The price of liberty

Most evenings, the cafés lining Ieper’s main square begin to empty about 7:30 p.m. Tourists – British, Canadian and Australian – drift across the square in the shadow of the Belgian town’s famous Cloth Hall. They gather quietly a block or so away beneath the arch of the Menin Gate, the British war monument honouring the 55,000 soldiers of the Empire, including 6,940 Canadians, who died in the first three years of the First World War and have no known grave.

Traffic through the gate stops and at 8 p.m., members of Ieper’s fire brigade play the haunting “Last Post.” Except for the years of Nazi occupation during the Second World War, the ceremony has been held every night since Nov. 11, 1929.

Ieper rose from the flattened rubble of Ypres (waggishly called “Wipers” by British soldiers) soon after the First World War ended. Artillery fire had slammed the town for four years as the front bulged in a wavering “salient” from 11 kilometres to two kilometres around it. A movement backed by Winston Churchill wanted to preserve its ruined centre as “holy ground,” but citizens balked. Britain built the Menin Gate instead, inaugurating it in927. By the 1930s, much of the town had been rebuilt in its original medieval and renaissance Flemish style. Today, visitors are often astonished to learn the cathedral and great Gothic Cloth Hall are less than a century old.

Not long after the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice, Belgians and soldiers’ relatives anxious to see the battle-scarred landscape and honour their dead began arriving at Ieper. Nearly 90 years later, that curiosity and reverence has, if anything, increased.

Passion for history turns to tours
Marilyn Minnes of Ottawa fell under the compelling spell of these European battle sites while teaching in Germany for Canada’s Department of National Defence. A friend, whose father had fought in the Great War at Hill 62 five kilometres from Ieper, took her on a tour of the area. At Hill 62, they read aloud a book detailing his regiment’s ordeal there. It was such a vivid experience Minnes vowed to bring other people once she retired. By April 2000, her first tour was underway.

Our excursion begins in Ieper, Belgium, scant miles from the field station where Canadian brigade-surgeon John McCrae wrote his famous poem, In Flanders Fields. For a week, we will trace the action of Canadian troops in the First World War through the Flanders area in Belgium and France and then spend a second week in Normandy, France, visiting Second World War sites. Minnes prefers the flexibility and intimacy of small groups travelling in a comfortable nine-person van. A military historian does double duty as driver and provides daily or on-the-spot lectures on military action.

Tracking the Great War
Our group is amazed by the maps covering the Western Front and Normandy Minnes has bought from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). Coloured dots, each representing a cemetery, spill down the paper in confetti-like clusters along the battle lines. The British policy of not repatriating dead soldiers sends a message. This is the cost of war: a generation of talent and productivity gone, their survivors shattered and diminished. Canada, a land of barely eight million at the time, lost 66,655 men, with another 173,000 wounded.

Next page: Unexpected events

When King George V visited war grave sites in Flanders in 1922, he said, “In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.” There’s no better confirmation of the king’s observation than at Tyne Cot, the largest CWGC cemetery in the world, located nine kilometres northeast of Ieper.

Nearly 12,000 white Portland stone markers glow in the sun in perfect formation. A massive wall curves around its top end, engraved with 34,888 names of men missing after mid-August 1917. Fighting in this area was so ferocious that 70 per cent of the stones read only “Known Unto God.” Minnes leads us to the grave of Pte. James Robertson, one of about 1,000 Canadians interred here. His stone bears the Victoria Cross, the then-Empire’s highest award for conspicuous valour.

She delights in the special unexpected events that make a trip memorable, calling them “holy moments.” While we’re still in the Ieper area, she manages to contact André Hooreweghe and Aurel Sercu, retirees whose amateur archeological team is excavating trenches near Boezinge before they disappear under industrial development. As rain pelts down, they show us a trench and dugout they had found. The ground is saturated, slick with mud, a glimpse of the horrible conditions soldiers endured daily while under artillery fire.

Not about trinkets
These two gentle men are no longer mere diggers in search of artifacts. Their expressions become troubled as they talk about finding the remains of soldiers, 165 so far. Most could only be identified by nationality and sometimes by regiment, according to where they were found. The diggers attend the funerals when the bodies are finally buried with their comrades.

A few days later, in France, we’re moved by the mournful grandeur of Canada’s Vimy Ridge monument, which is ringed by shell holes and sheep-grazed grass. It’s too dangerous to mow because of unexploded shells. Young Canadian guides here and at Beaumont Hamel in the Somme region (both are Canadian National Historic Sites) lead us through tunnels and trenches that brought soldiers up to the front lines.

At Beaumont Hamel, a magnificent bronze caribou symbolic of the Newfoundland Regiment honours the 801 men the regiment sent into battle on July 1, 1916. In 30 minutes, 255 were killed, 386 wounded and 91 missing. The disaster affected families in nearly every settlement in the then-colony of Newfoundland. Our guide leads us down to the Danger Tree, a replica of the lone shot-up tree left standing halfway between the lines, where most of the casualties occurred. The thought of so much violent death in this small place is appalling.

Personal connections
One couple on our tour has asked Minnes to stop at the Ecoivres military cemetery at Mont-St-Eloi, near Arras, France, where the husband’s grandfather is buried. The Canadian infantryman was killed Jan. 21, 1917, and they will be the first of his family to visit his grave. As the time for this visit approaches, the two become quiet and anxious. In the cemetery, our group waits respectfully as they leave flowers and wipe away tears. Even 85 years later, his death resonates. We hug our friends, feeling privileged at sharing this moment. Then we pin Canadian poppies on a special marker to leave at the grave.

Hopes and dreams also died with men and women killed in the Second World War. Minnes later takes us to a churchyard in sleepy Sassy, France, a village 27 kilometres southeast of Caen, where RCAF pilot Luis Perez Gomez was buried by townsfolk after his Spitfire was shot down on June 16, 1944. The only Mexican national to die in the RCAF, Perez Gomez was never forgotten by his young Canadian sweetheart who, on an earlier tour, had asked Minnes to take her and her husband to Sassy. The town’s square is now Place Perez Gomez.

Another of Minnes’s holy moments occurs at Bernières-sur-Mer a few days later when we serendipitously meet Jacques Martin in front of his beach hut. The town had been part of Juno Beach, the Canadian objective on the June 6, 1944, Allied invasion of Europe. In rapid-fire French interpreted by our military historian Mike Charrier, he tells us how 24-year-old Sgt. Rosaire Gagnon of le Régiment de la Chaudière, helped his family on D-Day after they were arrested for refusing orders to go to the beach. Martin’s father knew the shore was too dangerous. Anglo-Canadian soldiers assumed the Martins were German sympathizers, but French-speaking Gagnon quickly fixed the problem, helping other frightened civilians as well.

But a sniper would kill Bernières-sur-Mer’s compassionate hero a week later. Martin never forgot him and eventually persuaded the town to name a street in Gagnon’s honour.

We commemorate the young sergeant in our humble way at the Beny-sur-Mer cemetery about four kilometres inland from Juno Beach, near Reviers. Its orderly ranks of 2,048 graves include 2,044 Canadians. When we find Rosaire Gagnon’s grave at Plot VIII, Row H, Grave 16, most of us are already struggling with emotion. Reverently, we place Canadian flags and our poppy tribute in homage to the sergeant.

Simply walking through this sacred ground, noting the many markers of men 20 or younger and the stones bearing brief messages of longing from bereaved families, feels like something we need to do. We are grateful for their gift of liberty. We hope that somehow, they know.