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Experiencing WWI History – France & Belgium

Commemorating The Great War a century ago

On our recent travels through France and into Belgium, we had the grand pleasure to travel with a Canadian World War 1 historian educating us with stories of the Great War – The battles raging along the entrenched front lines as forces advanced/retreated and the personal stories of soldiers she followed throughout their journey.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium (impeccable as they all were) - click any pic to enlargeEspecially in Belgium, as we visited the war memorials and spoke with locals, it was clear to us WW1 still impacted them deeply today. The battlegrounds around Ypres, Belgium still maintained the vigil of the Great War and the monumental sacrifices of the international allied soldiers as they crossed through the area on route to repatriating the territory.

Touring from a Canadian perspective was humbling - in the poppy’d fields, in the intensity of the soldiers sacrifices and in the impeccable attention paid to the memorials and battlegrounds. It was a memorial to the freedom given. While the war took place over 100 years ago now, here it felt like the war was recently ended – truly remembered.

The soldiers stories make it real

Pulled from journals, records and family accounts, our historian (Grace) walked us through the battle journeys of her soldiers studied and mourned. The trenches in which they fought, the lands they marched, the grounds they repatriated were all John Labatt Scatcherd's stonehumanizing stories of this terrible trench warfare. Sites that were honorific memorials to us were places of people battling fears and enemies in conditions we would find absolutely inhospitable.

One such special soldier to Grace’s research, John Labatt Scatcherd, a Canadian Field Artillery Lieutenant (3rd Brigade) journeyed, in his 4 years, through places like Arras, France, the Ypres Salient battlegrounds and on his furloughs – to Paris. He died as a result of battle and is buried in Vis-en-Artois British Cemetery in northern France. As we rounded out our WWI travels, we actually came to visit the cemetery and gravestone locating where he was buried. Poignantly, the reality of John Labatt Scatcherd’s century old soldier experience became real; in the footsteps, the battles fought, and the ground fallen.

Canadian National Vimy Ridge Memorial

Canadian National Vimy Ridge MemorialSitting atop the ridge where such fierce battles were fought in northern France is the powerful and beautiful Canadian National Vimy Memorial. The memorial commemorates the 11,825 Canadian soldiers killed or presumed dead in France with no known grave - each name carefully inscribed in the limestone tribute.

The Education Center and grounds commemorate the battleground and tell the story of the men and women who fought here. Original and rebuilt trenches cover the landscape showing the restored trenches at Vimy Ridgemovement of the front lines as the advanced and eventually retook the strategic ridge (in some places the German and Allied front lines were less than a grenade’s throw apart). Trenches, tunnels and even areas still embedded with unexploded WWI ordinance honor the scope of this major battleground.

To us, this was an emotionally moving walk back in time 100 years to the soldier experience in trench warfare. Seeing the reality of the battleground married with the human stories and honorific tribute brought a perspective we, in north America, only perceive from a distance.

Ypres, Belgium and the tour of WWI

the Menin Gate, Ypres, BelgiumThe Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium was the passageway to the war for the allied soldiers assembling for the many battles raging along the Ypres Salient (fronts). The Menin Gate Memorial has inscribed the names of more than 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in Belgium with no known grave. To this day, for nigh on 100 years, the Last Post is bugled every night in memorian. A ponderous and moving experience.

Ypres, Belgium was of strategic military importance throughout WWI. As a gateway to the Ypres Salient and the battlegrounds surrounding the city, it was bombarded beyond recognition and fought to be held throughout the war. As such, the cost of freedom was precious to the Belgium people and the historical memorializing of the Great War is a continuing reminder of the price dearly paid.

Take a moment and feel the poignancy of the Last Post we experienced at the Menin Gate:

Major battlegrounds and Memorial sites around Ypres we visited:

Other WWI historic sites and battlegrounds:

While staying in Belgium

It’s obvious in our travels throughout the beautiful countryside of Belgium that we’d need to partake in Ypres hospitality. Let me say that the people of Ypres (and all Belgium if the people of Ypres are an indication) are extremely warm, welcoming, conversational and like a good chat! We had a great time in the random meetings of locals we met while visiting. Thanks for welcoming us so hospitably!

Elysian Bed & Breakfast, YpresElysian Bed and Breakfast – an apartment style bed and breakfast with contemporary art deco décor and new, modern facilities in each room. Common breakfast area with warm fresh baked delights, fruits and coffee greet your morning and start your days explorations off excellently. Easy 10-minute walk to the Flanders Museum and Menin Gate with it’s restaurant and shops area.

  • Menin Gate – Last Post ceremony nightly …. A MUST!
  • Restaurants – visit the marketplace around the Flanders Museum
  • Hemelryck’s – Belgian chocolatier by the Menin Gate

attending the nightly "Last Call" at the Menin GateFor us, our WWI learning journey through France and Belgium was brought to life through the stories of the soldiers and experiencing but a visual taste of the horrific conditions and experiences of trench warfare in WWI. I can’t imagine the terror, chaos and survival mentality these millions of young men and women faced in restoring freedom for these countries. In knowing the stories and following the path of these soldiers, in humility, I say thank-you … a million times over!

Have you followed the trail of WWI or WWII family through the battlegrounds of the European Theater? We’d love to hear your stories and experiences. Drop a comment below and connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

Our French Adventure took us through Paris (and delivered a surprise engagement), through the Champagne Region and some excellent champagne house tastings and north towards the WW1 battle fronts of France and Belgium. Follow our other French Adventure posts here:



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