Confessions of a Reluctant WWI Buff

As we approach Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, or any term you use to describe the day that commemorates the end of the First World War at 11:00 on 11/11 1918, and those who have fought (and are still fighting) in all wars, I’m looking back at my own journey of learning about the Great War and why it has become so meaningful to me.

Why do I say I was a reluctant WWI enthusiast?

Visiting Ieper, Ypres, or Wipers as the Brits called it during the war (Ieper is the Flemish spelling, Ypres is French) and the surrounding cemeteries were on my bucket list for years because living in Belgium made it almost a moral obligation.

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But somehow all those fields of white crosses and green grass seemed too sanitised, too proper, knowing the muddy hell so many thousands of men lived and died in. I thought it was verging on disrespectful to transform such an awful war into such a neat and tidy package for remembrance after the fact.

When I got around to organising a trip to the Ieper / Ypres area, I discovered how very, very wrong my impression had been. I wasn’t reluctant any more… in fact, I was sorry I had waited so long.

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The very first cemetery I visited was Sanctuary Wood. How apt a name: it really felt like a sanctuary. There was absolutely no one in sight when I arrived in this peaceful oasis in the middle of farm and woodland and saw, for the first time, the message from the Belgian people that is prominently placed at the entry to every single commonwealth cemetery.

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Reading it brought tears to my eyes. And I soon discovered I’d be in a heightened emotional state for the whole four days.

I had decided to focus on visiting sites of importance to Canadians, given my Canadian heritage.

And, although I wasn’t searching for graves of relatives (the only one I know to have died as a result of the war was my great-uncle whose lungs were ruined by mustard gas, but he died back at home in Toronto), I wanted to honour the men who came from the country I will always call home (even though I’m also a Belgian citizen).

I drove to many evocative monuments and cemeteries, like Vancouver Corner in St. Julien with its stirring statue of the Brooding Soldier who commemorates over 2,000 Canadian soldiers who died in the first large-scale gas attack of  the war in April 1915.

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But Sanctuary Wood will always have a special place in my heart because it’s where I learned about the special messages from family members to the deceased soldiers. I was down on the ground taking a photo (as you do) when I looked at a headstone near me and saw this message:

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When I started looking for others, I found them all around me. And no one can keep a dry eye when reading the last known words of any family to their dead husband, father, son or brother. Especially when you know that they had to pay for every letter that was carved in the stone, and some of them could ill afford the lengthy messages they left.

I now have a collection of headstone messages from each WWI cemetery I’ve visited.

Why are these messages so important to me?

Because that was the moment the First World War took on meaning for me. I connected with the emotions of the human stories, the people who lived, died, grieved and remembered.

The mother who asked people of a foreign country to watch over her son’s grave because she would never be able to visit him, the daughter who would never see her father again because he was shot for treason for wanting to leave a futile muddy battle and return home, the young boys who would never become men, the women back home — like my two great-aunts — who would never marry, because there weren’t enough men of their generation left alive.

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The war became a series of stories for me and it’s stories that drive my interest in any subject.

So although I’ll never be a military enthusiast, I will always be interested in war because war is, after all, a series of human stories linked together to give us context on how one person, a family, a community, a cultural group or an entire nation is torn apart and impacted for generations.

I’ve become passionate about WWI and will share more of my photos and fascinating facts with you over the coming weeks.

We, especially those of us living in Belgium, owe it to the men and women who gave their lives to visit the sites that honour them.

Tuesday is Remembrance Day. If you aren’t already a WWI buff, isn’t it time you became one?

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You can get a head start by downloading my WWI Factoids eBooks:

Top 12 WWI Factoids for Canadians:

Top 12 WWI Factoids for the UK & Ireland:

Even if you’re not from one of these countries, you’re sure to find the information a fascinating and fun way to start conversations about the Great War with your family, friends and colleagues.

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