Paying homage to our fallen soldiers while travelling abroad On July 21, 1944, my uncle, Trooper Edward O'Neill, of the Three Rivers Regiment, Royal Canadian Armoured Corps, died in Italy while battling German forces at the height of World War II. He was in his early 20s (of course I never knew him), an innocent farm boy from rural Ontario who wanted to fight for his country and see a little bit of the world at the same time. I think of my uncle and his entire generation of war heroes (which is what they all are, in my humble opinion) as Remembrance Day approaches. Fast forward five decades: two of my adult cousins, while vacationing in Europe, took a side tour and travelled to the War Cemetery in Arezzo, Italy, where our Uncle Eddie was buried with hundreds of other fallen soldiers from Britain, Canada and India. They went to honour a man who died long before we were born, but about whom we'd heard so much. "Uncle Eddie" was almost mythical to us. As my cousins discovered, travelling to the Arezzo War Cemetery was not all too difficult. Armed with maps and an Italian-English dictionary, and relying on enthusiastic help from locals who were familiar with Canadians coming to this part of Italy to see where their ancestors were buried, they located the grave of our late uncle. The photographs of the Arezzo War Cemetery, row upon row of gravestones belonging to Canadian soldiers, were incredibly moving. My cousins brought home to us the first photos of Uncle Eddie's grave, which was so poignant for my surviving aunts, but they also brought home for us a renewed appreciation of what these men and women gave for their country. (If you consider following the steps of my cousins, an indispensable resource is ww2Museums.) [caption id="attachment_6764" align="aligncenter" width="360" caption="Hundreds of Canadian soldiers from World War II are buried in Arreso, Italy (Courtesy: War Museums)"] [/caption] I recall a lump-in-the-throat moment that invoked memories of war when I took crossed the English Channel by hovercraft (this was pre-Chunnel days, obviously) from Calais, France, to Dover, England back in the late 1980s. I had been raised on stories of The Blitz and Germany's near-invasion of England. As the craft neared the south coast of England, there before me were the iconic, much-bombed White Cliffs of Dover, immortalized of course by singer Vera Lynn. For me, they had always epitomized triumph over war, but one that involved the loss of thousands of youth. [caption id="attachment_6773" align="aligncenter" width="360" caption="The much-heralded White Cliffs of Dover were heaviliy bombed during the Second World War (Courtesy: WikiCommons)"] [/caption] The upcoming 100th anniversary of the First World War (1914-1918) in 2014 has fueled increased interest in visits to battlefields, war cemeteries, military museums and other wartime sites. War memorials figure prominently in European travel. But few places rival Flanders Fields in Belgium as a pilgrimage for people interested in war history, or simply those on a quest to see where loved ones were buried. West Flanders was the scene of endless carnage during the First World War. One million soldiers were wounded, went missing or were killed in action. Tens of thousands of people became refugees. Cities and villages were reduced to rubble. Flanders Fields, for many of us, was immortalized in the John McCrae poem every Canadian school child knows by heart. The place names evoke reverence and sombre thoughts: Ypres, Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge, Sommes... Some sites are marked with elaborate monuments, lists of names etched into granite. Others are farmers' fields long over-grown, only the undulating pastures bearing witness to the desecration that transpired so many decades earlier. [caption id="attachment_6786" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Menin Gate Memorial, in Ypres, Belgium, honours British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient and whose graves are unknown (Courtesy: War Memorial)"] [/caption] If you're considering a visit to Flanders, Visit Flanders is a good source of information on battlefield tours. Some include: • Ypres Tour: more than 2,000 Canadians were killed, and more than 6,000 injured in just a few short days in April 1915 • Lest we Forget WW I and WW II Battlefield Tours covers sites from both World Wars in Belgium. • Salient Tours offers the chance to see close up the appalling conditions in which soldiers lived, fought and died during numerous battles - The Sommes, Ypres, Vimy Ridge to name a few. Globus Tours offers a Canadian War Memorial Tour which includes visits to various war museums and sites in Paris and London.
- Battlefield tours and military-themed journeys are history lessons. And while it's crucial to remember the past, it's so important and interesting to explore and celebrate the fascinating places they are today. Have you visited a particularly memorable war memorial or military site in your travels?