SSNS Home > Senior Years > Curricula 9-12 > Grade 11 > Canadian History > Battlefields Tour > 14 July 2010
We started the day at Essex Farm Cemetery north of Ypres, where John McCrae composed “In Flanders Field” in honour of a fallen comrade. After a brief orientation by Lee on the 2nd Battle of Ypres, we toured the cemetery. It is one of many that are meticulously maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We were not alone. While we were taking picture, a busload of school children and their teachers arrived from England, doing their bit to keep the upcoming generation aware of what happened here.
From this peaceful spot, we travelled east to Zonnebeke, where we stopped briefly to purchase our lunches. Then we drove northwest through farm fields to a ridge that the 1st Canadian Division held on 22 April 1915. From here we could see the enemy line, which was along the edge of an onion field that sloped gently to the north. In the distance beyond was a village, Poelkapelle, if I remember correctly. Behind us was a gentle slope (covered with potatoes now) reaching back down toward Ypres. This is where the Canadian artillery was located. Lee gave us our first lesson on the importance of geography while we were here. From their vantage point on the top of the ridge, the Canadians could see what the enemy was doing, then pass this information down to the artillery men behind them (they couldn’t see the enemy), who then directed their fire accordingly. After their gas attack, the Germans moved forward from the left, pushing the French and Algerians back nearly to the Canadian lines. Here they regrouped and continued to fight. A Canadian four-gun artillery barrage, taking its cue from observers on the top of the ridge, stopped the German advance in its tracks at this point and prevented Ypres from falling. This battle has often been described as a defeat, but in fact the territorial gains the enemy made cost thousands of German lives. As Lee explained, victory in WWI isn’t as much about ground gained as it is about killing the enemy, thereby weakening it through attrition for the final blow.
Our next stop was the Brooding Soldier Monument at Vancouver Corner on the northeast outskirts of St. Julien. It had a big impact on me personally. It’s a little off the beaten path, and it is not nearly as well known as Vimy or Menin. Maybe that is why I felt the loneliness, the vulnerability, and indeed the isolation that the soldiers on all sides must have felt during those dark times. This brooding soldier, with head bowed in stoic surrender to the forces around him, meant that for me. No other WWI monument affected me the same way.
After a brief lecture by Lee on the importance of 2nd Ypres, we moved on to Passchendaele. I wanted to see this place because my great uncle died near here on October 30, 1717. We had lunch in the village square, and I marveled at how Passchendaele had been resurrected from total ruin. One would never think that a major battlefield existed here. That impression continued as we moved to the Passchendaele monument, which is on a ridge at the western edge of the town. The only reminder of the battle was the rain, which started to come down as Lee gave us details about this operation. From the height of the ridge, I was able to look at the valley into which the PPCLI moved on October 30, and where my uncle met his fate. It was a melancholy few moments.
The rain continued as we travelled on to the Menin Road South Cemetery in Ypres, where Diane Rabel gave her presentation in a downpour. We could not do a rubbing of the grave markers of her soldier and his friend, but I was able to do that for her, when I went back to Ypres with my family in August. After her presentation, we drove to Arras, stopping along the way at Lapugnoy Military Cemetery, where Karen Wentzell did a presentation on her soldier. It is a beautiful cemetery in an out-of-the way spot surrounded by rolling fields and bluffs of trees. At the far end of this cemetery, we saw a German grave not more than a few paces from a Jewish one, which rather underscored the pointlessness of WWII. From there we travelled south to Arras and settled in at the Ibis Hotel just off the main square. Before supper, we met and discussed a couple of questions relating to our experience, then dispersed for the evening. It had been a very long, but rewarding day.