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Every year thousands of people make pilgrimages to the military cemeteries in Europe, seeking the past and the perished. World War I memorials stand in every town and village and cemetery signs sprout in pathetic profusion along the highways and byways, directing searchers to the final resting places of the countless casualties who have soaked this soil with blood.

As a result of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, a relatively minor event, senile old men cried chaos and loosed the dogs of war on the world. They caused Europe to blunder helplessly and lurch inexorably into the bloodiest war in history. Popular clamour did not drive the great powers into war. Only after the decisions had been taken did crowds turn out to cheer a war that would be over by Christmas. Recruitment was brought to a white heat, as men thronged recruitment centres. Rupert Brook, a poet of renown. spoke for an entire generation when he wrote, "Now God be thanked who has matched us with His hour."

As pretty girls waved and cheered to embolden the boys, the soldiers laughed and joked Women walked the streets, handing out white feathers to any man not in uniform. Such happiness in a world gone mad was to result in millions of men dying in the ditches and trenches that traversed the continent of Europe. It was not to be a quick one-battle war, but a dauntingly deadlocked conflict of prolonged battering that could last indefinitely.

Befuddled Fools

And this war to end all wars was followed 21 years later by a more devastating conflict.

We visited battle sites and cemeteries in France, the Netherlands and Belgium. The cemeteries are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to which Canada contributes ten per cent of the costs. Entry to the Tombres de Guerre, Tombs of War, is gained through a variety of decorative entrances bearing the words, Canadian War Cemetery or Cemetiere de Guerre Canadien, 1939-45.

In Belgium we toured Brugge and travelled through Flanders on whose fields countless battles were fought. Then on to Menen to view the massive war memorial known as Menen Gate.

Menen Gate, Ypres, Belgium
photo by

Menen Gateway

When the Germans launched the great spring offensives of 1918 their forces were finally halted less than two and a half kilometres from the Menin Gate at Ypres. After the war this 17th century gate in the eastern ramparts of Ypres was chosen as the site of a Memorial Arch. The Arch commemorates by name nearly 55,000 dead of the armies of the Commonwealth whose final resting-place is known only to God. Of these, 6,940 are Canadians.

The dead are still remembered in a simple ceremony that takes place every evening at sunset when all traffic through the gateway in either direction is halted. Two buglers (on special occasions four) move to the centre of the Hall and sound the Last Post. This volunteer operation is not supported financially by any government. The tribute is the responsibility of the Ypres Last Post Committee. The cost of the operation is kept to a minimum and is covered by income from an endowment fund established in 1928. To supplement this a fund has been started in Vancouver.

Two silver trumpets for use in the ceremony are a gift to the Ypres Last Post Committee by an officer of the Royal Canadian Artillery who served with the 10th Battery of St. Catharines, Ontario in Ypres in April 1915. Ypres the city, 'Wipers' to Brits and the CEF, is an ancient Flemish town whose magnificent Cloth Hall was built in the 13th century. Ypres the salient was a strategically insignificant bulge in the Allied line enclosed on three sides by enemy guns. The Canadians absorbed attack after attack involving green gas, bayonets and shells in April 1915. Many were torn, wounded, buried alive and blown to bits but they kept smiling and their position. Some said Ypres was the birthplace of a nation.

Menen Gateway & Last Post

The cemeteries visited in France were the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery, Beny-sur-mer and Bretteville-sur-laize. In the Netherlands we visited Bergen-op-zoom, Jonkerbos, Holten and Groesbeek cemeteries, the later the largest in the Netherlands with 2,338 graves. The focal point and location for our short comemmorative services at each cemetery was a large concrete cross and a bronze sword.

Concrete Cross & Bronze Sword
photo by

Prominently displayed on the front walls at the entrance at each cemetery was the following statement in English and the local language.

The land on which the cemetery stands is the gift of the people of France, Belgium and the Netherlands for the perpetual resting place of the soldiers, sailors and airmen interred here.

Thousands of fertile acres have been sanctified in France, Belgium and the Netherlands as burial sites for friend and foe alike, for German graves are often located closeby the Canadian ones. These immaculately maintained memorial places were comparable to green oases scattered across the countryside. The plots of green grass and seemingly endless lines of white gravestones were jarring reminders of death in the midst of life's lovely peaceful, pleasant scenes of farm fields, colourful barns, haystacks, crops and cattle grazing round about.

Each visit to the Canadian war cemeteries was a moving and very emotional experience. One flinched at the first sight of thousands of tiny white tombstones stretching away in perfect precision.

Benny-Sur-Mer Cemetery, France
photo by
G. Wilson

Colomned enclosures are constructed at the entrance to the cemeteries within which is kept the Book of Remembrance and a bronze plaque containing details of the battle in which a significant number of the cemetery's occupants died. The following is quoted from the one at Beny-Sur-Mer.

"It was on the coast (Juno Beach) just to the north of and visible from this cemetery, that members of the Third Canadian Division killed that day are buried in this cemetery with 1694 other Canadian soldiers and 15 airmen who fell in subsequent operations."

Bretteville-sur-Laize Cemetery, France
photo by
B. Wilson

At the top of each stone is a maple leaf below which are the identification number, rank, name, regiment, date of death and age of the soldier buried there. Beneath the cross in the middle of the tombstones are inscriptions placed there by relatives such as:

Someday we will understand.
Love never faileth.
Love can never lose its own.
The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord.
A youth noble and true.
and the poignant and oft repeated :
Here Lies Our Beloved Son.

The age of each soldier frequently caused shock and sadness for many of the fallen never survived their late teens or early twenties. Several members of our group with close connections to the dead soldiers sadly sought out their loved one's grave. Walter Green, a seventy-two year-old veteren, knelt beside the grave of a war-time comrade who died at the age of 22.

Walter at
Cimetiere Militaire Canadien
photo by

Finding the grave of a husband and father was a very emotional experience for a wife and daughter. Doris and Louise finally found the grave of Doris's husband, Louise's father, whom Louise had never known, because she was born after he shipped out to Europe. As they knelt beside the grave and cried, onlookers shed tears too. .

Doris and Louise at
Adegen Cemetery
photo by

We were asked by the brother of a private in the Essex Scottish Regiment, to find and photograph his tomb for he had never seen it. We located A.W's grave at the Bretteville-sur-laize cemetery near Caen. A.W's brother was moved and very grateful to receive a photo of A.W.'s tomb, which bears the inscription: "Dearly Loved, Never Forgotten by Mother, Sister, Brother."

Tomb of A.W. Macdonald
photo by

An attempt was made to create a piece of Canada in these far-off fields by planting maple, birch and pine trees around the cemetery. Leaves on a few of the graceful maples had begun to change and their bright colours added a haunting hint of home.

The gravestones were generally separated by three feet except in a few cases where they are arranged so that they adjoin each other. This is intended to indicate that the deaths occurred in similar circumstances at the same time. In one instance, for example, four adjacent tombstones marked the graves of a Flying Officer, a Flight Engineer, a Pilot Officer and a Navigator, all of whom died on July 18, 1944. On the tombstones of the airmen their names were followed by the Air Force emblem and the words Per Ardua Ad Astra - 'Through Difficulties to the Stars'.

Holten War Cemetery, Netherlands
[near the German border on the road to Bremen]
[Many were killed here in April- May, 1945]
photos by
G. Wilson

After visiting the Holten War Cemetery we travelled to Arnhem where we crossed the famous, "Bridge Too Far". On 17 September 1944 thousands of paratroopers descended from the sky by parachute or glider up to 150 km behind enemy lines. Their goal: to secure the bridges across the rivers in Holland so that the Allied army could advance rapidly northwards and turn left into the lowlands of Germany hereby skirting around the Siegfried line, the German defence line. If all had been carried out as planned, it should have ended the war by Christmas 1944.

Unfortunately, this daring plan named Operation Market Garden, did not have the expected outcome. The bridge at Arnhem proved to be 'a bridge too far'. After 10 days of bitter fighting, the operation ended with the evacuation of the remainder of the 1st British Airborne Division from the Arnhem area.

Arnhem and the "Bridge Too Far"

"Bridge Too Far"
photo by
G. Wilson

The Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery is a beautiful burial ground which we approached down a winding, country road bordered by shade trees beyond which were fields of corn. Enclosed by a neatly clipped hedge, the cemetery is on high ground that overlooks the surrounding countryside which extends away to Germany. It is located 10 km south east of the town of Nijmegen which is two miles from Germany. Sergeant Aubrey Cosens is buried here.

From a distance his tiny white tombstone is indistinguishable from the thousands of others until one becomes aware of a marking that make it different. Aubrey Cosen's marker bears a Maltese cross, the highly distinctive symbol of the Victory Cross, the highest honour the Sovereign can bestow. Designed by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, it is made of bronze from melted down cannons captured from the Russians at Balaclava, site of the Charge of the Light Brigade. On a scroll beneath the Maltese cross on which is imposed the Royal Crest - a lion standing atop the Crown - are the words chosen by Victoria - "For Valor."

Valor like love is a many-splendoured thing that was embodied in 79 of our fellow citizens, a precious few among whom valor was a common virtue. Thirteen were awarded to Canadians in WW II for surpreme bravery "in the presence of the enemy".. One was awarded posthumously to Aubrey Cosens.

Aubrey Cosen's VC citation reads as follows.

In Holland on the night 25/26th February, 1945, the 1st Battalion The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada attacked the hamlet of Mooshof. Sergeant Cosens' platoon, with tanks in support, had as their objective enemy strong-points in three farm-buildings. They were twice beaten back and were then fiercely counterattacked. Their casualties were heavy, including the platoon commander killed. Sergeant Cosens assumed command of the few survivors of the platoon and placed them so as to give him covering fire while he crossed open ground to the one remaining tank and directed its fire. After a further counter-attack had been repulsed, Sergeant Cosens ordered the tank to attack the three farm-buildings, the remaining men of his platoon following in close support. He himself entered the three buildings in turn alone and killed or captured all the occupants. Immediately afterwards he was shot by a sniper and died almost instantly. His outstanding gallantry, initiative and determined leadership resulted in the capture of a position which was vital to the success of the future operations of the Brigade.,/p>

Across the front of the cemetery are the words in Latin,

"For Friends Who Died That Friends Might Live."

Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery
, Netherlands
Victoria Cross Winner
Audrey Cosens.
Queens Own Rifles of Canada,
26 February 1945
24 years of age
photos by
G. Wilson

photo by
G. Wilson

photo by
G. Wilson

Jonkerbos War Cemetery, Netherlands
photo by
G. Wilson

Shortly before we visited Jonkerbos Cemetery, it had gained unwanted international attention when it was vandalized with spray paint. The tombstones were quickly scrubbed clean, but the locals were shaken by the senseless desecration. As a result they said they would be visiting the cemetery regularly to show their concern and support. Some parents also believed they were remiss in not impressing strongly enough upon their children the enormous debt of gratitude owed to the men buried in the cemetery. Each week a resident of Nijmegen assumed responsibilty for placing a large bouquet of flowers at the central cross.

The tombstones revealed a roll call of regiments. Two in particular appeared with frequency.

The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and the Lincoln and Welland Regiment.

In the fall of 1918 the Canadian Corps was ordered to take a village called Passchendaele. The German position overlooked the Allied line and conditions in the area from which the Canadians were to commence their assault were bad. The area was littered with debris of more than two years of fighting, unburied dead soldiers, grotesquely bloated mules and horses, all in mud that easily sucked down men and machines. Appalled the Canadian commander refused to send his men there to fight for ground of no strategic importance. He estimated if he did he would suffer 16,000 casualties. He was ordered to go. After days of fighting, Passchendaele was in Canadian hands, but Currie's estimate of the casualties was "almost spot on." It represented another famous victory for an objective of no strategic importance.

Passchendaele Cemetery

When informed of the details, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, who was in London for meetings, told British Prime Minister Lloyd George,

"If there is ever a repetition of Passchendaele, not a Canadian soldier will leave the shores of Canada so long as the Canadian people entrust the Government of my country to my hands."


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