BELGIUM — Staring across the hallowed, once blood-soaked farmers’ fields of Flanders — where thousands of Canadian soldiers died in what was thought to be the war to end all wars — you can’t help but feel a visceral connection to our forefathers.
“It’s the most unique experience you can have as a Canadian outside of Canada,” Corinne MacLellan, of the Visit Flanders Canadian Representative Office, says of the small but beautiful European country.
In the country’s capital — one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities — the smell of waffles and chocolate wafts through the streets. And the city centre, Grand Platz, is truly a site to behold when it’s lit up at night.
To see just how serious Belgians are about their suds, look no further than the medieval city of Bruges, where the 150-year-old Haalve Maan (Half Moon) brewery has a beer pipeline buried beneath the cobblestone streets.
“It’s a really funny story,” said guide Tom Peiters, who explained the pipeline carries beer from the “small brewery in the heart of the city” to a bottlery on the edge of town 3 km away, eliminating the need for large trucks to travel through the narrow streets originally designed for horse and cart.
While in the 13th-century town, be sure to check out the Belfry of Bruges — the medieval bell tower seen in the movie In Bruges.
Historic but modern Ghent, largely populated by current and former student’s of one of the top universities in Europe, is also worth visiting.
The city’s progressiveness is particularly visible downtown, where the streets have been transformed into the largest pedestrian area in Western Europe.
It’s worth noting most Belgians speak multiple languages — Flemish (Dutch), French, German, English and even some Spanish — and are extremely friendly, especially to Canadians.
Some 30,000 Canadians met their end on Belgian soil.
Many of our fallen are buried in 168 Commonwealth war cemeteries scattered throughout the countryside — where shrapnel and unexploded ordinance are still routinely found.
In Essex Farm cemetery, on the outskirts of Ypres, is the John McCrae Memorial Site honouring the location where Canadian physician Lt.-Col. John McCrae wrote the famous poem, In Flanders Fields, following the burial of a friend in 1915.
A visit to Tyne Cot cemetery — the largest Commonwealth War Cemetery in the world, where 11,956 Commonwealth war dead are laid to rest — is truly eye-opening. Among the dead are 1,011 Canadians, most of whom fell at Passchendaele.
Decoteau — an indigenous Canadian — competed as a long-distance runner in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, and was the first native member of a municipal police force in Canada.
Pte. Alexander Decoteau â who ran long-distance in the 1912 Olympic Games and was the first native member of a municipal police force in Canada â is among the 650 Canadian soldiers laid to rest in the Passchendaele New British Cemetery in Belgium.
He resigned from the Edmonton City Police to join the army in 1916 and was killed by a German sniper the following year.
Among the must-see memorial sites in the area is the St. Julien Memorial — aka the Brooding Soldier — commemorating the Canadians who faced the first German mustard gas attacks in 1915. The First Canadian Division suffered 6,000 casualties, some 2,000 of whom were killed in the world’s first chemical warfare attack.
Also, be sure to visit the Passchendaele Museum in Zonnebeke, where you can walk through a re-created trench system and get a first-hand glimpse of the conditions soldiers endured during the First World War.
Battlefield guide Jurgen Sinnesael explains the conditions soldiers endured during the First World War while living in bunkers and trenches like this one re-created at the Passchendaele Museum in Zonnebeke, Belgium.
“A soldier who wasn’t busy was thinking, and that wasn’t a good thing,” the former military police officer said.
On the edge of nearby Passchaendale is a memorial erected in 2017 known as Canada Gate — a steel arch that is a companion piece to a similar memorial on the Halifax waterfront called The Last Steps, which features soldiers’ bootprints leading up a gangway symbolically marking the final steps of the many Canadians who shipped off to the Western Front and never returned home.
The bootprints re-emerge under the Canada Gate heading towards the Passchendaele church, honouring the 15,654 Canadians who were wounded or killed between Oct. 26 and Nov. 10, 1917 in the fierce Battle of Passchendaele.
Canada Gate depicts the final steps our soldiers took in the Battle of Passchendaele 100 years ago in Belgium. A complimentary arch called the Last Steps in Halifax, N.S, symbolizes the final steps of Canadian soldiers before shipping overseas.
“I don’t know how they must have felt, but it must have been very special,” Sinnesael added.
The Last Post Ceremony, honouring the nearly 55,000 soldiers killed in Flanders Fields during the First World War whose remains have never been found, has been held every night since 1928 at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium.
Perhaps nowhere is the sense of loss and remembrance more palpable than at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, where locals and tourists have gathered for The Last Post ceremony every night at exactly 8 p.m. since 1928 — except during the years of German occupation in the Second World War when the ceremony was moved to England.
Sinnesael said Belgians will always hold a special place in their hearts for Canadians.
“We Belgians will never forget what Canada did for us,” he said.