Ireland, the total detonation power was equivalent to Hiroshima's nuclear bomb. The site receives over 75 000 visitors a year. Debris would fly as high as 4000 feet.

I went down the bottom of the crater, see how small people look at the bottom, it is 27 meters deep (90 feet) by 91 meters wide (300 feet).

There is a monument in the village of Pozières commemorating the area were tanks were used for the first time in history, it was on September 15th 1916. 32 tanks were used.

The cap badge the tank corps used is my favorite.

This  cemetery is named Adanac which is Canada spelled backwards.

While in Arras I visited the cities underground, during WW1 over 19km of underground was built under Arras where a total of 24 000 soldiers lived there. The underground went as much as 12 meters deep.

Picture showing soldiers living underground in Arras.

Underground workshop.

As you can see it is very big, they had art from a local artist his designs were original :)

During WW1 Arras was destroyed, only one building survived any damaged.

Arras after WW1.

A picture of the only building left completely intact.
We had a group lunch at the Avril Williams Guest House. In 2001 they excavated a trench system dating back to WW1.

We visited a huge memorial that I had no clue existed, Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. It has the name of 72 090 WW1 Allied soldiers who died and who have no known grave simply because once again no remains were ever found. It is the biggest British battle memorial in the world. It's height is 46 meters or 150 feet.

It was a very foggy day, but I still find it looks impressive in the fog

Here is an aerial picture which gives a good view of its massiveness.

 Near that location we saw a memorial for Irish soldiers of WW1 named the Ulster Tower.

It's not big inside, about 4 meters by 3 meters but it is full of beautiful items.

We departed Arras for Bayeux in Normandy, on the way we stopped at Dieppe to visit the failed Dieppe raid launched by the Allies in August 19th 1942 which was composed mainly of Canadians.

They have a beautiful little park in memory of those who fell at Dieppe named Square du Canada. The square is overlooked by a beautiful 14th century castle named Chateau de Dieppe which is now a museum. A man in his 70s saw the flag on our tour bus and came over to shake my fathers hand and say thank you for Canada's effort in both World Wars.

Me and my father in the Square du Canada.

The biggest bombs dropped from bombers in WW2, 500 pounds.

Overlooking Juno Beach where Canadians landed on D-Day, June 6th 1944.

Here is a classic picture of the troops after they had taken the beach from Nazi Germany, the house was miraculously sparred by Allied bombing. The troops walking together are German prisoners of war on route to England's prison camps.

The house as it stands today, the family who owns the house is the same as in WW2 and they always keep a Canadian flag as a way of saying thank you. They've name it "Canada House". It was an amazing sensation actually being on the same location that so many heroic Canadians marched on for the greater good.

This picture shows how far the soldiers had to march to get to the Germans, I took the photo next to a German bunker, the buoy you see in the water is where the water level was as the troops had to come in at low tide because stick mines prevented the troop transports from coming in at high tide which would have left the troops much closer to shore.

A visit to the Beny-Sur-Mer cemetary where the majority of Canadian soldiers buried are those who fought from D-Day (Jun-6 44) to August 30th 1944 for the Battle of Normandy.

The person pictured with me and my father is Jeff who was our coach driver. He served 20 years in the military in the 70s and 80s as part of the Argylle & Sutherland Highlanders infantry. He dressed in military honors for the day.

The cemetery grounds, they have two towers you can climb to take pictures which enabled me to get a nice overview with the camera.

Part of a bunker that has been preserved with original gun on the beaches of Normandy.

The following are pictures of a point high up that US troops had to take by shooting grappling hooks and climb up with German's firing at them. The US soldiers did manage to take it and the site was preserved.
You can see the event re-enacted in the movie The Longest Day.

I took a picture to give a sense of how high they had to climb, imagine climbing with someone shooting at you from the top... brave is not a word that can define these men.

You can see some of the original barbwire.

Even after being massively bombed by the Allies the Germans simply came out of their underground bunkers unhurt. You can still see all the bomb craters.

Next was a visit to the US cemetery and memorial located right by the beach, it is simply amazing! 9387 US soldiers are buried.

Me and my father.

They made an incredible map showing the Battle of Normandy, look at Norm Christie on the right to get a sense of the size.

On Omaha beach you get a good view of how massive the artificial port was (Mulberry Harbour). It was towed from England, in the water you still see some of the structure.

The Anti Aircraft and Anti Tank Gun German 88, one of Nazi Germany's most feared weapons by the allies in WW2.

The next day we had another leisure type day and our coach driver offered to drive us to what I consider the most incredible historical site in all of France. The world famous Mont Saint-Michel. I can't thank you enough for this one Jeff, very generous of you.


Mont Saint-Michel is on a very small island of 1square km. The population is 41, although 11 residences are now used commercially (restaurants, souvenir shops) of the 30 people who live there 11 are monks who still live in the Abbey. Most of the Abbey is open to the public.

Here is an aerial picture.

At the base of the island.

What used to be the main dining hall.

They have a plaque dedicated to the French-Canadian relationship. The person who presented Jacques Cartier to the king of France on the 8th of May 1532 at the time was the head monk of the Abbey. In 1534 Jacques Cartier claimed Canada in the name of France.

Mont Saint-Michel is a definite must see if you're ever in France.

This was Jeff's reward for taking us to Mont Saint-Michel ;-)

The next day we visited the location of Pegasus bridge, this bridge was taken by commandos on D-Day, they landed in 5 gliders only 40-50 meters away, each glider had 30 men. They completely surprised the Germans and took it within 10 minutes. This was a special moment for our coach driver as his father was one of the men who took part in this mission.

The original bridge was replaced but it was kept as a memorial right next to it's original location, you might have seen the taking of the bridge in the movie: The Longest Day.

One of the gliders on display next to the bridge.

We also visited the small town of Fallaise where the Chateau de Falaise of William 1 of England was built (Guillaume le conquérant in French), they are completely restoring it.

A picture of the keep.

I had to take a picture of this French vehicle, you hope they did not use these tires in WW2 but I was told that indeed they did which kinda defeats the idea of camouflage! =)

A picture of one of the most feared tanks of WW2, the German Tiger Tank.

Here I am hanging from the tanks big gun, not so scary now ;-) .

We stopped at the location Major David Currie was photographed bringing back Germans having convinced them to surrender. His accomplishments led him to being given the Victoria Cross.

Photo showing Major Currie holding a pistol coming back with Germans, he's next to the man in a white shirt.

I am going to finish with what I consider the best picture of the trip and the best picture I've ever taken. It shows Norm Christie our host over looking a cemetery.

It was a foggy morning and just gave the perfect atmosphere.

Overall the trip was more than I expected, Norm was a fantastic guide with a great sense of humor and he knows his military history, every cemetery we visited he would explain why it is located there, usually because of battles fought in the area. His passion for what these men did shines through when he would give us stories of men buried. I saw A LOT more than I ever expected. He's doing two tours next year so if you are interested you can go to his website Oh and he's very patient as he answered my constant barrage of questions with great detail, thanks Norm =) .

It felt great being able to pay my respects to all those who sacrificed their lives or came back forever scarred by the horrors of war so I may enjoy a life of luxury.
Walking in their steps was my way of saying thank you.
Sharing this with my father only made it more memorable.