After the group’s visit to the Canada Museum we travelled to the nearby Adegem Canadian War Cemetery where 1,150 soldiers were laid to rest after the Battle of the Scheldt—it is one of two Canadian cemeteries from that battle. A similarly sized one, equally beautiful and well-tended, is located just east of the Dutch city of Bergen op Zoom. A contingent of school children, led by local volunteer Iris Van Schoot, greeted the tour at the cemetery and took Vern Salisbury’s hand to lead him to the Cross of Remembrance. The children recited poems, and offered heart-felt thanks to Canada and all Canadians for returning freedom to their country so long ago. Vern was centre stage as he visited the graves of his comrades from seventy years ago. The children had specially marked the graves of the soldiers from the British Columbia Regimant (BCR) in the Cemetery to make them easier to find amongst the rows and rows of headstones. It was a touching and poignant moment of pride for everyone to think of such violence so long ago, and to contrast it to the quiet, well-tended environs of the cemetery today. It is reassuring that new generations of Belgians know of their country’s liberation, and of the sacrifices Canadian soldiers made in order to give them the freedom and quality of life they so enjoy. We will remember them.
The next stop was the Leopold Canal and a 300 metre walk to a remaining German bunker that was used to defend the canal against several regiments of 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade in October 1944. The determined defenders, well dug in and with impervious bunkers housing machine guns able to fire up and down the canal, turned this quiet waterway into a maelstrom; the far bank was only taken after a week of savage close quarter fighting—much of it hand to hand. Approximately 300 metres to the west, a Bailey Bridge was finally installed under fire and the first tanks to enter the “Breskens Pocket” came from the British Columbia Regiment. After an historical overview of the battle from on top of the bunker, the tour group had a much better appreciation of the accomplishments of the three Divisions of Canadian soldiers who freed up the approaches to the port of Antwerp in the fall of 1944. Through this port, the Allies were able to provide the logistics and supplies needed for the rest of the campaign.
A long day finally led the tour to its hotel in the charming market town of Diksmuide, approximately 25 kilometres north of Ypres, Belgium. There to greet us was the smiling face of a long standing friend of the Regiment, Mr. Luke Vandenbussche from the village of Leke, located seven kilometres north of Diksmuide. It was great to see a welcoming, familiar friend who has done so much for the British Columbia Regiment over the years.
Luke’s association with the BCR began in the late 1990s when the village of Leke sought to make contact with the Canadian regiment that had liberated their small town on the 8th of September, 1944. With many visits and generous donations from the townspeople, a memorial was erected and dedicated in 2001 to honour the liberation of Leke by the soldiers of the British Columbia Regiment. Since that dedication, several memorial events have been held as BCR veterans and association tour groups came to renew friendships and collectively remember the soldiers who had passed that way so many years ago.
After a quiet night in Diksmuide, the regiment was underway by 9 AM to gather at the memorial in a beautiful garden named Canada Park in the heart of the village. More than a hundred villagers attended the event, along with the contingent from the regiment. Particularly memorable was 95 year old Vern Salisbury laying a wreath on behalf of his lost comrades. Similar homage was paid at the Leke community war memorial located nearby. The playing of the Last Post was particularly meaningful in such a location. Pipe Major Matt Dolan then led the contingent – soldiers, Old Guard, villagers and dignitaries alike, to the local community hall for refreshments and some presentations. The regiment remains grateful to the good citizens of Leke for their hospitality, their remembrance of the Canadian soldiers who liberated them, and for their friendship. Shortly after noon the regiment was underway again.
This time our destination was the German Cemetery at Langemark near the battlefield of St Julien. More than 50,000 German soldiers are buried at this well-tended and moving site. Its solemn, tree canopied environment enclosed by a brick and stone walls emphasizes the sadness and loss associated with so many graves. While many Canadians visit the Commonwealth War graves, few venture to the cemeteries where young Germans, fighting no less bravely for their country, lay buried.
The final stop of the day was to attend a special afternoon Menin Gate Last Post ceremony held in conjunction with a special plenary meeting of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The OPCW earlier in the day held a series of events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first mass use of chemical weapons. The organization, with 190 member nations who have signed the convention to prohibit the production, use, or proliferation of chemical weapons, enforces and verifies the provisions of the convention. In 2013 the OPCW, as an organization, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace when they removed a very large stock of Syrian chemical weapons in the mist of that country’s tragic civil war. Col (Retd) Keith Maxwell was representing Canada along with Ambassador James Lambert, the Canadian Ambassador to the Netherlands and the permanent representative to the OPCW. Col (Retd) Maxwell has a special connection to the subject of chemical warfare as he was a test subject for chemical weapons while serving as a young soldier with the PPCLI. At the ceremony at Menin Gate the regiment met with Ambassador Lambert. It was a great occasion, and the Ambassador spent time tweeting pictures with members of the regiment. The finest photo was with Vern Salisbury, standing under the engraved panels of the names of Canadians who had died in the Ypres salient during the First World War, but have no known grave.
That evening ten members of the regiment, led by Honorary Colonel Ted Hawthorne, the Commanding Officer, Major Doug Evans, and RSM Huf Mullick hosted a similarly sized contingent of Leke villagers at dinner to again thank that community for their support over the years.
Submitted by: Captain Majeet Vinning, Colonel (retired) Keith Maxwell and Bob Hall
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