The Ypres Salient was one of the most contested sections of the Western Front during the First World War and became the grave of 500,000 men. It is home to many memorials, cemeteries and other places that have a special meaning to Canada. Canadian troops took part in most of the major battles fought there between April 1915 and November 1917.
Each of the three Canadian Divisions got their baptism of fire in Flanders Fields, and paid a terrible price in lives. One in four of the 60,000 Canadians who died during the Great War perished in the various battles fought in the Ypres salient. Blood and death has created a perpetual bond between the Ypres Salient and Canadians.
The Ypres salient was as a semicircular bulge in an otherwise relatively straight and unbroken line of Western Front trenches. German troops held the higher ground overlooking the city from all sides except the West. Defenders, including Canadian troops, were fired on from three sides, and always had to attack uphill, a serious tactical disadvantage. Ypres would remain the only major Belgian town in allied hands for the whole duration of the Great War.
Below is a route along Canadian monuments and Commonwealth cemeteries and relevant sites in the Ypres Salient, where the sacrifice of Canadians in the First World War I is enduringly remembered in stone and in bronze. It is impossible to include each and every of the 168 cemeteries in Belgium where Canadian soldiers are buried, but the route honours all of them, 100 years hence.
GPS address: Grote Markt 34, 8900 Ieper
The departure point is the Cloth Hall, a reconstructed medieval building at the Grote Markt in Ypres (now Ieper, and signposted as such).
A painting of the destruction to the building, brought about by repeated shelling by air and artillery, has adorned the walls of the Canadian Senate Chamber in Ottawa since 1921.
GPS address: Diksmuidseweg 148, 8900 Ieper
Follow the small cobblestone road to the left of the cemetery to arrive at the bunkers. This is where Canadian Lt.-Col. Surgeon John McCrae wrote "In Flanders Fields". On the side of the bunkers, used between 1915 and 1917 as a dressing station, is a Canadian government plaque in honour of John McCrae (photo 1).
John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields” on May 3, 1915, inspired by the funeral of a close friend, killed during the second Battle of Ypres (22 April-25 May 1915), and buried among the poppies. In the dugout on this site, and under the most abysmal conditions, he tended to the sick and the wounded on a continuous basis. John McCrae did not live to see the end of the war. He died on January 28, 1918 of pneumonia and meningitis, and is buried in Wimereux Cemetery in France.
As you move to the next monument, you will cross the Flemish countryside for several kilometres.
GPS address: Wijngaardstraat 1, 8920 Langemark-Poelkapelle
You will find, in front of a house, the small white monument, erected in 1997 by schoolchildren of a local school, to the memory of the soldiers of the 10th Canadian Battalion and the 16th Canadian Scottish Battalion, killed during the night-time counter-attack at Kitchener's Wood on April 22, 1915, immediately following the first-ever chlorine gas attack.
The action at Kitchener's Wood was the first offensive operation by the Canadian Corps on Belgian soil.
On a polished stone base stands a roughly-worked stone representing the mutilated oaks of the forest. On the stone is the inscription: "Kitchener's Wood, 22 April 1915" which encircles an oak leaf with an acorn.
GPS address: Brugseweg 123, 8920 Langemark
For the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, which had arrived in France in February 1915, Ypres would be the site of their first real engagement with the enemy. On 22 April 1915 the Germans launched an offensive with a new secret weapon that hit directly the Canadians. A large cloud of poisonous Chlorine gas rolled first towards the French line, which collapsed, but the Canadians held out, despite heavy losses. Canadians sustained a second gas attack on the 24th. The 1st Canadian Division suffered 6,000 casualties in that baptism of fire, of which 2,000 soldiers were lying dead afterwards. At their first engagement, the Canadians established a reputation as a tough and dependable force.
The impressive St. Julien Canadian Memorial (photo 2), nicknamed “The Brooding Soldier”, unveiled in 1923, is one of the most visually attractive war memorials on the Western front. The 35 ft high shaft of granite features the bust of a Canadian soldier standing at "rest on arms reversed". The bowed head of the soldier faces towards the direction from which to the gas came, and his hands rest on the butt of his rifle, as though he is keeping watch. The “rest on arms reversed” position symbolizes respect for a fallen soldier.
The park around the monument was created with soil brought over from Canada. The monument is surrounded by green lawns, conifer trees and juniper bushes, also brought over from Canada.
Across the monument, on the other side of the road, is a plaque for Canadian Victoria Cross recipient Lieutenant Edward Donald Bellew, the machine gun officer of the 7th Battalion, for bravery during the gas attack on 24 April 1915. Cut off from his battalion and wounded, he fought on with fixed bayonet until overpowered. In 1919, on being released from his POW Camp, he discovered that he had become the first Canadian Officer to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
GPS address: Keerzelaarstraat 10, 8980 Zonnebeke
The 15th Bataillon (48th Highlanders of Canada) monument explains the events of the first uses by the Germans of chlorine gas and the map helps orientate the visitor. The 48th Highlanders faced a gas attack on 24 April 1915, losing 664 troops, killed, wounded or prisoners of war - the highest of any Canadian unit during the attack. Throughout WWI, the 15th Battalion was part of the 1st Canadian Division.
GPS address: 's Graventafelstraat 30, 8980 Zonnebeke
All of the 650 Canadians buried at Passchendaele New British Cemetery were killed during the Battle of Passchendaele, including Alexander Wuttunee Decoteau, Canada's first Aboriginal-Canadian police officer. Alexander Decoteau, a Cree born on the Red Pheasant Reserve in Saskatchewan in 1887, was a remarkable long-distance runner, who won eighth place competing for Canada in the 5,000 metres at the Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912. He enlisted in 1916 and served first with the 202nd Infantry Battalion and later with the 49th, until he was killed by a sniper on October 30, 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele. The site of the cemetery is historically very significant as it rests on Bellevue Spur, one of the Canadians’ key objectives during the Passchendaele offensive.
GPS address: Canadalaan 22, 8980 Zonnebeke
An octogonal Canadian granite stone marks the site of Crest Farm, where Canadian soldiers encountered some of the fiercest resistance they were to meet during the whole war.
From July until early October 1917, British and Australian soldiers had attempted to capture the German occupied Belgian coast. By early October, however, only minimal advances had been made and the Allied troops were near exhaustion. The commander of British forces, Sir Douglas Haig, ordered the Canadian Corps to Belgium to relieve them and prepare for the capture of Passchendaele.
Heavy rainfall and waist-deep mud greeted the 20,000 Canadian soldiers upon arrival in Belgium. Canadian General Arthur Currie inspected the battlefield, protesting that the operation was impossible without heavy cost. Although he estimated 16,000 casualties, he was overruled and preparations for the assault began.
On October 26, the Canadians began a series of attacks in the Passchendaele region, after careful and painstaking preparations for the assault.
On October 30, with the assistance of two British divisions, the 20,000 Canadians began the assault on Passchendaele itself. In a landscape destroyed by shelling and intense rains, and with roads, trees and most buildings obliterated, they inched their way from shell-crater to shell-crater, under heavy fire. They gained the ruined outskirts of the village during a violent rainstorm and for five days they held on, often waist-deep in mud and exposed to a hail of jagged iron from German shelling. On November 6, when reinforcements arrived, four-fifths of the attackers were dead. The battle ended on November 10, when Canadian troops occupied the village center. The final advance of 900 meters, from Crest Farm to Passchendaele church, took 2,238 casualties. All told, almost 12,000 Canadians were wounded and over 4,000 lost their lives. General Currie's estimate of 16,000 casualties proved frighteningly accurate.
The Canadian victory at Passchendaele was gained at a high cost in lives. Ordinary men performed the extraordinary during a battle that has since become a byword for human misery. The awarding of nine Victoria Crosses confirms the heroic determination and skill of Canadian soldiers in the bitter struggle for Passchendaele.
The monument is on a square platform of carved stone, standing on the grass. In the centre of the platform is a granite block with maple leaves carved in relief on the front and back of the stone. On the monument's side is written: "The Canadian Corps in Oct-Nov 1917 advanced across this valley - then a treacherous morass - captured and held the Passchendaele ridge".
A Canadian Government plaque next to the platform explains the national historic significance of the Battle of Passchendaele to Canada.
GPS address : Passendalestraat 84, 8980 Zonnebeke
The access to the 85th Canadian Infantry Bataillon – Nova Scotia Highlanders monument is a path on the left side of a farmer's field. The monument is in memory of the 85th Canadian Nova Scotia Battalion which suffered heavy losses during the Battle of Passchendaele at the end of October 1917.
GPS address: Vijfwegestraat 1, 8980 Zonnebeke
Tyne Cot Cemetery is the largest Commonwealth War Cemetery in the world, containing 11,956 Commonwealth war dead, including 1,011 Canadians, most of them killed at Passchendaele. On the cemetery walls are engraved the names of 34,957 soldiers who have no known grave and died after August 15, 1917.
A modern visitors' center offers views over the battlefield the Canadians had to cross during the Battle of Passchendaele. The towers of Ypres are visible in the distance.
One of the most-visited headstones at Tyne Cot belongs to Canadian Victoria Cross recipient James Peter Robertson, a private in the 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion. He was killed on 6 November 1917 in the final phase of the battle, when his platoon was held up by barbed wire and a German machine gun. He was able to dash round to an opening on the flank of the enemy position and rush the gun. After a desperate struggle, Robertson killed four of the crew, then turned the enemy gun on the remainder. This enabled his platoon to continue towards its objective, with Robertson still firing the captured gun at the enemy as it retreated. Later when two of his own snipers were wounded in front of their trench, he went out and carried one of them in under severe fire. He was killed just as he returned with the second man. His headstone is located at plot LVIII, Row D, Grave 26 (photo 4).
GPS address : Roeselarestraat 1, 8980 Zonnebeke
On the right-hand facade of the church is a bronze commemorative plaque for D.21 Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, which had a position amid the ruins in November 1917 (photo 6). The bronze plaque, dedicated by their comrades, carries the words: "In memory of the fallen of D.21 Battery Canadian Field Artillery".
The next stop is only a few hundred meters from the church.
The visitor of the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, located at Zonnebeke Chateau, gets an especially good insight into the Battle of Passchendaele, in which Canadian soldiers played such a key role. Special features of the museum are the descent into the 6 meter-deep ‘dug-out’, complete with HQ, communication room, aid post and sleeping cots for the troops, as well as a network of trenches on the outside. Part of the new extension is dedicated to Canada’s role in the Battle of Passchendaele.
In the grounds behind the museum, a number of "poppy gardens" are being developed, including the Canadian poppy garden. In October 2014, Governor General David Johnston planted a sugar maple at the Canadian poppy garden, the first of a number of typically Canadian trees, plants and shrubs that will ornate the garden in the near future (photo 5).
The PPCLI Memorial, refurbished and unveiled in May 2015, includes a new centennial plaque as well as a Canadian Sugar Maple tree and a bronze Marguerite flower insignia, indicative of the original cap badge worn by the PPCLI at Frezenberg (photo 6).
In the centre is a medallion topped by a crown and encircled with the words "Princess Patricia's Light Infantry". Below this are the words: "Here on 8 May 1915 'the originals' of P.P.C.L.I. commanded by their founder Major A. Hamilton Gault DSO held firm, counted not the cost".
The monument commemorates the Frezenberg Ridge attack by German troops on 8 May 1915, when the PPCLI held the south shoulder of the breach. By the end of the final German assault, the P.P.C.L.I. was reduced to 4 officers and 150 men out of an initial strength of 546. The battalion prevented the Germans from rolling up the British line south towards Armentières, France. Two weeks after the gas attacks on April 22 and 24, Canadians once again had held the line.
The Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry regiment (often referred to as PPCLI, Princess Pats or Patricia’s) was privately raised at the start of WWI by Montreal entrepreneur Andrew Hamilton Gault, and was composed largely of British-born former regular soldiers having immigrated to Canada. It moved to Flanders in December 1914 in advance of 1st Canadian Division, as part of the British 27th Division.
The "Princess Pats" were the first Canadian troops to arrive in Belgium. They later joined the 3rd Canadian Division on December 22, 1915 and were involved in most of the key battles in Belgium between 1915 and 1918.
The first Canadians to die in combat on Belgian soil in the Great War were PPCLI soldiers: Corporal Norman Fry and Lance-Corporal Henry George Bellinger, killed on January 8, 1915 at Vierstraat, south of Ypres, during heavy artillery shelling. Cpl Fry is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium, while L/Cpl Bellinger is buried on Voormezeele Enclosure No.3, a cemetery 4 Kms south-west of Ypres. That cemetery and Menin Gate are both part of this itinerary.
The memorial is located on Canadalaan in Zillebeke. You will notice the maple trees bordering it, which were planted in honour of Canada. The memorial was erected in honour of the Canadian soldiers killed in the defence of Ypres in 1916: Hill 62 (Sanctuary Wood) Canadian Memorial (photo 7).
The figure 62 in the name refers to the height of the hill above sea level. During heavy fighting on Hill 62 and nearby Mount Sorrel, the Canadian troops operated as a national unit for the first time, albeit at a cost of 8,430 killed, wounded and missing.
In the entire Ypres Salient, Hill 62 and Mount Sorrel were almost the only places where the Germans did not occupy the heights. For this reason, it was fought over so many times. For Canada, the Battles of Hill 62 and Mount Sorrel marked the start of a progression that would ultimately result in becoming the most formidable attacking Corps on the Western Front.
Here, on a hillside park, is the monument, a granite monolith, cut from a single slab of stone, similar to the one at Passendale. The engraving on the monument reads: "Here at Mount Sorrel and on the line from Hooge to St. Eloi, the Canadian Corps fought in the defence of Ypres, April-August 1916".
The Memorial to the St. Eloi Tunnellers is at a roundabout, next to a Belgian field gun. It's a brick-built stand with aerial wartime pictures of the craters and commemorates the Battle of the St. Eloi Craters between the 27th of March and the 16th of April 1916. It identifies the units, including the Canadian 2nd Division. The Memorial draws particular attention to the role played during this battle by tunnelling companies.
"Crater fighting", as it became known, played a central role in many 1915 and 1916 battles on Belgian soil. Tunnelling companies were engaged chiefly in mining and counter-mining but they were also used in the construction of subways and deep dugouts.
Canada contributed a total of three tunnelling companies, raised from mining centres in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Alberta and British Columbia. One the largest mines that were detonated during the war, detonated at St. Eloi on 27 March 1916, was dug by the 1st Canadian Tunnelling Company, containing 43,400 kg of explosives. The resulting blast created the "St. Eloi Craters", allowing the position to be captured. The craters are still visible today.
At Voormezeele Enclosure No.3 cemetery, established by Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, you can visit the grave of one of the first two Canadians killed in action at the Western Front: PPCLI soldier L/Cpl Bellinger, killed on January 8, 1915, buried in Plot III. K.3. The other PPCLI soldier killed on the same date is Cpl Norman Fry, who is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres.
The tour ends where it began: at the Cloth Hall (Lakenhallen) on Ypres’ main square Grote Markt, where you can park your car.
The award-winning In Flanders Fields Museum presents the story of the First World War in the West Flanders front region. The focus of the scenography is the human experience. A visit to the belfry offers you a view over the city and the surrounding battlefields. Hundreds of authentic objects and images are presented in an innovative experience-orientated layout. Lifelike characters and interactive installations confront the contemporary visitor with his peers in the war, a century ago.
A visit to the Ypres Salient would be incomplete without visiting the Menin Gate, within walking distance of the In Flanders Fields Museum. Leave your car at the parking at Grote Markt, from which you can see the Menin Gate (Menenpoort in Dutch).
The Menin Gate Memorial (photo 8) was erected to commemorate Commonwealth soldiers killed in battle during the First World War and who remain unidentified, and thus have no marked graves. It was inaugurated in 1927.
For Canada, the memorial is the central site to commemorate Canadians missing in action in Belgium in WW1. Of the 54,962 names engraved on the Menin Gate, 6983 are Canadians.
The great gate, inspired by classical triumphal arches, has three porticoes, and is built of red brick and Portland stone. A staircase leads from each side of the interior to a balustrade of white freestone. Panels are arranged by unit, rank and alphabetically. When looking in the direction of the city centre, the panels with Canadians are on the left hand-side.
A not-to-be-missed moment of your tour is the Last Post ceremony under the Menin Gate, where the soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient are remembered each day in a simple sunset ceremony. All traffic through the gateway is halted at 8:00 p.m. and two buglers (on special occasions four) move to the centre of the Hall to sound the Last Post.
Since November 11, 1929, the Last Post has been sounded at the Menin Gate Memorial every night and in all weather, with the exception of the occupation of Ypres during the Second World War. The event is organized by the volunteers of the Last Post Association (photo 9).
On July 9, 2015, the Last Post Association marked the 30,000th time the Last Post was played, during a ceremony in which Canada participated actively. Canada's Justice Minister, Peter MacKay, read John McCrae's poem 'In Flanders Fields' from Halifax, Nova Scotia, the port from which many Canadians sailed to war.
The Last Post Association has launched an app to assist those visiting the Menin Gate. Make sure to arrive in time, because the available space is limited, and the event is very popular among visitors.