By the time we took our leave of St. Julian Dressing Station Cemetery, the flurries of snow had, briefly as it turned out, ceased, although the temperature continued to fall as evening drew in. A short distance north of St. Julien (now Sint-Juliaan) stands one of the most iconic memorials to be found anywhere on the Western Front. The Brooding Soldier casts his gaze, as he has since 1923, over the battlefields of April 1915, where so many Canadians lost their lives.
Many of them still lie in the fields hereabouts, their names to be found on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing.
The simplest of inscriptions.
The Soldier was actually runner-up in a post-war competition to design a Canadian national memorial. The winner stands atop Vimy Ridge, and I, for one, have yet to visit it.
Head bowed, he stands with reversed arms, hands resting on the butt of his rifle, barrel pointing downwards towards the ground, as at a military funeral.
The designer was Frederick Chapman Clemesha, an architect and ex-soldier who had served, and been wounded, with the Canadian Corps during the war.
Patience. There’s a translation, should you need one, in a minute.
There’s an aura about him, don’t you think?
Unveiled on 8th July 1923 by the Governor General of Canada, the Duke of Connaught, it was Marshall Foch who gave the address:
“The Canadians paid heavily for their sacrifice and the corner of earth on which this memorial of gratitude and piety rises has been bathed in their blood. They wrote here the first page in that Book of Glory which is the history of their participation in the war.”
See. Trust me.
The Canadians used to refer to this crossroads as Vancouver Corner during the war. Annoyingly, I believe there’s another plaque on one of the buildings across the street, the existence of which my numbed brain failed to drag to the fore during our visit. Another time.
Around the base of the monument, embossed flagstones point in the direction of Ypres (above) and six Flanders villages (below) where other actions involving Canadian troops took place.
I’m told that during the summer months the planting beneath the shell-shaped cedars can be spectacularly beautiful.
That’s artillery shell-shaped, not the other sort.
It’s a nice touch, I think, that earth was brought from different locations in Canada to be mixed with the soil of Flanders that surrounds the memorial.
At which point Baldrick and I really did decide that enough was enough. We had been out for hours in the freezing Flanders cold, and those of you who have been there during the winter months will know just how cold it can get. I’ve said it before, I know, but pity the poor soldiers, who had to endure this weather for days or weeks on end, with no warm house with good food and drink to return to at the end of the day.
Of course what I had failed to factor into my plans was that our route home from Vancouver Corner took us directly past Dochy Farm New British Cemetery.
As you can imagine, by now I was trying Baldrick’s patience, if it hadn’t frozen and fallen off, to the limit. I promised him I would be two minutes, and I was true to my word.
This is a post-war cemetery, made up mainly of men killed between October and December 1917 and originally buried on the battlefields of Boesinghe, St. Julien, and Passchendaele. There are four identified casualties from earlier in the war, as well as thirty three identified 1918 burials, most from the early months of the year.
There are more than 1400 burials here and, unsurprisingly, considering the nature of the cemetery…
…more than 950 of these are unidentified.
As the snow whipped about me I couldn’t help but cast my mind back a good few years to a previous, equally brief, but somewhat warmer, visit to Dochy Farm:
The original farm, a short distance north west of Zonnebeke, was a strongpoint in the German Third Line and as such was not finally taken by New Zealand troops until early October 1917, during the Battle of Broodseinde.
British, Australian and Canadian graves in Plot IV. The cemetery is made up of eight large and four smaller plots, as you can see on the Dochy Farm New British Cemetery Plan.
It’s to the great credit of the CWGC that the cemeteries look so beautiful during the summer months, when the sky is blue and the sun is shining…
…and the flowers planted among the headstones are in full bloom…
…but it’s always worth remembering, should you ever visit, that it’s during the winter months, when the cornfields no longer obscure the surrounding view, that you get to see the true lie of the land where, for four long years, so many men fought and died.
Two minutes up. As I said, I am a man of my word.
And this time we really did go home. We didn’t know it then, but the next morning would see six inches of snow blanketing the landscape, and for us, a completely different Flanders experience.
The next day found us on Hill 60.
Update March 2017: A few shots from a more recent visit to Vancouver Corner, and yes, I found the plaque to Lieutenant Edward Bellew V.C. that I missed first time round: