The Dutch Still Honour Canadian Soldiers

liberation of Holland

Canadian veterans receive an enthusiastic welcome from 10, 000 locals in Apeldoorn, Holland, 40 years after the Canadian troops helped liberate their country from Nazi Germany. Photo: Dick Darrell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

In a cemetery just outside the Dutch town of Holten, I heard a story about Leena Van Dam, the Dutch widow of a Finnish man who, when she noticed a Finnish name on a headstone there one winter, asked whether she could put a candle on it for Christmas Eve, as Finns do. It took some wrestling with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission apparently who, even when they relented, insisted she would have to put a candle on every grave at her own expense.

Being Dutch, she did exactly that, beginning in 1991. Since then, it’s become a tradition across the country, with middle-school students each being assigned a soldier, and placing their candle every Dec. 24, each one a torch thrown, held high. Some schools have the students research their soldier and write an essay about what they’ve learned. I’ve seen pictures of these cemeteries on the night they’re lit. They’re beautiful.

Candles lit at the headstones in the Canadian cemetery in Holten.
Each year, on Christmas Eve, the Canadian cemetery in Holten is lit with candles. Photo: Buiten-Beeld/Alamy Stock Photo

I was visiting Holten in advance of the anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands and the end of the Second World War this year and next. There’s a grave there, with Francis Welburn’s name on it. The son of Winifred and Charles Welburn of Winnipegosis, Man. (population as of the last census: 647), Francis died on April 20, 1945, just eight days before Mussolini, 10 days before Hitler and a little over three months before Hiroshima. He was 20.

The inscription reads: “Sleep on in peace, dear one, safe in the arms of Jesus, safe on his gentle breast,” but because this is the Holten Canadian War Cemetery and this is the Netherlands, there is staff, and there are stories, sourced and vetted, completely true, but stories nonetheless. The story about Francis is that, though his parents wanted to think of him in the arms of Jesus, he actually died in the arms of his friend, Digby Smith. The story continued that, though Digby survived those critical 18 days till VE-Day and married and lived a long life, when he died, in 1982, his wife found a note that said he wanted to be buried beside Francis. She had to fight — they’re pretty strict about who gets buried in cemeteries like these — but she won, and his ashes, at least some of them, are snuggled up beside Francis.

There are as many war stories in France, the U.K., Belgium, and Germany and Italy for that matter, but they are nowhere better preserved or more ardently told than in the Netherlands, along the route of the liberators. And these aren’t the only stories spread out beneath the well-kept lawns behind the Cross of Sacrifice. Two hundred of the 1,394 men and women buried here at Holten were killed after VE-Day, I’m told, and at least three of them whose headstones say they were 18 were as much as two years younger than that.

If you’ve been to the towns along the Somme or near Vimy Ridge, you may have seen Canadian flags in cafés and restaurants or seen an occasional smile broaden slightly more than you’d expected when you say you’re Canadian. It’s vicariously edifying, a species of gratitude you don’t often encounter.

But the Netherlands is a different thing entirely.

The memory of this 80-year-old war is alive in the Netherlands in a way that I’ve not seen anywhere else. Nearly every city and town has its own liberation day corresponding to the date the Allies, mostly Canadians, marched through on what’s now known as the liberation route. On that day, every year, local notables gather in what you’d expect to be a rote marking of increasingly ancient events. Yet, the speeches were heartfelt, the words and phrases fresh, arresting, the product of someone thinking about the days and lives it took to separate these hectares from the Germans not as something to be merely remembered but to be felt. There were no pat “never agains,” no throwaway adjectives to describe what the women and men who fought did.

In Bergen op Zoom, the Canadian ambassador to the Netherlands, Sabine Nölke, gave the sort of talk you’d love to hear from politicians but never do. “What would they have thought, those who died for our freedom?” she asked, referring to the men and women beneath our feet, speaking the day after and referring pointedly to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, about the far-right terror ripping across the U.S. “They would not have understood our technologies but they would, I think, have understood our peril.”

The Netherlands is not a big country — about 20 per cent smaller than Nova Scotia — and the fighting was long and intense, so every bit of geography and masonry is imbued with it. The Hotel de Draak in Bergen op Zoom is a 13th-century inn. A lot has happened there. It was one of only two buildings in the city to escape a great fire there in 1397, for instance. But it’s hard to beat the fact that it was German headquarters while its owner, a member of the resistance, hid Jews between the floors, directly under the feet of the German officers, reminiscent of but more dramatic than a Tarantino movie. At one point, it’s said he stole a car from a German officer staying at the inn to help Prince Bernhard, a fellow resistance fighter and ultimately commander of the Dutch armed forces, escape.

I’d been following the route — starting in Vlissingen to Groningen, where the final battle was fought street by street, house to house — suggested by the Liberation Route Europe Foundation. It’s a Dutch organization founded “to promote the idea that freedom in Europe is not something we should take for granted,” a notion the Dutch seem to have little problem with but that other parts of Europe, Western and Eastern, are treating a little loosely these days.

Just down the road, on the bit of land called the Sloedam that connects Vlissingen and the island of Walcheren on which it sits to the mainland, I went to a liberation service remembering the Black Watch and Calgary Highlanders who died for this early and crucial victory at the Battle of Sloedam. Jaap Rus, at 95, one of the last members of the Dutch resistance, laid a wreath and chatted with congregants in Dutch and English. (It would be his last service; he died three months later.)

A photo of Infantry from Montreal's Le Régiment de Maisonneuve on the move from Holten to Rijssen in the Netherlands, April 1945.
Infantry from Montreal’s Le Régiment de Maisonneuve on the move from Holten to Rijssen in the Netherlands, April 1945. Photo: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

You’ll hear some of the best stories in Groningen, a city in the north of the Netherlands that tourists tend to miss but which is home to one of the great Dutch museums (Groninger Museum), some of the best genever (Holland’s answer to gin) and, in 1945, the site of one of the war’s hardest-fought liberations. Though barely 40, my guide — Joël Stoppels — has made the war, specifically how it played out in his hometown of Groningen, his life’s work. For the 70th anniversary of the liberation, he organized a re-enactment of the events surrounding the death of the first Canadian soldier to be killed in the liberation of Groningen, Fred Butterworth, 23, of Winnipeg’s Fort Garry Horse, whose tank was hit and burned. There are many plaques all over Europe like the one on the wall of the house Butterworth’s tank crashed into after he lost control of it. But here, 6,000 people watched the re-enactment from the windows and sidewalks — including Fred’s brother Stanley, who was with his brother in Groningen when he died — and it was covered live by the NPO, the Dutch national broadcaster. Stop into the Groninger Museum, a fantastic building in high-’80s Philippe Starck-Alessandro Mendini shapes and colours (though it wasn’t finished until 1994), and you’ll see amid the well-curated art a link from Fred’s tank tread. The war is now, as it was then, everywhere.

As Stoppels leads the way through the streets, pointing out battle scars, he points to the Hooghoudt distillery and tells another story. Once the hard work of liberating was done, a bunch of Canadian soldiers walked into the hulking stone building, sat down and drank their fill (probably of fruit wine, which is what kept the place going during the war). When a bunch of vets came back five years ago for the 70th anniversary celebrations, they were given a tour of the distillery and, at the end, presented with a bill for everything they and their buddies drank that day. Uneasy glances gave way to laughter as hands were placed gently on old shoulders with another round of thanks. The drinks, they were reassured, had been on the house.

It’s an especially poignant time to visit these places. As those with clear memories of the events age into their late 90s, many are eager to tell their stories to make sure they outlive them. The more people I spoke to, the more events I attended and the more memorials to Canadian soldiers I contemplated, the greater the feeling that this is not only a good trip to take for a Canadian, it borders on national duty, to remember, to acknowledge and accept the thanks on behalf of our elders of a still grateful nation.

A tour so filled with destruction, atrocity and death might understandably not suit everyone. But there’s another thing that separates the Dutch from their European neighbours with similar histories. A strong, if sometimes, morbid, sense of humour. It allows their war stories to be told with a certain lightness. Ultimately, it’s a sense of duty to history that struck me most. I’ve paid my respects at cenotaphs around Canada on Remembrance Day but always with a sense that this was long ago and far away. Standing on this low-slung, hard-won ground, it’s clearly neither. Jaap Rus, who had a lot to mourn the day I met him and softly shook his hand, was one big smile. Failing hands, perhaps, but faith unbroken.

Scouting The Route

The fact that there is so much to see and do (and eat) along the liberation route is a testament to the victory we’re commemorating.

The Liberation Museum 17 kilometres east into the town of Nieuwdorp (pop. 863) does a good job telling the story of the liberation of Zeeland after the Battle of the Scheldt, one of half a dozen little local museums you can stop into that belie their size and budgets with decades of intense and efficient local effort.

■ Vlissingen has a great lighthouse restaurant, De Gevangentoren (Boulevard de Ruyter 1A, +31-118-411-441, restaurantdegevangentoren.nl) with wonderful views over often stormy seas.

■ You can get a bolus, the local version of a cinnamon bun, at the Non Plus Ultra café (Grindweg 2, 4634 PP Woensdrecht, +31-164-612-165, cafenonplusultra.nl), a modest but pretty little brick building that was the Calgary Highlanders’ Dutch headquarters during the liberation.

■ There’s plenty to do in Groningen, but don’t miss the gingerbread-like Groninger koek made with rye and syrup.

■ A minor detour after Bergen op Zoom will take you into Rotterdam, a fascinatingly modern city filled with masterpieces of 20th- and 21st-century architecture. Hop the subway to the Schiedam (stop to see the beautiful, windmill-dotted town where gin was invented (en.rotterdam.info).

■ On your way north, stop in Deventer for some Deventer cake, a crumbly but dense honey cake that has been made in this town since at least 1417. Also, stop at the Hotel de Wereld in Wageningen where Prince Bernhard, together with Canadian general Charles Foulkes, accepted the German surrender, and then walk a few hundred metres to Het Depot, the local museum, where you’ll learn that it was the people of Wageningen who first had the idea to destroy all the municipal records so the approaching Germans wouldn’t be able to identify the Jews.

■ The Hotel de Draak in Bergen op Zoom is now a lovely white 62-room hotel, facing onto the town’s main square, where Liberation Day parades take place. This year and next, in remembrance of the 75th anniversary of the two-year-long liberation, they’ll be offering a menu based on tulip bulbs, which locals had to eat to avoid starving during the Hongerwinter of 1944-45 in a gesture that’s as heartbreaking as it is charming.

If You Go

Liberation Route Europe, liberationroute.com; Battlefield Tours, www.battlefieldtours.nu

A version of this article appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Zoomer magazine with the headline, “We Can Be Heroes,” p.126-129.

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