PASSCHENDAELE 100 YEARS ON.

A month ago Mackenzie called me to say that he had been selected by his command staff to represent the Royal Canadian Artillery at Gagetown Garrison, New Brunswick by joining the Canadian Army ceremonial contingent to march in Flanders marking the 100 year anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele.  Mac was very excited and I could tell from his voice that he was very proud to do so.  These next few posts will describe my journey to be there to witness it.

When on the road I try to post to my blog everyday for obvious reasons. Everyday is a full one and with those experiences come anecdotes of all shapes and sizes. I have unfortunately started behind the 8 ball being two days into my trip already.

This journey began with 26 hours of connecting flights. Short stops in Seattle, Reykjavik Iceland, London Gatwick, CDG Airport north of Paris and finally here to Flanders Fields in Southern Belgium.

In many ways this trip has been journey of many firsts for me. I have flown over Iceland numerous times but Thursday Morning was my first of two stops in the next two weeks. On this stop I saw no more than the Airport but on my return leg I look forward to spending a week exploring as much of the country as I can.

I can say without hesitation that I thoroughly enjoyed the service and comfort aboard Icelandair and their Boing 757. I splurged on this trip and sat up front in “Saga” class. The flight attendants were excellent and the wide leather seats were fabulous.

My third Stop in London was just long enough to grab a couple of ploughman’s sandwiches from Boots and then hustle to gate 557 to hop on my EasyJet (with speedy boarding) for Charles De’ Gaulle just north of Paris. I was greeted in Paris by an unbelievable golden sun just setting on the horizon. I pit stopped at Hertz and picked up my Opel Mokka.

With little sleep but a second wind I drove northwest with the setting sun on my left shoulder for Lille on the French / Belgian border. I am staying at the Holiday Inn here and as expected everything is modern, clean and my French hosts are gracious. I popped into my room to drop my bags and double timed it down to the bar where Francois met me with a large and very cold Heineken and a small bowl of nuts.  I ordered a  bar meal and thoroughly enjoyed every bite. I soon finished and left for my room and almost immediately fell asleep.

My plan was to get back at it in a few hours with a drive to Passchendaele for tomorrow’s ceremony at Tyne Cot Cemetery. I woke relatively rested and jumped in the car at 7:30. I was in the car for about 45 minutes before reaching the area. Now came the chore of finding a place to park while negotiating all the police check points who were relentless in securing the area for the Canadian Soldiers and visitors alike.

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I found a spot around two kilometers away and began the journey back to the cemetery . I was soon joined by a Dutch Couple and their golden lab Bruce. Bruce is named after Bruce Springstein and for today’s occasion he was wearing many poppy’s on his halter and leash. I had a lovely conversation with the couple on the way. They told me that they support the Canadian Soldiers at every event in Flanders out of respect for what they did to liberate Holland in WWII. I was amazed by what they knew about Canadian Military History and Canada itself even though they had never visited.

We arrived in time and took position in an area away from the dignitaries, but close enough to see the Canadian Soldiers when they march in to take their place along side the Canadian Band. This is the first time I have seen my eldest son Mackenzie in uniform since his basic training graduation.

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Spoiler alert, I am going to use the phrase “a rush of emotion” many times over the next few posts.  I will go on to articulate how this trip has been prideful and very very humbling. Although I could’nt see them from where I was standing the silence was broken by the Canadian pipers as they filled their bags and soon after began to play outside the 15’ stone walls of the cemetery.

Within a minute or so I caught my first glimpse of the Canadian pipers.  The sound was chilling as they entered Tyne Cot and its 12000 Commonwealth graves.  After the pipers came the band and they were followed by the contingent of Canadian Soldiers.  Mackenzie stood in the front row as right marker.

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It was hard to keep the tears back as I watched the Canadians come to attention in formation adjacent to the dignitaries of the day.  The ceremony was 90 minutes long and as I watched intently not one Canadian moved while at attention.  You know pride when you see it.  These young soldiers had enough to share it around with the hundreds of people in attendance.  Many attendees spoke during the ceremony.  A Canadian indigenous drum band played.  Veterans from WWII made very moving commentaries on what it means to be a Canadian soldier.  What I failed to mention earlier is that the rain was coming down sideways and the temperature had dropped.

At the conclusion of the of the ceremony I was able to connect with Mac and we toured the cemetary and talked about his trip so far.  Earlier I mentioned there are 12000 graves in Tyne Cot.  My guess is that half of the graves are unnamed as the fallen were wearing Commonwealth uniforms when their bodies were collected but alas they were unable to identify them by name.  This number is over shadowed by the 64000 names that are chissled into the walls here as missing and presumed dead.

It was nice to spend time with Mac and I got to meet one or two of his comrades along the way.  Mac asked if I would attend the ceremony in Passchendaele this evening at the Canadian Memorial.  I wouldn’t miss it for the world.  We parted company as the Canadians return to a nearby Belgian armoury to have lunch and take a well deserved break.

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I returned to my car and also took a break.  I later drove into Passchendaele and parked near the church yard in the center of town.  I went to a local bakery and picked up a sandwich and a bottle of water.  I grabbed my camera bag and took off to explore the town.  Some time later I arrived quite by accident at the Canadian memorial.  There was one young family and me.  I took some photographs and wandered about reading the inscriptions on the cenotaph.  About 5 minutes later I was approached by a Belgian man in his early 60’s who had the energy of a child.  He greeted me in English and asked if I knew about tonight’s ceremony.  We chatted for a while and I learned that he was the organizer of the event and had done so for the last 13 years in a row.  I thanked him very much for what he does.  He replied that this was simply his honour.  He does this for Canadians because of what the Canadians had done for his grandparents and parents and the town of Passendaele.  He will continue to do so for as long as he can.

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With another little tear in my eye I walked back to the center of town and entered a little roadside bar.  I stooped to enter the door and to my surprise I was met by a family of thirteen from Saskatchewan.  A grandfather had brought his kids and their kids to witness the 100 years anniversary of the Canadians taking this town back for its townsfolk.  We chatted for a while and then my attention turned to the bartender.  I ordered a cup of strong Belgian coffee.  It arrived soon after but so did the jeers of an older Belgian gentleman across the bar from me.  He asked where I was from.  I told him.  He asked why I had come.  I told him about Mac.  A second later he commanded the bartender in Flemish to get me a local Passchendaele beer and he dug into his pockets to pay.  I rounded the horseshoe bar and shook his hand and thanked him very much for his kindness.

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The next person in the door was a man that joined me at the bar. We got to talking soon after and he told me he was visiting from the Island of Jersey in the English Channel.  He went on to say that weeks before he was able to track down the military records of his great grandfather who left Jersey prior to the Great War to emigrate to Winnipeg.  At the beginning of the war he joined the Canadian Army and returned to Europe to fight.  During his first deployment with the Canadians he was one of very few that lived.  He was returned to London where he received his commission and returned to France and Belgium to fight at Passchendaele.  Once again he was one of the lucky ones who returned home.  It was just in the last week that the man with whom I spoke had found a picture of his great grandfather in uniform standing outside Buckingham Palace as a result of searching records at the Canadian War museum in Ottawa.

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We left together to walk back to Canada Gate monument.  We both stood together throughout. We walked back in the procession of torches to the town square following the Canadian Soldiers as they paid tribute to those who went before them to capture the town square from the Germans.  An unbelievably emotional day!

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