Yesterday April 22, 2015 was the commemoration for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Saint Julien. We loaded the bus mid-morning and headed for Essex Farm Cemetery where then Major John McCrae wrote his famous poem. The memorial to Lieutenant Colonel McCrae is just outside the cemetery perimeter, recessed into the canal bank where McCrae was inspired by the poppies growing in the disrupted ground of the graves. He was contemplating the recent death and burial of his close friend. From such devastation came the iconic piece of poetry we all know so well today. RSM Mullick gave an inspiring recitation of “In Flanders Fields” and brought the sentiment of the poem into a modern context.
The cemetery also contains the grave of the youngest British soldier to die in the Ypres Salient in WWI – Rifleman V.J. Strudwick from the Rifle Brigade. He died at the age of fifteen.
We then visited the Canadian Memorial at Mount Sorrel, the site of Canada’s first major battle after Second Ypres. The group did a review of the battle tactics to fully appreciate the scale and the intensity of the battle. Many of the members were shocked and surprised by how small the battlefield was, which resulted in several thousand casualties in a very short period of time. The hill was recaptured after a well-planned deliberate attack by the Canadian Corps which was the first major offensive action by Canada in the war. This successful action added to the Corps reputation as a formidable fighting force.
The group then headed to St. Julien memorial to lead the commemorative parade of the 100th anniversary of the battle of St. Julien. The battle is noted as being the first instance of the use massive chemical weapons in warfare. Three of the Regiments perpetuating CEF Battalions of the First Division were represented at the parade with major contingents. Units included The British Columbia Regiment (DCO), Calgary Highlanders, and the Canadian Scottish Regiment from Victoria. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry were also represented, as were Artillery units that took part in the battle. Dignitaries included the Canadian Ambassador to Belgium, Denis Robert, and the Canadian military representative to NATO.
After the Canadian ceremony concluded, all of the Canadian units attended an international commemorative ceremony hosted by Belgium at the St. Julien memorial. Canadian and German ambassadors simultaneously laid wreaths to mark this solemn occasion and reaffirmed their commitment to the prohibition of chemical weapons as spelled out by the chemical warfare convention of 1997. This event was highlighted by the attendance of the King of Belgium. The Regiment was proud to have WWII veteran Vernon Salisbury, MM, as the first dignitary to meet the King when he arrived.
That evening, a small contingent of the Regiment attended a commemorative dinner to note the attack on Kitcheners Woods by the Calgary Highlanders and the Canadian Scottish Regiment on 22 April 1915. This dinner took place in a warehouse located on the site of the battle.
Today, we began the day by visiting Locality C. At this location, a company of the 7th battalion held fast against a major German attack on 24 April 1915 and provided a rallying point for Canadian troops who were withdrawing after a major chemical weapon attack. Lt. Col Mike Richardson of The Rifles, read from his Great Uncle’s diary—his Great Uncle was wounded and taken prisoner at this location.
The tour proceeded to the Passchendaele battlefield and conducted a review of the Canadian operations which took place in October and November 1917. The capture of Crest Farm by the 72 Bn CEF (Seaforth Highlanders of Canada) was instrumental in the battle of Passchendaele.
The tour then proceeded to the Passchendaele New British Cemetery. This is a post war collection cemetery which is still open to receive burials of found Commonwealth soldiers.
The next stop was Vindictive Crossroads. In November 1917 the 7th Battalion (First British Columbians) attacked through Vindictive Crossroads to capture the crest of Passchendaele Ridge and brought the battle to a close.
The next location was the Canadian memorial to the battle of Passchendaele at Crest Farm. The review of the Passchendaele battlefield concluded with a visit to Tyne Cot cemetery, the largest cemetery in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission with approximately 12,000 graves. Of the 12,000, more than half are unidentified.
The day concluded with all the Canadian Regiments touring Belgium parading on mass at the Menin Gate Memorial for the Last Post ceremony. RSM Huf Mullick, the Parade Marshal conducted the parade flawlessly in front of dignitaries and hundreds of spectators. WWII veteran Vernon Salisbury, MM, HCol Hawthorne, Maj Doug Evans, and Private Li laid the wreath on behalf of the Regiment. Once RSM Mullick dismissed the parade, the Regiment loaded back on the bus for their final night Belgium.
Submitted by: Captain Majeet Vinning, Colonel (retired) Keith Maxwell and Bob Hall
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