Today was the first official day of the tour. We landed at the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, and after a long wait in the terminal, we departed. Most of us fought off sleep as the tour commenced. The dense city of Paris opened up into the sprawling countryside as our vans followed their paths out towards Belgium. Small villages dotted the landscape, intermingled with pockets of trees. It was a gorgeous site to take in, especially for someone like myself who has had no experience outside of North America. The beauty of the landscapes shared their space with the objects placed by man. The tight streets and old buildings characteristic of the region were actually replicas of structures lost long ago. The Two World Wars had taken their toll on this region, though it seemed barely visible at this point in time. As far as I knew, the area had been restored to pre-war conditions. As we drove further out of the city, we were faced with dismal reminders of the cost of conflict. Nearly every village we passed had at least one memorial to commemorate the fallen as well as the headstones to mark their final resting place. In the recesses of my imagination, the beautiful French and Belgium landscapes gave way to war-torn soil as the lush green grass turned to thick mud. The rolling hills became trenches tens of kilometres long with layers upon layers of debris, razor wire, and a variety of guns and defensive structures. I could picture it now: the grisly scenes of men, some no older than I, climbing over the tops of trenches, sprinting with their weapons drawn to face the enemy. As the casualties were read out to us, the horrors of attritional warfare became so much clearer. As part of our first day on the road, we visited the Brooding Soldier, a museum in Peronne, the Menin gate ceremony, and the place of the second battle of Ypres. Although the tour was fairly lighthearted as we visited monuments and museums and sampled delicious cuisine, the images of the war stuck with me. Every step I took today was preceded by that of a soldier marching to war. I feel that this imagery is going to set the tone for the entirety of this trip as we attempt to revive the sacrifices made on this blood-soaked soil.
Emilio G. Caputo