Today’s post is a bit of a departure from the norm. It’s Remembrance Day here in Canada and the UK (Veteran’s Day in the US) and I wanted to take some time to recognize it. I come from a family with a rich military history (both my parents served, their parents before them, etc) and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend some of my formative years on a military base overseas.
It was an experience unlike any other, especially when it came to things like field trips for school. I went to an American school in the Netherlands but every Canadian was required to take courses on Canadian History and what better place to learn about things like Canada’s involvement in the first and second World Wars than right in the backyard of where it all happened.
I regret now that I didn’t take more pictures while I was there but it wasn’t as easy being a teenager without my own camera, needing actual film and the like. I really don’t have any photos of things that I did while I was living in Germany and experiencing all of this history and it’s unfortunate. One event in particular I wish I was able to share in photos was when I had the opportunity to participate in the Knokke-Heist Canadian liberation march.
First a little history:
In 1944, the First Canadian Army was tasked with getting into the Belgian municipality of Knokke-Heist, which is in West Flanders, with the Dutch border on one side and the North Sea on the other. The town of Knokke was surrounded by the enemy and recapturing it was a small part of Operation Switchback, in which Allied forces were attempting to capture the Belgian coastline and a few nearby islands. This once-beautiful piece of Belgium had become a thick quagmire of mud, battered by torrential rains, making mobility extremely challenging. After five years of intense fighting, on a cold day in early November, the entire region was liberated by Canadian and Polish soldiers.
The gracious residents of Knokke-Heist have never forgotten the thousands of Canadian soldiers who sacrificed their lives in order to free the town and every year they honour them with four days of festivities. Canadian military members and civilians often participate and in 1998 I was lucky enough to be one of them. We were all being hosted by Dutch families just over the border, students that were also learning about the war and sharing in the experience. I can’t remember much about the family I stayed with, only two of them spoke English, but I recall that we did have a lot of fun. I went skating with the family and some of the friends of the girl who was my age and the next day we went to a ceremony at the local cenotaph kicking off the days of festivities.
Through the days we followed in the footsteps of our forefathers, visiting the Canadian cemetery at Flanders, witnessing the infamous poppies we’d always heard about, visiting the battlefields of Passchendaele, standing in awe of the Brooding Soldier monument marking the first gas attack of the First World War where 6,000 Canadians were lost. Everywhere you go there is a monument dedicated to Canadians, it seems. It’s interesting that the Americans got so much of the glory while the people who lived it will always remember the men who came through first – the Canadians (and Brits) – who were often sent to slaughter before the Americans came in, cleaned up the mess and got the credit for the victory. It was an experience I will never forget. (That, and having the opportunity to spend Remembrance Day at Vimy Ridge.)
The final day involved the Liberation March. The march follows the exact route that the First Canadian Army took as they came into the town of Knokke – a 35 kilometre stretch through fields, on uneven paths and roads. We were lucky enough that it hadn’t rained but it was still pretty dirty. We had tried to prepare for the march by doing some long walks for the weeks leading up to it but it’s totally different to walk down the sidewalk than it is to walk through a farmer’s field. I think now that 35-K isn’t terrible, especially when you consider how long the Nijmegen March is and that’s in uniform with full kit, but at the time it was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. It was empowering that people from the town had lined the route and were cheering us on and homes along the way had Canadian flags hanging from the balconies.
But… it was hard. My feet hurt – a lot. The blisters I got that day taught me so much about taking care of my feet that after I joined the military I was one of the few people at basic training who never got a single blister. We walked for hours, in the footsteps of ghosts, without 1940’s “quality” boots, a lack of food and 80 lbs on our backs but rather sneakers with water stations along the way. It definitely gave me an appreciation for the fitness that comes along with war. No pre-workout, no carbs, no sleep and often no water, but they kept on walking because they had to.
I vividly remember getting to the end and wanting to cry because I was so proud of myself that I had made it. The next thing that happened though as I crossed the finish line was that my legs stopped working. We all had terrible cramps and our feet hurt like nothing we’d ever experienced in our 13 years of life but we were proud. The next thing we had to do though was keep walking… all the way through town to the movie theatre where we had the opportunity to pre-screen a film that was about to be released called Saving Private Ryan (you may have heard of it :P). It was an amazing end to four amazing days and some day I hope I can go back there and do it all over again…but a little more prepared.
On the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month… We will remember them.