Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The horrors of war on the France/Belgium Border

The only part of this summer's vacation that I haven't moodled about is the time we spent at Vimy Ridge in France and Ypres (Ieper) in Belgium. We chose to visit them because we wanted our girls to get a sense of war and its effects, so we left Paris a day early, and Belgium a day late.

Vimy Ridge is the site of an important WWI battlefield where Canadian troops succeeded in defeating the German forces along a seven kilometer front. A white marble monument now stands at Hill 145, the highest point of the area. Canadian troops spent months preparing for an attack which took place on April 9, 1917 by digging underground tunnels through which they reached and overran the German front. Though the assault was a success, 3,598 Canadians were killed, and over 7,000 were wounded. The names of 11, 285 Canadians who lost their lives in France and have no known graves are engraved on the sides of the Vimy monument.

While the monument itself is an amazing and inspiring thing, war is not. At Vimy we were able to walk down into the tunnels under the trenches, and I shivered to think about all those young men who waited in silence in the dark for many hours, knowing that at 5:30 am on April 9th, they would be expected to run up the tunnels to the German front and bayonet anyone they found alive after a two day shelling, and possibly be killed themselves. 

At the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, there were many displays and videos telling the stories of soldiers and officers as well as ordinary citizens who became refugees during the worst days of the First World War. There were rather graphic displays of war wound x-rays and artistic representations of what it feels like to be injured in battle, with figures composed only of skeletal spinal cords with broken, disconnected jaw bones and naked eye balls moving around.

After a couple of hours in the museum's gloomy atmosphere, where so much destruction and loss was made evident, one of my daughters said she'd had enough. I wondered at the war video games our youth play and whether they'd be so popular if the kids had any sense of the reality of war. Pictures of the beautiful buildings in Ypres' town square ablaze and reduced to rubble made me wonder how we can bear to sit still as the same kinds of things happen in Palestine, Syria, Central Africa, and other war torn places around the world. When will human beings learn that militaristic power and fear don't bring about the kind of necessary change that compassion can?
Canada Bereft
The great wars fought in Europe have forever marred the landscape and the collective consciousness of those who live where the battles raged and those who lost loved ones to conflict. Monuments like Vimy Ridge and the Meningate in Ypres where The Last Post is played every night almost run the risk of romanticizing and glorifying large-scale human conflicts. But the In Flanders Fields Museum did an amazing job of showing the human cost of war, and the many war cemeteries carved into the farmland in Northern France and the Flanders region of Belgium are constant reminders that war is not glorious, but horrible, as are the very human stories and statistics from present day war torn regions.

A field of unknown soldiers
We owe it to future generations to ensure that they get the message that war and military might are not to be glorified, but abhorred.

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