The Ties that Bind
We began our tour of the Vimy site by breaking off from the main tour group. I had studied everything I could about the site and about the battle and I figured that I was more than qualified to lead the four of us through it. We began back at what had been the original Canadian lines. There some of the trenches along with several underground subways had been preserved.
"This is where the allied lines were when the four Canadian divisions took over this part of the line," I said as we climbed into the trenches. "The Germans were up there," I added pointing to the top of the ridge where the monument stood.
"They could see right down on top of the Canadian lines," Josh observed.
"They could. That was part of the reason why this place was so important to the Germans and why it was so critical for the allies to take it. The British and the French both tried to take it several times and lost a couple of hundred thousand men in the process," I said solemnly.
"Jesus," Bryan said.
"But the Canadians took it in one day," Mark said proudly.
"Most of it. The main part of the ridge fell very quickly, Hill 145 fell last the next day." I said as we climbed into the trenches. "The Germans were really dug in up there," I added pointing to the top of the ridge where the monument stood.
"How come the Canadians could take it when nobody else could?" Josh asked.
"There were a number of reasons. It's interesting though that the Germans thought that they could hold off against anyone else, but when they saw the Canadians come into the line, they knew the gig was up."
"One of the main differences between the Canadian approach and the British or French approach was tactics. I'll explain more about it a little later. Another key factor was one of attitude. In the British army, it was all about class. The higher your social standing, the higher your rank. To the highest ranking officers, the men in the trenches were cannon fodder.... just something to be used up in battle. In the Canadian Army, class didn't play a role. Arthur Currie, arguably the greatest general of WWI started as a buck private in the artillery and rose to command an entire corps. Currie was adamant that he'd pay for victory with bullets and shells rather than lives."
"That makes sense to me," Mark said with a grin.
"It does make sense but it was revolutionary in those days. Currie also adopted new and largely untested tactics that the British and French frowned upon as colonial foolishness. A brilliant Canadian officer by the name of Andrew McNaughton perfected audio range finding of artillery guns and essentially became the father of modern artillery. Also, unlike the British units where only officers had maps and knew the full story, Currie had each and every single man down to the lowest private shown maps and given detailed instructions on how the whole operation would come together in addition to their own part in it. Each man was trained to do his own job as well as to pick up and take over the jobs of the men around him if need be."
"In case someone critical gets killed," Bryan said.
"Exactly. They spent months preparing and they even build a whole mockup of the ridge and the various lines well behind the front and practiced every aspect of the assault over and over again."
We spent some time exploring the preserved trenches and eventually found the entrance to a subway. Unlike big city transit systems, these subways weren't trains, they were vast underground tunnels that sheltered Canadian soldiers, equipment and munitions. Some of them even allowed engineers to place huge mines right under German trenches without them knowing it.
"Everyone try to imagine this. It's a dark, cold and damp April night back in 1917. You haven't seen your family in three years. For all that time you've been slogging through one muddy hell hole after another. For the past week, Canadian artillery has been raining a constant barrage of shells over your heads and pounding your own German lines without mercy. It was so bad that the Germans called it the week of suffering," I said as we approached the entrance to the subway. "The Canadians dropped more than two million rounds of artillery ammunition on four square miles of land in just over a weeks time.
"You've just been told that tomorrow is that day of the attack and you've been ordered to gather your gear and head into the subway to wait for the 5AM Assault. So as a huge blizzard began to kick up, tens of thousands of troops crawled into tunnels like this one," I said as we began to climb down into the dimly lit subway.
We made our way into the cool comfort of the limestone tunnel and made our way towards the front exits that served as the jumping off point for the Canadian troops who had sheltered there.
"Look at this!" Josh exclaimed as he pointed to the soft limestone wall. The walls were covered in carvings that had been done by the Canadian troops as they waited for the attack. Names, unit names, pictures, and even a very detailed drawing of a maple leaf stood out in the dim light. There were more than a few carvings that could only be described as pornographic as well!
"They must have done that with bayonets," Bryan said. "I wonder how many of the people who made those carvings survived the battle?"
"Most actually did, but the cost was horrific. About 6,000 were killed or wounded. It's unknown how many Germans were killed, but it was probably ten times as many.
"Think back to 1917 again. When zero hour came, the noise would have been monstrous. Imagine 2,000 artillery pieces; some as big as railway cars, along with thousands of machine guns opening fire all at once. For half an hour that massive barrage carried on and using McNaughton's range finding technology, they managed to destroy 80% of the German artillery before a single man went over the top. When it was time to go, the Canadian troops burst out of these holes," I said as we exited the subway.
"Right now we're in what was known as no-man's land. It's the space between the Canadian and German trenches. The snow is blinding and blowing right into our faces. It's cold and windy and the noise of the artillery is deafening. Normally we'd have been shot to pieces standing here, but in this attack, a new Canadian tactic was being put to use and it had completely silenced the German machine guns. It’s called a creeping barrage."
"What's that?" Mark asked.
"The old tactic was to shell the crap out of the enemy trenches and then send the men over the top to attack. The problem was that the enemy would simply hide in dugouts until the shelling stopped and then pop up and mow down the troops with machine guns. To stop that from happening, the Canadian gunners began dropping a curtain of exploding artillery directly in front of the advancing infantry. These exploding shells coupled with more dropped right on their trenches kept the German's heads down. The Canadian infantry then simply walked at a slow deliberate pace ensuring that they didn't get too far ahead and that they didn't fall too far behind the barrage."
"I'm guessing that it worked pretty well," Josh grinned.
"It worked better than anyone ever imagined. The opening barrage was so loud that British Prime Minister David Lloyd George wrote in his memoirs that he could actually hear the sound of the gunfire all the way over in London. The first lines of the German trenches fell to the advancing Canadians in less than an hour."
We walked ahead, towards what had been the German trenches. Back on the day of the battle, the whole landscape would have been muddy and snow covered. Today, for us, it was a beautiful lush green lawn.
'These craters must be from the shells," Mark observed. "The closer we get to the ridge, the more there are."
"That’s right," I said as we crossed the preserved German trenches and continued our advance up the slopes of the ridge. Finally, we arrived at the final line of German trenches at the summit of the ridge just below Hill 145 where the monument stood. "This is where the final German lines fell to the Canadians at around noon on that day. The Germans were in full flight down the opposite slope and only held onto Hill 145. If the British units on either side of the Canadian divisions had not refused to adopt our tactics and had not been bogged down, the Germans might have been chased all the way back to Germany," I said.
"Why did they refuse to adopt the tactics?" Josh asked.
"Because of the hoity-toity attitude of many British and French officers. Many of them considered the Canadians, Australians and even the Americans to be 'merely colonials' who didn't know what they were talking about," Bryan replied.
"That's exactly right. Once the battle was over, it was a different story. The Canadian divisions became the shock troops of the British army and had the war gone on into 1919, David Lloyd George would have appointed Arthur Currie supreme commander of all British and Commonwealth forces with Australian General John Monash as his second in command."
"The Aussies were right up there with the Canadians in terms of being the best of the best of the British order of battle," Bryan added.
"The Germans used to refer to their best troops as Sturmann which loosely translates to Stormtroopers. After Vimy, the Germans began to refer to the Canadian divisions as Stormtroopers as well. From the first time Canadian troops first faced the enemy in 1915, they never lost a single battle. They never gave up a yard of ground, never lost a single artillery gun to the enemy and never failed to achieve an objective. It was on this site that Canadians from every part of the country came together to accomplish something great. Many historians say that we truly came of age as a nation on these slopes. Canada entered the war automatically when Britain did, but after the successes of Vimy and other places our troops earned us our own seat at the table in the peace negotiations."
"It kind of made the world take notice of us," Josh said thoughtfully.
"Yes it did. In a big way," I smiled. “In recognition of Canada's war efforts, France granted Canada perpetual use of this portion of land on Vimy Ridge with the understanding that the Canadians use the land to establish a battlefield park and memorial. Other parts of the wartime tunnels, trenches, craters and unexploded munitions still honeycomb other areas of this site, which remains largely closed off for public safety. This memorial site is one of two Canadian National Historic Sites located outside of Canada and is maintained by Veterans Affairs Canada. After an international competition, this memorial was awarded to and designed by a Canadian, Walter Allward. He’s also designed many other statues and memorials throughout Queen’s Park in Toronto.”
From there, we climbed the steps up Hill 145 to the towering limestone memorial. The Vimy memorial is breathtaking and it is very much up to the task of marking such an important place. It consists of a limestone base facing towards the east with two towering limestone pillars on either end of the base. Scattered around the pillars and the base are a number of carvings and statues. Engraved on the sides of the base are the names of the Canadian troops who died in WWI, but whose remains were never found. The front wall of the base symbolizes an impenetrable wall of defense. Standing on top of this wall is the largest carved figure on the entire monument. It is a statue of a cloaked woman facing the rising sun in the east with her head bowed and her chin resting on her hand as if in mourning. Carved from a single thirty tonne block of stone, the statue known as "Canada Bereft", symbolizes the young nation of Canada as a mother mourning her fallen sons. It serves as a focal point for the whole monument.
One of the twin pillars bears the Canadian Maple Leaf and the other bears the Fleur-De-Lis of France. The pillars symbolize the sacrifice and unity of both Canada and France and perched on those pillars are figures representing justice, peace, truth, and knowledge. The figure representing peace is shown holding a torch in an outstretched arm and it’s the highest point in the entire region.
At the base of the pillars is another figure called the Spirit of Sacrifice. This figure is of a fallen soldier with his arms outstretched having passed his torch to his comrade who stands next to him holding the torch high above his head. The coats of arms of Canada, France, and Britain are carved into the platform along with a list of WWI battle honours and a dedication to Canada's war dead written in both English and French.
"I get goosebumps standing here," Josh said.
"There are so many names," Bryan said softly.
"How many people died here?" Mark asked.
"About 2,000 Canadians were killed with another 4,000 wounded and probably ten times as many Germans. That was in the final battle of Vimy Ridge. The British and the French lost 200,000 men alone in earlier battles here."
"It's like cemetery," Josh said. "Only it's more than that. I feel more Canadian here than I ever have before."
We all knew what Josh meant and we all felt it. We were visiting what amounted to a cemetery for the lost of WWI, but it was also the place in which our nation came of age and stood up amongst the nations of the world.
"There looks like a lot more than 2,000 names written here," Josh observed.
"There are," I replied. "There are about 11,500 names engraved on this monument. That is how many of our soldiers who died and who were never found or identified."
"11,500?" Josh asked incredulously. "How many died and were found?"
I paused for a moment and then replied, "Another 47,000 for a total of about 58,000."
"My God," Josh exclaimed. "How many people died in WWI altogether?"
I had to check my history book for a moment before I answered. "About 16 million died with about two thirds of them being military personnel. Another 21 million were wounded."
"16 million people died in just about four years?" Mark asked. He looked a little green around the gills.
"What a damned waste," Bryan said thoughtfully.
"WWII was even worse," I said gently. "Between 60 and 75 million people died in WWII and most of those were civilians.... most were murdered deliberately."
Josh sat down hard on one of the limestone steps and bowed his head in thought. I sat down next to him and placed my arm around his shoulders. "You ok kiddo?" I asked.
"Yeah," he replied with a hoarse voice. "It's just so overwhelming. It was such a waste. All those people that died.... one of them might have cured cancer. Who knows what some of them might have invented or discovered."
"War is a terrible waste Joshy," I replied. "It's an awful thing, but sometimes you can't avoid it. I want to show you that too as we explore these battlefields."
We spent some more time respectfully examining every detail of the Vimy memorial before we rejoined our tour group, boarded the buses, and headed off. Over the next few days, we visited a number of other WWI battlefields on our way to the coast including the Somme.
In the spring of 1918, the German army unleashed a massive last-ditch offensive against the western allies. They attacked the British lines along a 50-mile wide front and pushed the British army back to the point that Paris was once again threatened directly. Towards the center of the British lines was one stronghold that the Germans had not dared to attack - it was the section of the lines held by the Canadian divisions under the command of Arthur Currie.
The Germans knew that they'd face a ferocious fight from the Canadians, so they simply by-passed them and attacked on either side expecting to attack them later after the British and French had been routed out of the region.
When we stopped at that battlefield, we were treated to a reenactment of Arthur Currie's moving and eloquent address to his troops. At the time, the war appeared to be turning in favor of the Germans and all that stood between them and total victory in Northern France was the four divisions of the Canadian Corps. To rally his troops, Currie delivered a dramatic address on the eve of what many believed would be the battle to end all battles in Europe.
One of our tour guides, dressed as Arthur Currie delivered the address:
“Today the fate of the British Empire hangs in the balance. I place my trust in the Canadian Corps knowing that where Canadians are engaged, there can be no giving way. You will advance or fall where you stand facing the enemy. To those who will fall, I say, you will not die, but step into immortality. Your mothers will not lament your fate, but will be proud to have born such sons. Your names will be revered forever and ever by your grateful country and God will take you unto Himself. I trust you to fight as you have ever fought – with all your strength, with all your determination, with all your tranquil courage. On many a hard fought field of battle, you have overcome the enemy. With God’s help you shall achieve victory once more.”
As it turned out, the attack never came. The German offensive petered out and using some sleight of hand tactics, the allies moved the Canadian and Australian divisions into position to spearhead a major allied offensive that became known as the 100 days offensive. The 100 days offensive saw the four Canadian divisions lead the attack against, and defeated, or put to flight no less than 47 German divisions. At the same time, newly arrived American troops engaged and soundly defeated the Germans in the Argonne Forest. The offensive was a crushing success and it broke the back of the German army forcing them to sue for peace. The armistice was signed and took effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. On the very morning that the armistice came into effect, the Canadian divisions captured the Belgian town of Mons, the very location of the first engagement between British and German forces four long years earlier.
That evening we crossed the border into Belgium and arrived at the town of Ypres just before 8PM local time. The tour bus stopped at a magnificent structure known as the Menin Gate. The Menin Gate was erected over the main intersection of the town of Ypres in honour of British and Commonwealth troops who fought there in WWI. It also plays host to a very special and moving ceremony. Every single day since the gate was opened in 1927 with the exception of the time of German occupation during WWII; buglers from the local fire brigade hold what is known as the Last Post Ceremony. All traffic is stopped through the gate and huge crowds gather at 8PM each evening rain or shine. The buglers then play a haunting rendition of the Last Post in honour of the fallen troops whose names are engraved on the walls and ceiling of the gate. When the city of Ypres was liberated by the allies towards the end of WWII, the ceremony was resumed that very night even with the battle still raging nearby.
The four of us stood in silence with the rest of the huge assembled crowd and it was impossible not to be moved. Too many people back home had little or no knowledge of the sacrifices of our troops. Too many people had forgotten that the freedom that we enjoy had been paid for by the blood of our ancestors. The Belgians had not forgotten nor, it seems, would they ever forget.
As the last notes of the Last post echoed off the ceiling of the gate, the crowd began to disperse. Because it’s considered to be a solemn ceremony, it’s not appropriate to cheer or applaud. The buglers do stay behind for a short time after each ceremony and we took the opportunity to shake their hands and express our thanks and approval for their performance.
Our tour spent that night in a small motel near the border with France. We crossed back into France early the next morning and headed for the coast. Our first stop of the day was the town of Dieppe. We were all familiar with Dieppe from history class and from the Bell Commercial that had inspired our European trip, but being there was different.
Notwithstanding, our tour guide amazed us with his descriptions and detailed stories of what took place at each of our stops on the way.
We walked the rocky beaches where the men had come ashore and faced a hail of shells and machine gun fire. We toured the remains of German bunkers and machine gun posts. We visited the various monuments, but we also got the personal stories. Our tour guides introduced us to a man in his seventies who had been there to witness it. The man had been a mere boy on the day of the raid and he had witnessed the soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Canada trying to fight their way into town.
He told us the story of a young lieutenant who was killed by a German sniper not far from his house. The people of the town, in defiance of the Germans, buried his body, erected a make-shift cross and placed flowers on his grave. He told us about what happened after the battle was fought. As nearly 2,000 Canadian troops were marched off to POW camps, the towns people once again defied the Germans and turned out along the streets to pass food and other items to the captured troops.
From Dieppe, we headed to Normandy, the site of the D-Day landings, and what was still the largest amphibious invasion in the history of warfare. On the beaches of Normandy, Canadian, American and British troops along with contingents from other allied nations stormed the beaches of Hitler's fortress Europe and began the slow march east towards Berlin. There were five main invasion beaches - Omaha and Utah beach were hit by the American Army, Gold and Sword beaches were hit by the British Army and the Canadian Army attacked Juno Beach.
The landings were costly and there were a lot of casualties, but their success represented a turning of the tide against the Nazis and signaled the beginning of the liberation of Europe. We arrived at Juno beach and began to explore along with our tour guides. As we had done at Dieppe, we toured the remains of the beach defenses and we visited monuments and the allied cemeteries that were nearby.
With some free time to wander as we wished, we broke away from the tour group and walked down to the beach itself. It seemed so peaceful that it was hard to picture the carnage that had taken place there all those years before. Josh and Mark took off their shoes and socks and waded into the chilly water; their laughter as they chased each other down the beach was just the tonic that Bryan and I needed to offset the somber mood that the history of the place created.
"So far this has been a hell of a trip," Bryan said.
"I'll say. I'm looking forward to visiting the Netherlands tomorrow."
"Me too," Bryan replied.
About 15 minutes later Mark and Josh came running back up the beach with three other boys in tow.
"Hey Dad!" Josh shouted. "You've got to check out this car!"
"Yeah it's really cool!" Mark added as the five boys screeched to a halt in front of Bryan and I. One of the new boys stumbled slightly, but was skillfully caught by a slightly older boy.
"Careful Jason," he admonished.
The younger boy grinned sheepishly at us.
"Who are your new friends?" Bryan asked.
"I'm James Jr.," the oldest of the three boys announced "this is my brother Jason," he said as he pointed to the boy who had nearly fallen over, "this is my other brother Jack." We noticed the very polite boy's British accent right away.
"Pleased to meet you boys," I said as I held my hand out to each of the three newcomers in turn. "How did you guys meet up with Josh and Mark?"
"You've got to see their Dad's car!" Josh said enthusiastically.
"It's a Jaguar XJS," Jason said with a grin.
"That is a nice car!" Bryan replied enthusiastically.
"We were near the parking lot over there when we saw the car and we went to check it out. That's when we met James, Jason, and Jack. Their Dad is back there somewhere," Mark said.
Sure enough, we looked down the beach and a middle age man was making his way up the beach towards us. When he arrived, I held out my hand.
"You must be the man who owns the Jag," I said with a smile.
The man smiled in return and accepted my handshake. "I usually prefer to go by James," he replied. His British dry sense of humour was on full display.
"I'm Tom. This is Bryan and I understand that you've already met Josh and Mark."
"I have indeed," he replied. "My sons seem quite taken with them."
"I must say you have very polite sons," I replied. I smiled as the three boys blushed slightly.
"Don't let them fool you," James replied. "They can be little devils when they decide to get up to mischief or play tricks on dear old dad!"
Bryan and I both laughed at that. "Somehow I think that's something that all boys have in common," Bryan said. "Ours are no different!"
"Forgive me, but you both look very young to have sons.... that I'm guessing are around 14 or so." James pondered.
"Very observant of you," I replied with a smile. We took a moment to tell James a bit about our family.
"Good on you," James replied with a smile. "My middle son Jason is adopted. People often think he's a bit clumsy, but it's not his fault. He has a mild form of Ataxia that makes him a wee bit unsteady sometimes."
"They truly are three very nice boys," I said. The three of us stood and smiled as we watched the five boys frolic in the sand and the surf. It was heartwarming to watch them. Despite the age differences and even the cultural differences, they were all fast friends. "Boys will be boys," I said with a grin.
"Indeed," James replied. "So what brings you chaps across the pond?"
"This place actually," Bryan said. "We're on a tour of WWI and WWII battlefields."
"Outstanding," James replied. "That's partially why we're here too. James Jr. is learning about the war in school and he wanted to see the D-Day beaches. We're actually driving south to Monaco and taking the scenic route as it were."
"Quite a road trip!" I said. I took a moment to tell James about our road trip from the past summer.
"Brilliant. You could drive right across Europe in less time than that! I suppose I'll have to bring the boys to visit the 'colonies' one day!" He laughed.
James went on to tell us that he and his sons live near Salisbury in the UK and that they are driving to visit a new home that they had purchased in Monaco. "My eldest daughter lives in Caen and we paid her a visit. We're off to Paris next to stop in at my company's branch office."
"We're going to check out the Juno beach centre and then we're off to Holland in the morning," I said. "Would you and your boys like to join us at the centre and then perhaps have dinner with us?"
"That would be wonderful," James replied.
Bryan, James, and I spent a few more minutes exchanging small talk as we watched our boys play on the beach. There was something uplifting about watching the innocent and carefree play of boys in a place that had one played host to such bloodshed and violence.
A little while later we corralled our boys and the eight of us made our way to the Juno Beach Centre. The Juno beach centre was built not far from the actual beach and served as a museum dedicated to showcasing the Canadian involvement in the Second World War. It documented many everything from the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic and the Normandy/European campaign. It reminded all of us of the war museum that we had visited in Ottawa.
"That was awesome," Jack said as the group of exited the museum. Jack, who at age nine didn't have the same stamina as the other boys, was perched on Josh's shoulders and had been for the latter part of the tour of the Juno Beach Centre.
I was quite impressed with twelve-year-old James Junior. He was very knowledgeable about the history of D-Day and he did a great job of helping me to explain things to the other boys. Eleven-year-old Jason was a bit shy, but he was quite taken with Josh and Mark. He didn't appear to let his condition get him down and he always had a smile on his face. They enjoyed meeting us and spending time with Josh and Mark, but you could see a clear look of love and devotion in all of their eyes when they looked at their dad.
The whole group of us ate dinner that night in a small restaurant in town. James' boys knew a bit of French, but for the most part, Josh acted as our translator and assisted us all with ordering our meals. James was duly impressed with Josh's easy command of the French language.
After dinner as we were saying our goodbyes, he made a comment about the boys. "Both of your boys are quite remarkable. Josh has some real charisma and magnetism about him and Mark appears to be quite the athlete."
Just before we boarded our tour bus, we took a moment to use the facilities. I was waiting for Josh, Bryan, and Mark when my cell phone rang. It was my mom and she was calling to share some news with me. News that was going to have a profound impact on the rest of our trip and would indeed have an impact on Josh and I in particular.
"Are you ok Dad?" Josh asked as he sat down beside me and put his hand on my shoulder.
I was deep in thought. "I'm ok son. I'm just thinking."
"You sure?" Josh asked in a concerned tone.
"I'm sure. I just found out something big and I'll fill you guys in tomorrow at the appropriate time. I promise."
"Ok Dad. I love you," he said and snuggled against my side.
"I love you too kiddo," I replied.
A few moments later, the four of us were back on the tour bus and headed to the Netherlands. We drove through the night and early the next morning we crossed the border into the Netherlands and began our tour.
I thought it was ironic – this was July 1st, Canada Day. Back in Canada, the four of us might be enjoying a day of picnics, parades and other patriotic celebrations, with a fireworks finale at the end of the day – but here in the Netherlands, we were going to commemorate this day in an entirely different way – a very personal way.
We began our exploration near the Scheldt Estuary where the Battle of the Scheldt had taken place. It was where the First Canadian Army had begun the Liberation of the Netherlands. It had been a terrible and hard fought battle that resulted in a decisive victory for the First Canadian Army. Clearly the Canadian Soldiers of WWII had lived up to the legacy of their fathers who had fought WWI some twenty years earlier.
I was somewhat pre-occupied as we saw the sights and I knew that Josh, Mark, and Bryan were all clued into that fact. I wasn’t going to disclose the news that I’d received from Mom until the time was right.
From the Scheldt, we headed to the city of Wageningen. In the city of Wageningen, we made our way to the Hotel de Wereld. It was in that very hotel that German General Johannes Blaskowitz had unconditionally surrendered all German land, sea, and air forces operating within the Netherlands to Canadian General Charles Foulkes in the presence of His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard on May 5, 1945. General Blaskowitz agreed to all of the terms put forth by General Foulkes but it was said that not a single typewriter could be found in town to type up the instrument of surrender. They had to delay the formal signing until the next day in order for a typewriter to be located and the document prepared. May the 5th has become known as Liberation Day in the Netherlands and it is celebrated every year. Outside the hotel are a number of monuments commemorating the event.
We had received a warm welcome everywhere we went in Europe, but it was different in the Netherlands. The Dutch hold a very definite affection for Canadians and the deeds of those young men who liberated their country so long ago had not been forgotten. People knew that we were Canadians from the flags on our jackets and people would actually stop us in the streets and shake our hands and thank us as if we had something to do with it ourselves.
Around noon,, when we arrived in the town of Holten, which is located about 110 km from Amsterdam, we discovered just how deep the bond was between the Netherlands and Canada.
The organized part of our tour had ended and we were now on our own.
Holten itself is a small town. We exited our train, stowed our luggage where the station trainmaster told us, and immediately caught a cab to take us the three km to the Holten war Cemetery. The Holten cemetery contains thousands of graves of men who died in the liberation of the Netherlands and most of them are Canadians. It was here that I was going to reveal what I had learned from my mom - and it was here that the four of us would make a life changing discovery.
All of us were immediately struck by the beauty of the place. The cemetery is immaculately kept and cared for. Everywhere there were Dutch and Canadian flags, every grave had fresh flowers growing over it and the grass was better kept that most putting greens. In recognition of Canada Day, a small Canadian flag had been planted on top of each soldier's grave.
"Dad are you sure you're ok?" Josh asked with a great deal of concern in his voice.
"Yeah Tom, you're pretty quiet," Mark added.
"Talk to me," Bryan said as he put his arm around my shoulder.
"I'm ok guys. I'll tell you everything in just a moment. Just wait here. There’s something I have to check." I left the three of them and headed to the small office that was located near the gate.
"Excuse me Ma'am, do you speak English?" I asked the young nicely dressed lady behind the counter.
"Yes I do! Welcome to Holten cemetery. How might I be of assistance?"
"I'm looking for a particular grave," I replied and filled her in on what I wanted.
"I know that one quite well," She replied. "Everyone here does."
In her excellent English, she told me where to find the particular grave that I’d asked about. I thought it was interesting that it was so well known and I made a mental note to ask about it later.
"Pardon me but you are from Canada.... are you family?" She asked.
"Yes, I am. We are."
I left the office as she picked up the phone to make a call.
"Follow me guys, I'll explain everything in just a few minutes. We're going to meet someone."
"Meet someone?" Mark asked.
Josh moved in beside me and took my hand. I glanced over at him and smiled as I felt him squeeze my hand. "It's ok kiddo," I said softly.
It was actually quite overwhelming. The cemetery contained row after row after row of white headstones, every one bearing a Maple Leaf and the name of one of the thousands of fallen.
We finally arrived at the correct row and we walked down to the tenth grave. Surprisingly, this grave had more flowers on it than the others. I kneeled down and Josh quickly did the same at my side. Bryan bent down behind me and put his hand on my shoulder. Mark took a knee on the opposite side from Josh and put an arm around my shoulders.
The name on the headstone read: "Lt. Ryan Andrew Davis, First Canadian Parachute Battalion, June 10 1923 - April 23 1945."
"Davis? Who was this Dad?" Josh asked softly.
"He was my great uncle," I replied and the tears came. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by the gravity of how I had now been personally touched by the devastation of the war. I cried my heart out not only for this man who had died before I was born and who I never knew even existed, but also for all of the others. I cried for all the men who had fought for our freedom and who had paid the ultimate price for all of us.
I felt three sets of comforting arms encircle me and hold me tightly and the four of us stayed there for several minutes. Once I could compose myself, I stood up and spoke.
"He was my grandfather's brother on my father's side. I only found out about him last night when Mom called to tell me. My grandfather who was an air force veteran never talked about his late brother because it was just too painful for him. Until we made this trip, he had pretty much been forgotten."
"I can assure you that he was not forgotten," a Dutch accented voice said from behind us.
We all turned around and saw that two new people had joined us - an elderly man and another in his thirties.
"Forgive me, I didn't mean to startle you," the younger man said. "My name is Thomas DeVries. We heard from the gatehouse that a relative of Lt. Davis was visiting his grave and we had to come."
"He was my great uncle," I replied.
"My father Pieter knew him," he said and pointed to the old man who smiled politely. "He doesn't speak English so I'll have to translate. Perhaps we can sit down."
The six of us went over to a cluster of benches and sat down. We introduced ourselves to Thomas and Pieter and then the younger man said something to his father in Dutch that none of us understood, but the old man's eyes lit up and he reached out and took my hand. "Thank you. Thank you Canada," he said in broken English.
"I told him that you are Lt. Davis's nephew," the younger man said.
"How did your father know him?" I asked.
The young man translated our question for his father who then replied in Dutch.
"He says that he saved his life when he was just a boy. Saved him from the German SS."
The old man began to speak in Dutch and his son began to translate a remarkable story.
"I was only fifteen years old and I was in the resistance along with my friend Jan. Jan was only fourteen and the two of us were acting as runners. We would watch German troop movements and report back to our headquarters, they passed the information on to the Canadians. We knew that we were about to be liberated and we wanted to be of as much assistance as we could be. On one of our runs, an SS patrol captured us. This sadistic SS officer, an SS-Hauptsturmführer interrogated us and beat us quite badly. He and his men took us to the back of the old church and he was going to shoot us when out of nowhere the Canadians arrived. They shot the Germans and Lt. Davis personally shot the German officer who was about to shoot Jan and then me in the head. We thought we were safe when..." Thomas trailed off when Pieter began to break down in tears.
After a few minutes, Pieter composed himself and continued while Thomas translated. "We thought we were safe when one of the Germans who wasn't quite dead threw a grenade at us. Lt. Davis saw it and threw himself on it to save my life, Jan's life and the lives of several of his men. The blast killed him immediately, but none of us got a scratch."
I felt Josh put his arm around my shoulders at that point. "I guess courage does run in families," he whispered. I noticed Pieter looking closely at Josh – his stare seemed perplexed before he looked to the ground and shook his head slowly.
Thomas continued to translate as Pieter continued. "We helped the soldiers carry Lt. Davis' body back to Canadian lines. There were still Germans everywhere, but we didn't care. We had to do something for this man who saved our lives. Jan, which means John in English, had nobody left here. His parents, the whole Dekker family were killed when Rotterdam was bombed at the start of the war. He had been living with me and my parents, but he decided to go to Canada. He said that he owed Canada a debt and wanted to repay it by becoming a Canadian. He moved to Toronto-"
"Did you say Dekker?" Josh asked suddenly interrupting Pieter. He had a strange look on his face and I could tell immediately that the wheels were turning in his head.
"Yes, Jan Dekker was my father's friend's name. He moved to Canada and married a woman named-"
"Darlene Stapleton," Josh finished for him.
Thomas and Pieter looked at each other while Bryan, Mark, and I suddenly turned to look at Josh.
"That's correct," Thomas said.
"Joshy, how could you possible know that?" I asked softly.
"They had a daughter named Susan who married and had a son," Josh continued without answering me.
"Yes..... Jan and Darlene died together in a car accident about eight years ago," Thomas added.
Josh nodded, his brow furrowed – a look of sadness came across his face.
Pieter reached out and gently touched Josh's cheek for a moment and looked into his eyes before saying something to Thomas.
"He says he thought you looked familiar. He says you have your grandfather's eyes and his nose and chin." Thomas said.
We were all absolutely dumbstruck by what we had just learned. Not only was my great uncle a war hero who had saved lives, he had saved the life of Josh's grandfather. I was awestruck when I realized that if not for the actions of my late and virtually forgotten relative, Josh would never have been born.
Pieter took out his wallet and a moment later produced an old black and white photo which he handed to me. I looked at it and my breath nearly caught in my throat. I was looking at a photo of two smiling boys. The younger one could have passed for Josh to anyone who didn't know him as intimately as I did. Unable to say a word, I passed the picture to Josh who looked at it, then showed Bryan and Mark.
"Thomas, will you translate something for me?" I asked.
"Of course Tom," he replied.
"Pieter, I want to thank you for remembering my great uncle and for keeping his grave in such good condition. I want you to know that your Jan's legacy is very much alive and well in Josh and that as my uncle did all those years ago, I will do anything that I have to in order to keep Josh safe and help him to become a man that Jan would be proud of."
Thomas translated what I had said and then translated Pieter's response. "He says that he can see much of Jan in Josh and that he is already proud of the young man that Josh has grown into. He says that he will continue to tend your uncle's grave and ensure that nobody will forget him. He said that we Dutch will never forget what Canada did for us and our family will never forget what your family did for ours."
I shook hands with Pieter and we exchanged a nod.
"Many people are alive today because of what your uncle did," Thomas said. "I have two brothers and two sisters and between the five of us and our spouses, we have twelve children. None of that would have been possible if not for your uncle. Children from the local school take care of this cemetery. From very young we are taught about what Canada did for us. Each Christmas, children come and place candles on each headstone to celebrate Christmas and to share the light of freedom with the whole world."
“Tom.... Bryan.... we.... our family would be honoured if you and the boys would join us for dinner at our home tonight.... that is if it doesn’t interfere with your travel plans.”
I looked at Bryan and he smiled a smile that suddenly lifted my spirits from the heavy seriousness that had taken place here at the cemetery.
“It would be our honour Thomas,” I replied smiling. “Although we do have to catch the 9 PM train to Amsterdam.”
“That will be plenty of time.” Thomas said.
As we stood up, Josh said, “We’ll be right back Dad.” Without another word said, Josh and Mark marched – in almost a military sense – back to the gravestone of my grand uncle. We watched as they bent over and touched the top of the stone briefly, then in unison, snapped to attention, marched two steps backwards, and snapped a ten second salute. Bryan had his hand around my shoulder, a proud tear or two on our faces as we watched the boys return. I hugged both Josh and Mark as tightly as I could.
We walked back to Thomas’ car and he drove us to his home – it was like a farm community with four houses on it plus all the barns and out buildings near by. We were led to the largest of the four homes.
It seemed there was a long line of happy introductions. First it was Thomas’ wife and children and then another family would walk in the door with a basket of food and their children – and then another and another and another. We met Pieter’s four other children and his twelve grandchildren and when our story was revealed, we were received like royalty. There were twenty-two of us in the house by the time they had all arrived that afternoon. The ladies stayed busy in the kitchen preparing the food that each of them had brought. It was indeed going to be a celebration!
The children were fantastic. They were all bilingual and spoke English and were great translators for those adults who didn’t. The closeness of that family truly amazed me. Although kids will be kids, it appeared that they had the greatest respect for their grandfather, Pieter, their parents, aunts, and uncles. During our short visit before dinner, the young teenage girls were giggling amongst themselves. It was evident that they were taken by the good looks of both Josh and Mark and they approached our boys.
Approaching Mark, one of the girls extended her hand. “Hello, my name is Gretta,” she said with a smile, “Do you have a girlfriend back in Canada?”
Politely, Mark shook her hand and replied with a smile, “Not exactly, I have a boyfriend.... Michael.”
“That’s wonderful,” she replied, “but if you hadn’t been taken, I would have made Canada my life’s destination to be with you. Is Josh your brother?”
“Yes,” Mark replied proudly, “in many ways he is, although we aren’t blood related. Actually Bryan is my brother, but more than that, he’s my Dad..... he looks after me.... he loves me like a Dad. Tom and Bryan are partners together.... Tom is Josh’s Dad.”
“Ah!” Gretta exclaimed. “Den both of you ’ave trey vadders.... uh.... sorry, two fathers.”
“Actually,” Josh interrupted, “Mark and I have learned that’s there’s a big difference between a father and a dad. A father is the biological contributor that makes your birth possible, but it takes a real man to be a Dad.... to love and nurture you.... to teach you how to become a better person to serve others and contribute something to this world.... but you’re right Gretta, Mark and I are lucky.... we both have two Dads.”
“Our biological fathers died during the last year or so, but they didn’t care for us or contribute very much to our lives while they were alive.” Mark concluded.
One of the other girls extended her hand to Josh. “Hello, my name is Marie. Do you have a girlfriend back in Canada?”
“Hi Marie, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” Josh said graciously, “Yes I do have a girlfriend in Canada.... her name is Shelley.... we’ve promised ourselves to each other.” He pulled out his wallet and took out the picture of Josh and Shelley at Order of Canada dinner for everyone to see.
Just then, one of the ladies announced that dinner would be ready in ten minutes. Thomas escorted to a washroom where we could wash up before he took us to the table for dinner. The table was very long with ten people on each side. Pieter sat at one end and Thomas sat at the other. Bryan, Mark, Josh, and I sat in the centre on one side. We were bombarded with questions and explanations of what life was like in Holland.
At one point, in a lull of the conversation, Marie asked, “Josh, in that picture you should us, you had a medal around your neck.... what was that for?”
That started a whole new conversation on awards and medals that we’d received during the past year and a half, plus more photos that were sent around the table, some with Michael and Mark in uniform, others with the three of us receiving our medals of bravery. For sure, they were in high praise of our awards and especially of Mark when they learned he wanted to serve in the armed forces as a pilot. For the most part, Bryan and I remained out of it – swelling with pride as our boys rejoiced in all the platitudes.
We dined on the best home cooked dinner that any of us had ever eaten and we established relationships during our short visit with people whom none of us had known even existed. The DeVries became like a part of our extended family. We had little to offer for the hospitality they’d given us, but we did leave them with all the photographs that we’d brought with us as a memento of our visit.
After dinner, Thomas drove us back to the train station and we caught the last train to Amsterdam. Once settled on the train, I asked, “Well guys, was that a good Canada Day or what?”
“The special days never seem to quit for us,” Mark commented.
“I’ll never enjoy a Canada Day like this one ever again.” Josh said.
“All I can think of is that I’m glad I was here with you boys today. You both made Tom and I very proud.” Bryan said.
When we arrived, we checked into our hotel for the night. Josh and I took a few moments to call home and to fill Susan and my mom in on the news of what we had discovered that day. Those calls turned out to be as emotional for them as the whole experience had been for us.
The next day was to be another big day and we had a lot planned.
"The eating machines are hungry again," Bryan announced. "Mark and I are going to see if we can get some snacks in the lobby."
"Grab me a Coke if you don't mind? Thanks," I said. I was stretched out on the sofa flipping through the channels on the TV. A minute later, Josh came out of the bathroom and stretched out on the sofa with me. He rolled over so that we were chest to chest and face to face and then cuddled up against me. We lay there silently for a moment.
"I always knew that we had to be linked somehow," Josh said. "Beyond ourselves I mean."
"I know what you mean bud," I replied. I put my arms around him and held him close. "The whole thing is so remarkable."
"I know. I knew it was true as soon as he started telling is that story. I knew that my grandfather had lost his whole family in the war and I knew that he had come to Canada from the Netherlands as a teenager. I was pretty young when he died, so I never heard about anything about what had happened during the war."
"I didn't really know anything about my great uncle either until Mom had phoned."
"It's like this whole thing confirms that we're meant to be together. That we are meant to be Dad and son."
"I think so too son," I replied.
We just lay there on the sofa silently while we waited for Bryan and Mark to return. Much to my surprise, the next thing I remember was waking up the next morning, still on the sofa, still snuggled up with Josh and with a blanket thrown over the two of us.
After breakfast, the four of us hailed a cab and headed to "Anne Frank House". We planned on spending a couple of days in Amsterdam and then head via train to Poland to visit Auschwitz. From there, we'd head to Germany to visit some WWII and cold war sites in and around Berlin.
We arrived at the Anne Frank House and there was already a lineup of people waiting to get in. The house had been expanded into a full museum and the whole site had recently been renovated and improved. They had worked hard to preserve the original space in its original condition.
"It's amazing how all these years later, one little girl's voice is still being heard, but the people who sent her to her death are long gone," Bryan said thoughtfully.
"I know. It really is mind boggling, but it’s also an irony of justice."
"We read the Diary of Anne Frank at school," Josh said. "I never thought that I'd actually visit the places that were talked about in that book."
"You know, it makes me angry that there are some idiots out there who claim the holocaust never actually happened," Mark said. "How can they explain places like this?"
"Idiots is right Mark.” Bryan said. “Such people are charlatans. The thing is though, as stupid as what they are saying is, they have the right to say it. It's part of being in a free society."
"But can't we make it illegal to say stupid things that you know are wrong?" Mark asked.
"No, we can't do that. It's a slippery slope. Free speech has to be free for everyone or it's not really free for anyone. There are limits. You can't make false reports to the police, you can't shout fire in a crowded theatre and you can't scream hijack on an airplane. You also can't say something negative about someone if it isn't true."
"Mark, the bottom line in our free society is who will decide what things are illegal if we were to limit free speech in that way?" Bryan asked.
"I guess it isn't such a good idea after all," Mark said.
"The way to deal with idiots who say false things is to speak the truth," Josh observed. "You have to fight lies and deceit with truth and honesty."
Bryan and I smiled at one another. Once again, Josh's maturity and insight was on display.
"Exactly Josh," Bryan said.
The line began to move surprisingly quickly and before we knew it, we were entering the Anne Frank House and Museum. I can't describe the feeling that I had in that house. It was a combination of dread and fear knowing what had gone on there and it was also a feeling of hope and remembrance from the knowledge that young Anne had ultimately triumphed over her murderers. The tour guide, who spoke prefect English, did a remarkable job of showing us around and answering our questions. The actual space where the family had been hidden was only about 500 square feet. To think that they lived there for just over two years was mind boggling.
"Can you imagine how they must have felt every time they heard a car or a truck pull up outside?" Josh asked with a shudder in his voice.
"I can just imagine," I replied.
After we finished our tour, we went to the gift shop and purchased some souvenirs, then went to the little cafe that was located on site and enjoyed an early lunch. Josh picked up a nicely bound copy of "The Diary of Anne Frank" to give to Shelly. We also took the time to send a post card to Susan and to my Mom back in Canada. We intended to get away from the war theme for a while and just see the sights around Amsterdam. This was a vacation and we wanted to interrupt the solemnity of visiting battlefields with some good old fashioned family fun.
We headed to one of the more unique buildings that any of us have seen. It's called the NEMO museum and the building resembles a sinking ship! It’s an interactive science museum that allows you to get hands on with various science experiments and science activities. We spent the better part of the afternoon there before we headed out and decided to enrich our cultural experiences by visiting the Vincent Van Gough museum, which features the largest collection of his paintings and drawings in the world.
"Dad, can we go here next?" Josh said as held up a brochure that he had picked up in the lobby of the museum.
"Amsterdam Dungeon?" I said incredulously as I looked at the brochure.
"You want to go to a dungeon?" Bryan laughed.
"Yeah, it sounds pretty cool!" Mark laughed.
"I guess the dungeon it is," I chuckled.
The Amsterdam Dungeon turned out to be a heck of a fun place to visit. We arrived at an off-peak hour so it wasn't too crowded. The first stop was the dungeon itself. It was pretty much what you would expect a medieval dungeon to look like. It featured the various racks and implements that you'd expect to see. What we didn't expect was what happened next. One of the "torturers" selected a 'victim' from the tour group to demonstrate his various techniques. He picked Josh who was a pretty good sport about it and he didn't seem to mind too much when he was strapped down to a stretching rack! Thankfully, they didn't do anything too bad to him and he was returned to us in one piece!
Next, we were all pressed into service against the Spanish fleet by the tyrannical captain Piet Hyne of the Dutch Easy India Company. We got to experience what it was like to get grabbed off the street and forced to fight onboard a sailing ship!
Things seemed to go "downhill" from there when we were subjected to a section dedicated to 18th century medicine and surgery.
"This surgery doesn't look much better than the torture that we saw first," Bryan joked.
"No kidding," Mark replied.
"They're not getting me to be a guinea pig again!" Josh laughed.
We rounded out the tour of the dungeon with sections related to the Spanish Inquisition, the Black Plague, and ghosts. Finally, the last attraction was the Labyrinth of Lost Amsterdam, which is a really confusing glass/mirror maze that is supposed to simulate the confusing streets of Amsterdam.
"I don't know about you guys, but I'm about ready to head back to the hotel," I said. "I'm beat."
"I second that motion!" Bryan replied.
"You old guys have no energy," Mark said.
"Yeah they put me on a torture rack and I'm still good to go!" Josh said proudly.
"Hardee har har," Bryan laughed. "How about we get some food? They don't have the Mandarin here, but I’ll bet we can find something unique."
We hailed a cab and asked the driver to recommend a unique restaurant for us. He ended up taking us to a place called "d'Vijff Vlieghen" which he told us translates roughly to "The Five Flies".
"We're going to eat at a place called 'the Five Flies’!?” Mark asked.
"Oh come on Mark, flies are ok.... they have lots of protein," I replied.
"Ummm yeah..." Josh said.
"Actually, it looks pretty nice," Bryan observed.
The restaurant turned out to be really nice. It featured nine dining rooms, each featuring a different theme. We were seated in the Knights Hall, which was filled with displays of armour, helmets and weapons from the early days of war with Spain. The ambience of the place was incredible and we knew that we were in for an incredible dining experience.
Remarkably, the servers all spoke excellent English and we had no trouble placing our orders for food. Bryan and I had Amstel beers while the boys had glasses of milk. The food was incredible and well worth the money we paid for it. By the time we left, we resolved to return for at least one more meal before we left Amsterdam.
We returned to our hotel that evening and settled in for the night. We checked our emails and watched a little television while we unwound from a long and adventuresome day.
"Hey Dad, I got an email from Sean Burger. He said that he and his brother Jake along with their friends Melissa, Rachel, Charles and Stéphane are registered to go to Tonawanka for a week. They'll arrive the same day we do."
"Great!" I replied.
"Fantastic." Bryan asked.
"Cool!" Mark said rounding out the group. "It'll be good to see Charles. I want to see how he's making out and whether I was any help to him," Mark said. Charles had sought out Mark for some advice and it was clear that he had taken a personal interest in him. That was par for the course with Mark. He was a very sensitive kid who was always ready to help a friend in need.
"Sean and Jake are great kids," I said. "I know Sean had a hard go of it early in life, but he's doing really well with his new family."
"He's signed up for your computer camp Bryan," Josh said. "Melissa is too. Jake and Rachel are in the athletic camp. He also said that he and Jake are going to be in our cabin Dad! Charles and Stéphane will be with you Bry and they're in the CIT/Outdoors camp with us, Dad. The girls are both in Darlene's cabin."
"Excellent! I'm glad. I really like Sean and Jake." Josh had hit it off right away with both boys and Mark and Sean were kindred spirits of sorts given the abuse they both suffered earlier in their lives. Both Sean and Mark were what I considered to be perfect examples of the difference that a loving family can make in a kid's life. Both of them had been through a lot, but both had come out on top. That was a friendship that I was keen to encourage.
"Sean wants to know if he and Jake can bring their guitars," Josh said.
"Sure. They might be interested in Friday's talent night at the camp," I replied. "Bryan, you might want to try to queue up some fairly advanced stuff for Sean. I showed him some of the code for eMemories and he was right into it. I couldn't believe it but he actually had a pretty good grasp on the concept of Object Oriented Programming!"
"Really? I have junior programmers working under me who don't fully grasp the concept of OOP," Bryan chuckled.
"He's sharp as a tack and will probably be well beyond you and me in a few years," I laughed.
"He likes baseball too," Mark said. "I told him I'd show him some power hitting tips."
"Good for you kiddo," I replied. I had spoken to Sean's parents at length and we all agreed that the growing friendship between all four boys was a really positive thing and something that we wanted to encourage.
Mark's red-hot bat would give Bryan's cabin a distinct advantage in the inter-cabin baseball competition that was traditionally held at Tonawanka each summer. I was hopeful that Sean and Jake might be able to help even out the odds a bit for us, at least for the week that they'd be in camp!
With our European trip about half of the way over, we were having the time of our lives, and we were also looking forward to summer camp. The main thing was being together as a family. The Netherlands portion of the trip had been a huge eye-opener and it had helped to quantify the depth of the bond that Josh and I shared. It showed us that we truly are bound together by forces and circumstances far greater than ourselves. The revelation of the connection between our families had amazed all of us and it had served only to strengthen our personal connection. Josh's grandfather had come to Canada to repay what he saw as a debt to Canada due to the sacrifice of my great uncle.
On the other hand, I looked at the gift of that smart, sensitive, and endlessly loving boy who calls me his dad and gave thanks for the fact that our lives were so intertwined.