Today has been another busy day … should we expect any less at this point?!
Our first stops of the day were cemeteries to find the soldiers researched by Wesley and Marianne. Wesley’s soldier was his great-grandfather’s cousin, so that was a nice connection to have. Wesley also shared the fact that he has family on both sides of both wars because his mother’s parents came from Germany and they had a farm. During WWII this farm was located beside a sub-camp, and the Nazis brought the family German Shepherds trained to kill anyone escaping the camp and required the family to keep the dogs on their property. Wesley explained how his great-grandparents would lock the dogs up and take potatoes and carrots to the prisoners whenever they could, proving that not all Germans were Nazis and that many Germans did try to work against the Nazi regime. Hollywood tends to depict all Germans as Nazis that blindly supported the regime, so I think it was great for all of us to hear this story to prove that there were Germans who did not support the regime and did what they could to help the people being persecuted by the Nazis. It has only been the past 20 years or so that the Allied nations and Germany have commemorated their war dead together, so it is important for youth to hear these stories so the healing can continue.
Gabriela gave us a great lecture on the German university students and their professors – none of whom were career soldiers – who rushed to enlist in WWI and were killed during the fighting in Belgium. These soldiers are buried in Langemarck, so we spent some time there looking at the headstones and names on the plaques for those who were buried in the mass grave. There are more than three times as many soldiers in this cemetery than there are in the largest Commonwealth cemetery, yet it looks much smaller because each headstone commemorates a minimum of six men, and there are tens of thousands more in the mass grave. This was a very different feeling even from Maison Blanche, and while the rain definitely didn’t help the atmosphere, this is always a stark and somber place to visit.
We paid a quick visit to the church in Messines, where Hitler had been treated when he was wounded as a runner in WWI, and we stopped at the Passchendaele monument where we had a brief discussion about the battle, the land that was taken, the condition of the fields and Canada’s role in this battle.
Since we weren’t able to do the soldiers on Menin Gate last night due to the crowds, we ended our morning in Ypres where Nick and Hannah found their soldiers’ names and paid tribute to them. There is something haunting about standing on the memorial, with the names of 54,000 soldiers who lost their lives in Belgium but were either never found or not identified, written all around you.
After a quick lunch on a monument outside a church – the ground was too wet to sit on after all the rain they’ve been getting here – we joined Steve Douglas, owner of Salient Tours in Ypres, for an intense and busy afternoon. The group saw the mine crater at Hill 60, Tyne Cot Cemetery – the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world with just under 12,000 graves – Essex Farm, where John McCrae’s dressing station was (and where the famous poem, In Flanders Fields, was written), and some trenches down from Hill 62 where we were yesterday that were used during the battle at Passchendaele. We then went out for a pizza supper, which I think was a hit since the restaurant is owned by a Canadian couple so it tastes like pizza back home! Steve also came back to the hostel tonight with a whole bunch of artifacts from his shop so the group could see them and manipulate them. Steve very generously donates his time to us every year, and we greatly appreciate his time!
Tomorrow we are wrapping up the WWI segment of our trip and moving into the WWII battlefields. Internet access there is a bit tricky but I will do my best to post!
Education Coordinator, The Vimy Foundation микрозайм