Story by Mark Stevens
On an appropriately gloomy afternoon my wife and I drive across the border from Normandy into Belgium. We pull over to the shoulder of a lonely Flanders road and climb out to gaze at farmers’ fields, green and fertile.
It is a soothing landscape though two features stand out.
A splash of red, bright as arterial blood, flows across these fields. A congregation of scarlet blooms sways in a gentle breeze.
And in the distance, in a grove of trees, I notice lighter tones in contrast to the greens and reds.
When I focus on that distant element I realize that it’s comprised of row on row of headstones in the first of many cemeteries we will encounter in the next few days.
We are the dead.
I feel a tightness in my chest, a constriction in my throat. Tears fill my eyes and I wipe them away.
We’ve just begun our pilgrimage of remembrance and already the emotions threaten to overwhelm, a flood that starts with our first glimpse of those vivid blooms.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow.
That evening we participate in the “Last Post Ceremony” at the Menin Gate in Ypres, a memorial that takes place every single day.Along with a thousand others we stand at one end of a bridge all the soldiers in the Ypres Salient sooner or later crossed. One direction led to safety. One did not.
Countless names are inscribed on the arched gate. They belong to those who lie in unmarked graves.
In the growing twilight members of an English legion branch deliver a wreath. A trio of buglers plays “Last Post.”
As the final strains dissipate we all stand silent. The sun falls, gilding the canal behind us.
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.
First stop after an early start next morning is to the Advanced Dressing Station where John McCrae, the doctor who wrote “In Flanders Fields”, attended to the wounded.
A few brown cows graze on a gentle hill that ascends to a memorial cross. One cow lumbers over to my wife, nuzzles her hand. Backdrop to this pastoral scene, concrete bunkers squat implacably.
READ MORE ON VACAY.CA: Finding the roots of Remembrance Day
After exploring the bunkers I stroll along the columns of graves. One grave makes me want to weep again.
Here lies a fifteen-year-old boy. A fifteen-year-old boy soldier.
This is Essex Farm. In May of 1915 a friend of McCrae died right here. Next day, also right here, McCrae wrote the poem.
And now we lie in Flanders Fields.
Two days later we travel back into France. And yet we remember.
On July 1, 1916, Newfoundlanders rose from the trenches at Beaumont-Hamel and attacked the German lines, mere metres away. By end of day three hundred and twenty four of them were dead, just under four hundred wounded.
The morning we visit this battlefield is dreary, clouds heavy and somber as shrouds.
Of all the World War I sites, Beaumont-Hamel is supposed to be least unchanged since those bellicose days.
A Parks Canada interpreter guides us through trenches, zigzagged to minimize the potential damage from an exploding shell.
Like the ghosts that surely haunt this place we rise up, staring down a green slope pockmarked by so many craters it looks like the moon. Very few feet rusty metal stakes protrude from the ground. They held strands of barbed wire.
As we march down this hill, actually crossing No Man’s Land, we stop at the shattered skeleton of an apple tree. This was known as the “Danger Tree”, a rally point for those who got that far.
The number was alarmingly small.
I stand there, reflecting, and then I hear a bird call. I look up.
The larks, still bravely singing, fly.
Lonely as the site at Beaumont-Hamel is, several busloads of people already populate the Vimy Memorial site when we arrive.
We join other visitors in a tour that takes us deep into a bunker, through those quintessential zigzag trenches.
Before departing, my wife and I march across a shell-scarred meadow to the memorial itself, a twin-pylon granite monstrosity towering over a ridge that itself towers over the countryside.
While the feeling you get at Beaumont-Hamel is a horrible sense of tragedy, here at Vimy you almost feel triumphant.
Might not be an accident – or inappropriate. This was the site of both a great Canadian victory and a pivotal moment in our history.
READ MORE ON VACAY.CA: Canadian War Museum a moving reminder
Another place where Canadian showed their mettle, though this may be one of the loneliest places in Flanders, was St.-Julien.
Here a monument of the “Brooding Soldier,” carved from a single block of granite, rises up from a border of cedar.
I stand in front of the memorial for a few moments, staring at the “soldier” who stands with rifle in the “reverse arms” position.
I turn around, facing in the same direction this stone sentinel faces. The direction of death. German launched an attack of poison gas from across these very same fields.
Two days in April. Two thousand Canadian bodies.
We are the dead.
The full impact of the tragedy that was this war really hits us later that day when we drive to Tyne Cot, the biggest Commonwealth War Graves site in Belgium.
Twelve thousand dead beneath meticulously-maintained lawns and gardens.
Row on row.
“Five Canadian soldiers,” adorns one busy headstone. The words “Known Unto God” are carved into another.
On that first afternoon I pulled a poppy from that first Flanders field. Now I lay the dried bloom on that lonely grave.
Loved and were loved.
I remember then those last moments at the Menin Gate, when a designated speaker recited an exhortation, a call to action, a promise.
I remember those words – at Vimy, at Beaumont-Hamel, at St.-Julien, at Passchendaele, here at Tyne Cot.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.
Government of Canada Memorials Website: Click here
Beaumonthamel Memorial: Click here
For background on area cemeteries – both Canadian and Commonwealth: Click here