Travelling Historian – Thoughts on the Memory of Second Ypres

If I told you that Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies referred to this battle as the “finest act of the war,” would you know of which battle I spoke?1 Would your answer include any mention of the Canadian counter-attack at Kitchener’s Wood? Would you have even hear of Kitchener’s Wood? Perhaps that is too specific – let me ask you this. Would your response have included mention of the Second Battle of Ypres? Or would your mind have turned to Vimy Ridge?

If I say “The Battle of Vimy Ridge,” and you are a Canadian, there is a good chance you know what I am talking about. You might not be able to tell me much, and you probably don’t know many of the details. But you would probably know what I was talking about. You might also tell me that “Canada became a nation at Vimy Ridge.” That is, after all, what our Canadian History classes tell us. That is what the official national memory has declared since the day of the battle. That is the memory that was solidified when the Government chose to place the National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge.

I would not fault you for your statement. You could probably even back your declaration up – after all, we have had almost 100 years to get the story and the memory just right. But wait, I hear you say, are you saying that this statement is wrong? Are you saying that Vimy Ridge was not important? What kind of Canadian military historian are you? To which I will respond – No. I am not saying that the statement is wrong, as such. But I am saying it lacks depth and it misses so much. I am saying that there’s more to the story – if we would only look deeper.  I am saying that the memory is too simplistic.

But, as this post is not about Vimy, I am asking you this: What do you know about the Second Battle of Ypres? Now, if you have read a newspaper today, you may be able to form an answer. But could you have answered me yesterday? Would you have remembered your Canadian history? Because this battle is also a major focus of the First World War history taught in schools, but I think it is one that can often be overshadowed by Vimy.

Perhaps you would be able to tell me that it was during this battle that the German army first used gas – and the Canadian line held, though casualties were heavy. But could you tell me what happened next? Could you tell me about Kitchener’s Wood – the battle to which Marshal Ferdinand Foch referred? My guess is that you could not.

But how can you say that? How can you make that assumption? You ask. To which I respond – because I have studied this war for years, I have studied these battles, I could tell you about the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres in my sleep. I know the story of the chemistry students who remembered that urinating on handkerchiefs might be able to counteract the effects of the chlorine gas. I know the battle. And I am prone to forget about Kitchener’s Wood. Or at least, I was, before I went to Belgium and saw the memorial, read the plaque, and thought about the memory.

100 years ago today, the German army first used chemical warfare on the Western Front. Casualties were high. French troops, who faced the highest concentration of the attack, were forced to retreat. The result of this forced retreat? A 4-mile (over 6 km) gap  in the front line. A gap through which the German army, though they hesitated at first, fully intended to move. 2 And so the Canadians (having arrived in France in February) were hastily pulled out of reserve to reinforce the line. In particular, two Canadian battalions were sent to reinforce the line at Kitchener’s Wood. “Reinforce”, however, soon turned into “major counter-attack.”3 And did I mention that the battalions had little training and even less experience?

Despite their inexperience, however, these Canadian battalions managed to push the Germans back. They suffered heavy, heavy losses, and the 16th Battalion dropped from 816 men down to 193 at roll call after the battle (268 all ranks survived).4 But they held. And, more importantly for the Allied forces, the German army was not able to exploit the gap their gas attack had made in the line. This poorly remembered, and lightly commemorated battle, stopped a, potentially major, German breakthrough.

It wasn’t pretty. It was badly organized (read chaotic). It hurt a lot. But somehow it worked. But it is barely remembered. And the battalions involved later had to fight for battle honours, whereas those who fought the days prior and the days after did not.

If anyone thought the counter-attack might provide a moment of respite to the haggard Canadians, however, they would soon have been sorely disappointed. The German army would use gas for the second time on the morning of April 24, 2015.  And this time, it was pointed towards the re-formed Canadian line. The Battle of St. Julien had begun and the Canadian experience (and suffering) of the Second Battle of Ypres was far from over.


1. Quote taken from the Plaque at Kitchener’s Woods
2. A series of decisions and hesitations on the part of the German army meant that they did not take full use of the advantage the gas attack had given them. Chemical warfare was still new and the German army did not expect the attack to have the level of success it did and were, therefore, ill-prepared.
3. and

Further Reading:
Battle of Ypres a baptism of fire for fledgling force of Canadians
The Second Battle of Ypres ‘created’ the Canadian Army
St. Julien and Kitcheners Wood
‘Perfect hell’ revealed cost of Great War

Itinerary: France (Vimy) Battlefields Day Trip

STOP 1: Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel
STOP 2: Canadian National Memorial – Vimy (And visitors Centre)
STOP 3: Canadian Cemetery #2
STOP 4: Givenchy-en-Gohelle Canadian Cemetery
STOP 5: Vimy Ridge Day Ceremony
STOP 6: Vimy Ridge – Preserved Trenches
STOP 7: Notre Dame de Lorette Cemetery

Travelling Historian: Belgium and France #5

Vimy Ridge Memorial
LOCATIONS: France – Vimy Ridge and Surroundings
DATE: 9 April
CATEGORIES: War and Memory, First World War, Vimy Ridge
ENTRY TYPE: Daily Report
My itinerary for today was much less ambitious than the one for Tuesday, though I still modified it slightly and did not go to the last intended stop. Today’s focus was the Vimy Ridge Memorial and the Vimy Ridge National Memorial Park, as today was the 98th Anniversary of the Battle of Arras – the Battle of Vimy Ridge. This was the main commemoration around which I planned this trip. Though this was the focus, I did not begin my day at Vimy Ridge.
Prior to arriving at my first stop, I was struck by the smaller signs that began to appear along the highway, which marked the various front lines of the war throughout the course of the war. I was increasingly struck by the knowledge that I was driving through country that 100 years in the past had been torn up by a terrible war. This peaceful, serene countryside, had a violent and tragic history. I was also struck by how similar the French countryside looked to the Canadian, or at least Southwestern Ontarian, countryside. And yet, fortunately, Canada has never been subjected to the types of warfare France has been.
Stop 1: The Canadian Memorial at Courcelette
Canadian Memorial at CourceletteI have to admit that this memorial probably had the least impact on me of all the ones I saw during this trip. And that is to say nothing about the memorial, or the battle that it represents, and everything to say of my memory of and connection to the event that it commemorates. The Somme, in it’s entirety, was one of the deadliest and longest attritional battles of the war. And, when the Canadians joined in, they played a large part, and the battle went far to cementing their new found status as “hard-hitting shock troops.” (1) And yet, at the time, I couldn’t remember anything that I knew of this battle. My mind was otherwise engaged with thoughts of the Second Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele, and the Battle of Vimy Ridge. As I think back on the Memorial now, after refreshing myself on the history of the battle, it has a greater impact, as I can better contextualize the fields and the land I looked out on at the Memorial.
Observations from driving between stops:
As I was driving between the stops today, I was repeatedly struck by the nature of the terrain and the land itself. This section of France contains some very steep hills and deep valleys and I have a new appreciation for how difficult it would have been to attack a well fortified German position on top of a ridge. Especially as the soldiers were often moving forward with packs that could weigh 60lbs, over ground that was often wet and muddy. All while being shelled and shot at from enemy lines, and avoiding friendly artillery that was attempting to aid and support your advance.
Stop 2: The Beaumont Hamel Memorial
Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland MemorialMy one regret from this day was that I did not spend more time walking around the grounds of this memorial. But I let the guide at the site convince me that I needed to leave earlier than planned for the Vimy Ridge Ceremonies. And, in retrospect, this was completely unnecessary. That being said, I had plenty of time to appreciate the main area of the site and monument. This memorial commemorates the soldiers from Newfoundland who fought and were killed during the First World War, as Newfoundland was not part of Canada at that time. It stands on the preserved grounds of an unsuccessful and tragic battle the Newfoundland Regiment fought as part of the Battle of the Somme. Of the 800 soldiers from the Newfoundland Regiment who fought in this battle, only 68 returned unharmed. Like the Vimy site, which I will speak to in a moment, this memorial sits on “preserved grounds.” Essentially what this means is that, though they have let grass grow over it, few other modifications have been made to flatten or even the terrain. This allows you to see where the trenches were, and where the ground was uneven and choppy as a result of the shelling and explosions. I found that this allowed for a much greater appreciation for some of the difficulties involved in navigating the front. And this was under dry conditions.
Stop 3: The Canadian National Vimy Memorial
Vimy Ridge MemorialIn many ways, the Canadian National Memorial at Vimy is many stops grouped together into one. And I will summarize here as best I can, with the possibility of  a future post solely on Vimy. The site contains preserved ground, including a preserved section of tunnels and trench lines, two cemeteries, a visitors centre, and the Memorial itself. Not to mention there is a large area of preserved ground and forest you can walk around, much of which is cordoned off for public safety as many buried and undetonated shells remain in the battlefield areas. The preserved ground in the area clearly demonstrates some of the difficulties faced during the war, as well as the reality of an ever changing battlefield as either side would blow up the ground from underneath to intentionally alter the battlefield.
Though it is linked to the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the site itself is a memorial dedicated to all of the members of the Canadian force who were killed during the war. It also serves to commemorate those of the Canadian forces who were missing, and presumed dead, with no known graves over the course of the war. The memorial itself is imposing, and dominates the landscape.
Vimy Ridge Memorial
 In the middle of my visit to the site, I attended the ceremony for the 98th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Much of the ceremony was in French, and though I can understand more French than I can speak, there were a few parts that I missed. I have decided not to go into all of the elements of war memory that were involved in this ceremony, and that play into the greater memory of Vimy Ridge, as this post is always quite long. Instead I will just say that, during this ceremony, I was most impacted by the singing of Oh Canada. There is something incredibly touching and special about standing on Canadian soil, in the middle of France, singing the national anthem with a handful of other Canadians.
The Grange Tunnel After the ceremony, I went on a short guided tour around the area of the preserved trenches and tunnels. As part of the tour, we went into a preserved section of the Grange Tunnel, which was one of the tunnels used in preparations and in getting the soldiers as close to the front line as possible for the start of the battle. I really enjoyed this part of my visit to the site – both for the insight it provided into aspects of the soldiers experience and the war preparations, and for the “I am currently in the middle of an historic tunnel” excitement factor. I am a military history geek/nerd after all, and that often contains mixed emotions and conflict between the excitement of being somewhere that has been the focus of so much of your energy and passion, and the solemnity that comes from knowing what occurred at these sites and the tragedies and sadness involved.
In Summary: This was a very heavy and emotional day that was lightened considerably by the beautiful weather and sunshine. I thought a lot about war and memory, and commemoration, and also just let myself experience the sites. Experience the “wow factor” involved in finally visiting places I have dreamed of visiting since high school or earlier. And I took the time to think about and remember the events of 98-100 years ago. The war that was so violent and so tragic and so costly in terms of lives that people sincerely hoped and prayed that it would be the “War to end all wars.” The war that resulted in so many young men and boys being buried far from home and loved ones. The war that resulted in so many of these same men and boys laying forever either where they fell or buried in locations “Known only to God.”
As I finish this post, I realized that there is still so much that I want to say, but the post is already more than long enough. Perhaps in the future, I will begin a series that looks at the battles and the memory and commemorations that surround them. For now, if you are interested in hearing some of my thoughts from the day I visited Vimy Ridge, you can head on over to my Facebook page and watch today’s unedited, supplementary video.
Life’s an Adventure

Travelling Historian: Belgium and France #4

LOCATIONS: Bruges, Belgium, Kortrijk Belgium (Train Station), Lille, Flandres
DATE: 8 April
CATEGORYS: War and Memory, Travel Day
ENTRY TYPE: Daily Report
Like Monday, today was primarily a travel day, and in many ways it was even less eventful than Monday. In other ways, it was more eventful.
As today was travel heavy, I will focus my attention there. I made the decision Tuesday evening to drop off the rental car and take a cab back to the Hostel, this let me sleep in, which was nice because my hostel mates kept the light on pretty late and I fell asleep for a short period, woke up, and then could not get back to sleep. Oh those annoying nighttime “naps.” This also let me wander around Bruges for a bit, find some breakfast, and enjoy the lovely, sunny spring day before heading to the train station.
My train ride to Lille was split in two parts: from Bruges to Kortrijk and then from Kortrijk to Lille, France. The train journey was mostly uneventful, though it could have turned eventful as my tickets said that the Kortrijk train left at 1:20 when it actually left at 1:13. Luckily I had plenty of time between trains.
The adventure began when I arrived in Lille. Despite my best research attempts and detailed directional notes, train station exits continue to be a navigational nightmare. I’m never sure where I’ve come out and where I need to turn first. The Lille, Flandres station might have been the worst yet. And then it turned out I didn’t need to leave the train station at all. The rental place had an entrance from within the station. Oh well, I found it in the end.
The adventure continued when I actually started to drive. Let me just say, though I like to be my own navigator, driving in France, and Lille in particular, has made me thankful for an onboard navigation system. The streets in Lille are a navigational nightmare for the uninitiated. Skeptical? Have you ever had to turn right into an intersection and then make a sharp left out of the same intersection? What about turning left into an intersection and then taking the second left out of the intersection – all so you can navigate the series of one way streets? It’s an experience.
I eventually made it to the hotel (An actual hotel. Not hostel. With a double bed. Living it up.) Not only that but I also successfully adventured to the mall plaza and back again. Oh yes, all kinds of talent. And that, dear readers, is the extent of my adventures for this day. Remember, I warned you at the start. But tomorrow is another travelling historian battlefield tour day/commemoration day.
Life’s an Adventure!

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

In this third, and final post for April 7, I have included the final four stops, (plus an explanation for the sites I did not make it to) The Brooding Soldier, Langemark German Cemetery, The Kitchener’s Wood Memorial, The John McCrae Memorial, and the Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony. For those of you who have just joined, it would be helpful to start with Post 1 and Post 2, which can be found here and 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 6: St. Julien Canadian Memorial – The Brooding Soldier
The Brooding SoldierThis was the most impressive monument I have yet seen, based on it’s size and the way that it presents in the area. Driving by, there is no way you can miss seeing this monument. It is imposing. It commemorates the Canadian soldiers that held the line on the British Left  when the Germans first used gas in April 1915. This was another battle that captured my interest in high school and it was impressive to see the memorial in person.
 Stop 7: Langemark German Cemetery
Langemark German CemeteryThis cemetery was heartbreaking in a different way to the other ones I saw. Over the years, the German Cemeteries in Belgium were consolidated into one cemetery. At first glance it is already moving in the number of men and boys it represents. It becomes even more so when you begin to move around and read the information. It begins with learning that the large plot in the middle is a mass grave containing thousands of men and boys. There are names inscribed on panels surrounding the grave of men that it is now thought reside in this plot. The tragedy of a war that results in an anonymous mass grave. The tragedy only grows as you begin to walk around and realize that the flat headstones represent many burials. It is not like the other cemeteries where one headstone almost always represents one life. Here one headstone can represent 20 or 25 lives. And, if that wasn’t already enough, many headstones have inscriptions such as, “Zwanzig Unbekannte Deutsche Soldaten”… “Twenty unknown German Soldiers.” If I was heartbroken at reading the inscriptions that indicated the burial place of one unknown soldier, I was even more so at seeing headstones that represented so many more. A number of white flags fly around this cemetery and the sign stated that “The dead of this cemetery admonish to peace.” It was subtle, and probably unintentional, but it almost felt like they had to justify the presence of the cemetery in Belgium. It was heartbreaking.
 Stop 8: Kitchener’s Wood Memorial
Kitchener's Wood MemorialThis small roadside memorial is related to the St. Julien Memorial, in that it commemorates the same series of battles. But in this case, it commemorates the battle that followed the gas attack. The attack that resulted in others pulling back and leaving a gap to the left of the Canadians. The Canadians counter-attacked and captured the German position at Kitchener’s wood. As the memorial plaque states “Both Canadian battalions sustained heavy casualties and by morning established a line of resistance south of the wood. This action prevented a German breakthrough to Ypres and beyond…” The most impressive part of this small monument is it’s location looking out over the fields where the battle was fought. In terms of War and Memory, I was struck by how this particular battle holds a relatively small place in the Canadian memory of the First World War, despite it’s importance in preventing a German breakthrough. And despite it’s time proximity to the battle where the Germans first used gas. 
Stop 9: Essex Farm Cemetery/ John McCrae Memorial
John McCrae MemorialAt this point, I was still holding onto the belief that I could see everything on my list, so I didn’t spend as much time here as I could have. What struck me the most about this memorial was the Advanced Dressing Station Bunker/series of bunkers. In particular I was struck by the size. The stations were very small and cramped, and had to have been terrible working conditions for those doing the initial medical work on the wounded (including those wounded in the gas attacks of April 2015). As it was, there was a little bit of mud on the ground. I can only imagine how much worse it would be after a series of rainy days. I was also struck by the peacefulness and tranquility of the site. So much different than the fields McCrae saw as he tended the wounded and dying. The fields and conditions that led him to write “In Flanders Fields.”
As an aside, I made friends with a cat that followed me into a small treed in picnic area. How different this place is today than 100 years ago.

Cat Friend

Stop 10 – after a few directional false starts, I realized that I was not going to be able to fit in the rest of the sites I planned to see before heading to the Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony. Based on how tricky it was to find some locations, there was too much chance I wouldn’t make it to Ypres in time. So I decided to head straight to Ypres. I missed seeing: The Princess Patricia Light Infantry Memorial, Sanctuary Wood Canadian Memorial, the Memorial to the St. Elois Tunnellers, and the Voormezeele Enclosure No 3 Cemetery (which contains the grave of one of the first two Canadian Soldiers Killed in action). Maybe someday I will return. I also was unable to see the Flanders Field Museum, unfortunately, as based on the time it closed I would have had to cut many other stops.
 Stop 11: The Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony
Menin GateThe Menin Gate was designed in the post was years to commemorate the commonwealth soldiers with no known burial spot. As mentioned before, it soon became clear that the size was not adequate. But the site has come to be a place where people commemorate all those of the commonwealth who fought and died on the Ypres Salient. Though many others also fought there, the Ypres Salient has become closely associated with the commonwealth war memory. It was a beautiful evening for the ceremony, which is done every evening, and the lighting highlighted the names inscribed on the memorial. For the centenary, each evening they are also narrating a bit of the story of a different soldier whose name is inscribed on the memorial.
 In Summary: I saw and experienced so much of war and memory today, and I still need to process and think through a great deal of it. Eventually I will see it more as the historian of memory and commemoration, but right now I am still a person who experienced the commemoration for the first time. Perhaps I will write a post, or series of posts, on the nature of war and memory as it regards the First a world War Commemorations in Flanders, but for now, this is where I will end these (long posts) for this one day.
 To end with an experience completely unrelated to war and memory, I drove back to Bruges at dusk and witnessed the most glorious sunset I have seen in months. It was beautiful, peaceful, and calming. And I was thankful.

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

Tyne Cot Cemetery
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.

Itinerary: Belgium Battlefields Day Trip

STOP 1: Passchendaele New British Cemetery
STOP 2: Crest Farm Canadian Memorial
STOP 3: The 85th Canadian Infantry Battalion – Nova Scotia Highlander’s Monument **Did not Go**
STOP 4: Tyne Cote Cemetery and Visitors Centre
STOP 5: Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917
STOP 6: German War Cemetery of Langemark
STOP 7: St. Julien Canadian Memorial
STOP 8: Kitchener’s Wood Memorial
STOP 9: Essex Farm Cemetery and John McCrae Memorial Site
STOP 10: Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry Memorial **Did not go**
STOP 11: Sanctuary Wood (Hill 62) Canadian Memorial **Did not go**
STOP 12: The Memorial to the St. Eloi Tunnellers **Did not go**
STOP 13: Voormezeele Enclosure, No 3 Cemetery **Did not go**
STOP 14: In Flanders Field Museum, Ypres **Did not go**
STOP 15: The Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony
ENDING LOCATION: Bruges, Belgium