The 11-metre-high Brooding Soldier looms over Saint-Julien, Belgium (photo: Tim Myers)

Finding Canada in Belgium’s World War One History

By Lea Currie

Canada is a vast country, rich in history and culture. But to truly understand what makes our nation remarkable, you must see it from beyond our borders. A visit to the small city of Ypres, in the Flemish region of Belgium, demonstrates how precious—and precarious—our freedom and privileges really are.

Before the outbreak of “The Great War,” this quaint city was known for wool, cloth and beer. But everything changed after 1914. German troops invaded Belgium in an effort to conquer neighbouring France. Canadian troops arrived to help stop advancing German forces, suffering dire consequences in their fight for freedom. More than 20,000 Canadian troops perished during 1915’s Second Battle of Ypres and the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

These bloody clashes—and others across Belgium and Europe—remain critical narratives in the history of Canada. Soldiers displayed the strength, perseverance and valour of our nation. Such efforts cast a spotlight on Canada on the international stage, showcasing us as global leaders, not just supporting players under Britain.

But it’s difficult to grasp the power of the history written in Ypres a century ago until you see it for yourself, as I recently did. At Crest Farm, the site of a German fortification, I pause on the grassy slope where Canadians confronted some of their stiffest and bloodiest resistance. And strolling along Canadalaan, a pastoral avenue named for our country’s sacrifices here, one feels the magnitude of what Canadians achieved a century ago.

As I tour the many memorials, cemeteries and museums dedicated to the war, I begin to understand and appreciate the incredible strength and bravery of those who fought. At the Passchendaele Memorial Museum, bout nine kilometres east of Ypres, visitors can walk among recreated trenches and peer into the dugout, constructed using original materials from the era. Crouching in foxholes, I see the same views that troops witnessed during hard-won battles—or the last scene many would have gazed upon.

Canada in Belgium Last Post Menin Gate
The Last Post ceremony at Menin Gate (photo: Peter van Evert/Alamy)

In the neighbouring town of Saint-Julien, I crane my neck to stare at The Brooding Soldier, a towering 11-metre-high stone statue erected in 1923 to commemorate Canadian casualties suffered during 1915’s Second Battle of Ypres. The looming stone soldier, with downward-cast eyes, marks the four-day skirmish during which one in every three Canadian soldiers died.

Wandering through Essex Farm Cemetery, some three kilometres north of Ypres, I read In Flanders Fields in the very location it was written by Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. Back in Ypres, the Last Post Ceremony at Menin Gate pays nightly tribute to fallen heroes. Every evening at 8 p.m., townsfolk arrive to observe a moment of silence. It’s a reminder of how a long-ago war still touches daily life here.

At Tyne Cot Cemetery, one of more than 150 cemeteries surrounding Ypres, the Canadian war effort spreads out before one’s eyes. Tyne Cot is the largest cemetery devoted to Commonwealth war dead: It’s filled with nearly 12,000 headstones, about 1,000 of which are marked with a maple leaf to signify their Canadian roots. I ponder how often the headstones are greeted with a rock from home, a symbol visitors use to pay their respects.

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Standing in Tyne Cot, searching for a deeper connection to what surrounds me, I look up my family name and find a soldier who shares my name among those buried here. I don’t know him; he may or may not have even been related to me. But as the tour guide helps me locate his grave in the maze of headstones, I know it doesn’t matter— there’s a bond. Whether by blood or nationality, this man is a part of my history. When we find the headstone, I sit for a minute, contemplating his life and death.

Though a century has passed, Belgium has not forgotten the sacrifices of foreign troops. They have great respect for the Canadians who fought selflessly in the name of freedom for a country more than 6,500 kilometres away. At every turn, Belgians are eager to share the joint history of our two nations. My tour guide shares family stories of the war, passed down through the generations like precious keepsakes. While shopping at a vismarkt (fish market), I meet a painter whose eyes shine brightly when I tell him I’m from Canada, and he passionately explains his own Canadian connections. People are genuinely overjoyed that a Canadian has come to pay her respects. No matter how many years pass, it seems Canadians are welcomed with open arms and hearts.

This bond isn’t surprising: The more I come to appreciate Belgian culture, the more I’m reminded of home. Meeting locals who are peaceful, polite and full of pride truly feels like being back in Canada. Belgians’ pride is not loud and boisterous, shouted from the rooftops. Rather, it’s a subtle joy expressed when given the opportunity to showcase their land and offerings. And there is a lot to enjoy here today.

Canada in Belgium Ypres Cloth Hall Map
The historic Cloth Hall in Ypres (map: Katy Dockrill/i2iart.com; photo: Chris Lofty/Alamy)

Perfectly European in many ways, Belgium’s cities boast their own distinct histories, architecture and cultures, from bustling Brussels to the quirky town of Ghent. I make my way from Ypres to Bruges, one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the world. Though it was occupied by the Germans during the war, it emerged largely unscathed by bombings and battles. (It was again occupied three decades later during World War II, and ultimately liberated by Canadians.)

Exploring the canal-lined streets of Bruges makes me feel like I’ve stepped into a fairy tale: Cobblestone lanes are dotted with bright rows of bicycles; horse-drawn carriages transport delighted tourists; boats sail past droves of swans.

On one foggy evening, misty lamp posts cast an air of magic and mystery on the city’s ancient and modern buildings. Even at night, the ornate and majestic edifaces of the city’s markt (market square) and 14th-century stadhuis (city hall) are striking sights. A woman’s red umbrella contrasts the darkness, like a solitary poppy in a field. Such flashes of enchantment boost me up after a few days of solemn tributes in Ypres. Yet they’re also fitting reminders of why Canadians made the ultimate sacrifice: To ensure a better life and to give us freedom.

On this day, my freedom takes the form of a culinary exploration. Belgium is known for its many delicious offerings, including frites, waffles, beer and chocolate—any visit is sure to be a gastronomic one! Big on meat and potatoes, steak frites is a common dish throughout my trip. I also devour heaps of fresh seafood.

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Whether you opt for steak or fish, wash it down with one Belgium’s 1,500 beer styles. Other tastes not to be missed: Passendale cheese, a mild and creamy cow’s-milk cheese, and cuberdons (also called Ghent noses)—purple cone-shaped candies with hard shells and fruity, liquid interiors.

My sweet tooth jumps for joy at the chocolate shops around every corner—they’re more common than Tim Hortons back home. And each one seems to offer a new take on the country’s legendary chocolate. Mary Artisan Chocolatier, legendary purveyor to the royal house of Belgium, crafts sumptuous truffles. For something completely different, I try a chocolate shooter at The Chocolate Line in the Bruges’ historic centre. This unique experience involves using an apparatus to inhale cocoa through your nose, which is said to enhance the chocolate taste perception. (I still prefer eating it!)

As my trip winds to a close, I stuff my suitcase full of chocolate souvenirs and gifts made of lace and cloth (more Belgian specialities). But I know the heaviest thing I’m taking home can’t be physically packed: Pride in my Canadian roots.

Visiting Belgium is a profound experience—in more ways than one. There are few trips that can shock you with unspeakable horrors, yet leave you with a sense of optimism. As photos and history books fade, Belgians and Canadians continue to remember. This land is as much a part of our legacy as it is theirs. We live in one of the best countries in the world, but sometimes you need to leave to appreciate it.

Canada in Belgium Horse Carriage Canal Ferry Bruges
Seeing Bruges by carriage and ferry (photos: David Coleman/Alamy; Stephen French/Alamy)

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