The eerieness still sends shivers down my back.
As my Dad and I walked toward the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, it was a cold, dreary and drizzly day.
It was November 11, 2011 and it was nearing 11:11 a.m. when a special Remembrance Day ceremony was to be held. But first, let’s back up for a second.
My dad and I had joined a tour group out of England, travelling to France to visit a number of World War Battlefield sites. It was a remarkably profound experience and for a history buff like myself, it was a thrill and an honour to put my feet on the ground in some of those locations that changed the course of history.
During our visit to Ypres, it was impossibly hard to fathom the devastation that place underwent during World War II, with essentially the entire city being blown up by artillery during the war. Yet, on my visit in 2011, the buildings had been rebuilt, the cobblestone roads replaced and it would have been unrecognizable for someone who spent time there during the war.
Despite that, at least on the day I was there anyway, you felt the ghosts of history hanging above the place. It’s a weird feeling to describe, but my dad and I both turned to each other after the ceremony was over and it was almost like the soldiers had returned to watch over the ceremony to make sure the proper respects were paid.
Hundreds of thousands of soldiers passed through those gates on their way to the battlefield and it was unbelievable to stand in that same place where they marched to protect our freedom.
On the bus with our tour group after that morning, there was a quiet hush about what we had just felt and witnessed. Throughout most of our trip, the bus was abuzz with excitement about the sites we were about to visit. But not on this morning.
The other place we stopped on that trip was a German war cemetery. The coldness of that place I’ll never forget either, just rows upon rows of black crosses, with little warmth and compassion for the dead. No flowers, no heartfelt poems or epitaphs at the foot of the crosses, just coldness.
While those places carried eerie memories, one of my favourite stops on the trip was the Canadian National Memorial at Vimy Ridge. My dad and I were the only Canadians on this tour of about 30 Brits, so this stop, in particular, was special. I felt an immense sense of pride walking up to the memorial. I have so much respect for those who designed that memorial.
They were able to capture a fitting tribute to the soldiers who fought during the first World War while also creating a place that is the envy of all those who appreciate historic monuments.
As we stood with our group, admiring the beauty and architecture of the great memorial, a group of high school students broke out in song. They started singing O’Canada, unprompted. My skin tingled in that joyful, immensely proud way. Turns out those students were from a high school just a couple kilometres from where I grew up. Small world.
As we walked the grounds at Vimy Ridge, strolling through the grassed-over trenches, which bear very little resemblance to their portrayal in movies. Time has done that, but they also feel so small and in every war movie I’ve ever watched, I’ve never got that sense. Maybe it’s just me.
All this is to say I think sometimes, especially as we move further and further away from the wars that we begin to lose our sense of history. Of the impact those moments had on our generations and generations to come.
With very few veterans who served in those conflicts left to share their stories, it’s easy for us to forget about the profound sacrifice those people made to help protect the lives we enjoy today.
I shared my experience in the hopes that it helps us all remember that while in Canada we’re removed from the scars and the devastation during World War I and II, Europe still carries those wounds. Canada had a significant role in both wars and it is extremely important we never forget that and remain proud of that fact.
For myself, that tour I took was one of the most special experiences I’ve ever shared with my dad and that I’ve had period in my short life. My dad and I don’t have a deep connection to either war in our family, but I think we both appreciate the impact it had on our lives. I’ll be forever grateful we took that trip together and it’s a memory I’ll cherish forever.
Lest we forget.
Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate.