Friday, 7 November 2014

Remembering well on Remembrance Day is getting harder as veterans of World War 1 are all gone and those of World War 2 become fewer.

War Memorial Ottawa 

Remembrance Day 2014 

We are now 100 years out from the start of World War 1 and 75 years out from the start of World War 2.  There are no Canadian veterans left from World War 1. There are fewer veterans left from World War 2.  Even more sobering is the fact that the ranks of Korean War veterans are also declining.

In the past we have always been able to make Remembrance Day a very tangible event. We would see veterans marching to the cenotaphs in every town and city in Canada wearing their campaign medals and regimental berets. They were our annual tangible connection to their service and commitment to ensure we live in a democratic and free society. 

As time moves on we now face making other kinds of connections to these passing veterans. Younger people can only have remote connections to the considerable sacrifices made by their grand parents and in some cases great grand parents. Schools work to make the connection but now without any human faces of the veterans of World War 1 and 2. 

I am fortunate at my age. I have my memory connections as an officer of The Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR). Our regimental service in all Canadian operations since 1883 and even earlier through our regimental links with the Canadian Fusiliers and Oxford Rifles  is welded to my very person. 

In my time during the 1960’s we had members of the regiment who were still on active duty wearing campaign ribbons from World War 2 and Korea. Tangibility was not a pressing issue for us.

Each year we would see veteran RCR old comrades parading with us wearing World War 1 medals and some also wearing the ribbons of their second round of service during World War 2. Those kind of connections are fleeting for my grand children who are all Millennium born high school students. I do my best to keep them in the Remembrance Day loop but they live in another time and place.

One of my wife’s relatives in Belgium works very hard keeping the memory of our Canadian service to his country. He does uniformed reenactments of regiments that fought in Belgium during World War 1 and 2. He lives near Ypres so he is in constant touch with the horrendous experience of that city in both World War 1 and 2. Today, however, the ruined city of 1918 that was again damaged in 1944, has been restored to pristine condition.

Touring these sites with him is an education. We went to to the Menin Gate where the names of all the Commonwealth troops who died on the Ypres Salient in World War 1 are inscribed. I saw many Canadian names and regiments on that wall but the most tangible fact was something he pointed out to me. As we examined the World War 1 names there are World War 2 bullet holes in the Menin Gate from when it was fought over in 1944.  A poignant and very tangible experience since it was members of our First Canadian Corp who fought through here again in World War 2. 

One of my private moments of remembrance also took place Belgium some years back. I went alone to site of Passchendaele on the Ypres Salient to honour Canadians who died and those who held their positions in the first gas attacks in 1915. After examining our monument, I noticed that a path led through the evergreen hedges to a gate.

I opened the gate and stepped onto a farm field where cows were grazing. In the ground were zigzag depressions running off towards Sanctuary Wood. It was what is left of the front line trenches from World War 1. 
Zigzag trench lines in 1917

Half way across the field an angry man approached me. Obviously I was trespassing. He asked me in Flemish what I was doing on his land. I answered in English that I was tracing the first world war trench lines. He answered in English. “Are you an American?” No I said I am a Canadian and a member of The Royal Canadian Regiment. “Then you are welcome!” he answered extending his hand. He phoned his neighbours so I would have clear passage.

Vimy in France is our major monument to the Canadian soldiers who survived and died during World War 1. The Canadian Corp, and of course The Royal Canadian Regiment as part of that larger force, fought here in April 1917 to push the Germans permanently off this very high point of ground. Some claim that Canada became a country at this battle.

In 1992, my wife and I had the younger members of my family, Peter and Alexandra with us. They were both preteens and I wanted to let them know about our contribution to World War 1.  We were finishing a long  car trip from Belgium to Spain and back. We landed at Vimy late in the day and found that we could not get on a tour of the site and particularly the tunnels that still exist to move troops forward or to blow up the German lines with caches of high explosives.

There was one hope that we could get a tour. An Irish group was coming after attending a commemoration for the Battle of The Somme. If they would agree to us joining their tour then we could see the tunnel.

Suddenly a bus arrived and many people got off with security men. The guide went to confer with the Irish person in charge of the tour. This person turned out to be the Lord Mayor of Dublin. In addition, the  then Anglican Primate of Ireland, Cardinals of the Irish Catholic Church and many other protestant church officials plus politicians of all stripes from the Irish Parliament formed this group.

The Lord Mayor welcomed us and introduced two World War 1 veterans from their tour who turned out to be the reason they were at Vimy. One of the veterans had served with the British Army at Vimy as a runner between the British and Canadian lines. His task was to take messages from the tunnels if phone communications went down during the battle.

We then went down into the tunnels which are 30 meters underground and therefore impervious to heavy artillery fire. As we walked through the tunnel we noticed regimental crests carved into the chalk walls and messages from soldiers who waited down here for the main attack to start. There were command bunkers and medical aid rooms. It was living history with one veteran who had been down here for the Vimy Ridge battle in 1917.

Suddenly the veteran asked the guide which tunnel we were in. I recall her saying that it was Number 9 of the twelve that were dug. The Irish veteran said that if it was Number 9 tunnel he could show us where his friend was killed on the day of the battle. A hush fell over groups as this veteran led us further down the tunnel to a room near the end. It was a command room. 

In the corner was a stairs cut into the chalk that led up to ground level. The stairwell was filled with rubble held in place by chicken coop wire. The veteran was silent for a moment as it all sunk in. Then he recounted how his friend was standing near the stairs when a German shell blast came down the stairwell killing his friend instantly.

That is the most tangible experience I can relate about war having fortunately never experienced war myself. Each time I go to a Remembrance Day ceremony I think about the bullet holes in the Menin Gate, the zigzag trench line that still exists in a Flemish cow field and those who died there in a muddy carnage. Then I remember the look on the face of an old Irish veteran who came face to face with the horror of his friend’s death in a Vimy tunnel long, long ago in 1917.

Pro Patria

© Copyright 2014, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved.

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