We've all, of course, learned about the War at school. Those of us with good memories could probably still discuss the social and political events that came together to result in the conflict. We can name some of the major battles, and will roughly recall the number of casualties - 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded.
But seeing the European cemeteries and memorials to the fallen truly demonstrates the magnitude of it all more than anything else. We have been to sites in Belgium and France and heard about those in the Netherlands. These countries continue to respect and honour the memory of those lost and continue express their gratitude to the Allied countries for coming to their assistance. If children everywhere could, at some stage in their education, visit these sites, it might go a long way to preventing such horrors in the future.
The Island Of Ireland
Adam took us one morning to Messines to visit the Irish memorial site and it was truly a moving experience.
The 36th Ulster Division had 32,186 casualties. The 10th Irish Division numbered 9,363 and the 16th Irish Division had 28,398 casualties.
The Peace Tower
The inside of this tower is lit up by the sun only on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month - to mark the day the Armistice was signed.
A leaf motif on a low wall.
When the light changes, the upper part of the leaf becomes a line of marching soldiers
One of the most poignant aspects of the park, for me, were the nine stone tablets inscribed with the words of Irish soldiers. The one above says:
|I wish the sea were not so wide that parts me from my love, I wish that things men do below were known to God above. I wish that I were back again in the Glens of Donegal; they’ll call me coward if I return, but a hero if I fall. - Patrick MacGill, London Irish Rifles|
Another one that seemed so incredibly sad was
I mean the simple soldier man, who when the Great War first began, just died, stone dead from lumps of lead, in mire - William Orpen, Official War Artist
Notre Dame de Lorette
On another day, we went with Adam and Isabelle to two other cemeteries in France. The first was Notre Dame de Lorette, the largest French military cemetery in the world, a beautiful memorial site close to the town of Arras. The remains of 40,000 French soldiers are buried here - in graves marked with crosses or in ossuary plots.
The Basilica is a magnificent structure and the interpretation centre inside does a marvelous job of showing and explaining the three major battles in the area - The First, Second and Third Battles of Artois. There is a link here to the Canadians and the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Inside the Basilica
The names of the 580,00 soldiers of all nationalities who died
We were so grateful Adam and Isa for taking us to Vimy Ridge. The battle marked the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian forces fought as a cohesive unit against three divisions of the German army. The Canadians took the Ridge in three days and I am sure it enhanced our identity as a nation, as opposed to a British dominion.
The Vimy Ridge memorial building is absolutely massive and is as awe inspiring as the magnitude of the loss of human life that it commemorates.
We went down into the tunnels on Vimy Ridge, where the temperature was (and is) a constant 13 degrees C all months of the year. The guide turned off the safety lights to demonstrate the degree of darkness in which the Welsh miners worked to dig the tunnels and soldiers lived for many, many months at a time. We could barely make out the person standing next to us.
The guide explained that the miners used canaries to alert them to high levels of gases during the dig. If the canaries died, they quickly retreated from the area. But they found there was a risk of the canaries finding and flying out of the various tunnel exits and alerting the Germans to their location so they started carrying mice in their pockets. When the mice ceased to wiggle around, the men exited the work area.
It was not hard to see that life there was hell on earth and it speaks volumes that soldiers volunteered to be runners in order to gain the privelge of staying in the tunnel as opposed to the trenches. Our guide told us the life expectancy of such a runner was roughly three weeks.
We had an opportunity to explore the trenches, see the craters and the areas of unexploded munitions that are, of course, out of bounds. The entire memorial park is about 250 acres.