Travelling Historian: Belgium and France #3 (Part 2)

In this post I have included my thoughts on the first 5 of my stops, The Passchendale New British Cemetery, The Passchendale Canadian Memorial, Tyne Cot Cemetery, and the Passchendale Memorial Museum (yes, I know, that’s only 4 but that will be explained in the post. For those of you who have just joined, it would be helpful to start with Post 1, which can be found here.
LOCATIONS: Belgium Flanders/Ypres and Surrounding
DATE: 7 April
CATEGORYS: War and Memory, First World War,  Belgium Flanders
ENTRY TYPE: Daily Report
SUPPLEMENTARY REPORTS: Travel Itinerary: Belgium Battlefields Day Trip
Stop 1: Passchendale New British Cemetery
Passchendaele New British Cemetery
Like I would discover is often the case, this cemetery was on the side of the road, outside of the town. Compared to some of the others I saw, his cemetery wasn’t particularly big, but it was still filled with so many graves. You understand so much more concretely the extent of the loss when you are standing in a cemetery that you know is one of many. When you visit numerous cemeteries and you haven’t even scratched the surface. When the number of gravestones you’ve seen is far too many and yet, so few compared to the full extent. It was at this cemetery that I was first struck by the number of headstones that said “A soldier of the First World War… Known unto God” and the ones that were similar but we’re able to identify a country. “A Canadian soldier of the First World War… Known unto God.” So many families that never knew where their loved one was buried. So many gravestones that correspond to a name on a wall of a soldier with no known burial location. I was struck by the anonymity of a war that took the lives of thousands. I was also struck by the high number of Canadians buried in this cemetery.
Stop 2: The Passchendale Canadian Memorial.
Passchendaele Canadian Memorial
Though fairly simple, this memorial as one of the most striking for me. The Battle of Passchendale. Where Canadian soldiers traversed muddy fields where the mud was often waist deep and a man risked drowning if he stepped in the wrong place with his heavy pack. Where thousands and thousands of Canadian boys and men died to take a ridge that was soon abandoned. Where Canadian boys and men finally took a well fortified ridge that had been impossible to take up to this point. The Battle of Passchendale was one of the battles that drive my interest in Canadian Military history in Highschool. It’s one of the battles that always makes me so angry at he loss of tragedy of war. This memorial, looking out over the now dry fields, brought to mind all of this and more.
Stop 3: unfortunately I had to skip the Nova Scotia Highlanders memorial, because I just couldn’t manage to find somewhere close enough to allow the walk up the small, obscure path.
Stop 4: Tyne Cot Cemetery
Tyne Cot CemeteryThe sheer magnitude of this cemetery, and the number of names inscribed on the walls representing the names of men with no known graves, was overwhelming. The decision to inscribe the names on the walls here was made after they realized that the Menin Gate Memorial would not allow sufficient space to include all the names of those with no known burial site. When you first arrive in this cemetery you see but a portion, and then you walk into the centre and you see the vastness of the space, which contains rows upon rows of headstones.
<Aside: Interested in seeing a video of the cemetery? Check out my Facebook page>
Stop 5: Memorial Museum Passchendale 1917
Passchendaele Memorial MuseumI really liked how this museum was set up. Like most museums it had much of the paraphernalia of war on display, but I felt that they did a good job in their attempt to demonstrate the experience of the soldier. Obviously you can’t come close to fully demonstrating this, but I think they came closer than any other museum I’ve seen, at least from the point of view of someone who has read a lot but was not there. The most impressive parts were the reconstructions of bunkers, soldiers no officers quarters, and trenches. You got an idea of the size of everything and realized that many would have spent the majority of their time hunched over – many sections were barely high enough for me (5’4″) to stand. And some sections I was crouched. I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would have been to move with the sounds of battle overhead and mud all around (everything was very dry at the museum). In summary: though it had it’s faults and limitations, as all museums do, I found it very well done.
As an aside, I ran into a tour group of Students from Cambridge, Ontario – just down the street from my hometown. It’s a small world.

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