The day started early, when our flight landed at 9 am local time. We had a brief delay while our intrepid leaders collected the vans (as with any vehicle rental, this was not without its complications), and then we were off – officially under way for the 2016 Canadian Battlefield Tour!
Our first stop was the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Perrone. This was really a new and unique museum experience. Instead of mannequins modelling the uniforms, most were laid out on the floor, many with arms and equipment that the men would have carried. This layout certainly put things in a new perspective. It made it clear that this was not just another war museum – the Historial has a message for visitors. One of the images which has stayed with me all day is the presence of a flute in an exhibit dedicated to the new types of wounds and physical suffering this war inflicted. The flute belonged to Georges Duhamel, a doctor who voluntarily became a surgeon to the armies. The flute is such a personal item, a leisure item, and seems almost out of place in an exhibit discussing war wounds. But this, I think, is the point. These men were people, first and foremost. They were real, they breathed, laughed, fought, and died – and some of these things we were looking at, that we are so privileged to be able to examine at our ease, brought them some small measure of comfort in the horrors they faced every day.
The Historial also offered an exhibit of Otto Dix’s etchings. Otto Dix was a young German who served in World War I and after the war was left with psychological wounds so deep he did not know how to heal them. In the 1920s, he began this extensive collection, transforming the images of the atrocities of war from his tormented mind into the etchings he is best known for today. These etchings are the stuff of nightmares, and you cannot walk away from them without some deeper understanding of what permanent damage the war inflicted.
From Peronne, we continued on to Ypres, and the site of the Canadian war memorial there. I was first struck by the sheer size of the monument itself. It towers over visitors, commanding respect and reverence. Arrows in the stone floor point in the directions of various battlefields, among them Passchendaele, Langemark, and Hooge – just a few of many. We took a minute to let the importance of this place sink in. This monument to the fallen, to the men who withstood the first German gas attack, left me feeling small. It is one thing to read about history, but here it is coming to life for us. How fortunate are we, to be able to stand in this place, free and at liberty to do as we wish. The entries in the guestbook indicate that I am not alone in this sentiment. There was another detail about Ypres which impressed me: the extraordinarily well-kept plants and grass. These men are remembered, and respected, and I for one am humbled to be able to pay my respects.
The final stop on this rather emotional day was a viewing of the ceremony at the Menin Gate. This monument stands in the city itself, and this ceremony takes place every day at 8 pm. One cannot helped but be moved by the buglers, the wreath layers, and the simple knowledge that the walls of this enormous arch are inscribed with the names of men whose final resting place remains unknown – and there are thousands of them. I am certain there will be more detail on this ceremony tomorrow, as three of our own will participate in laying a wreath on behalf of the CBF.
There is much to see and do in the next two weeks, but of this I am certain: we do not take this tour alone. We are guided by the memories of those who never came home, and reassured by the knowledge that they are, always, remembered.