I normally post on Mondays. I start writing the post on Saturday and then I tweak and revise and post it on Monday morning. This is partly because I like to have that New Post Smell for the MondayBlogs hashtag, but also because my writing schedule lends itself to this type of arrangement. Today, however, I’m both writing and posting on Saturday. Why? Because today is Remembrance Day. Americans call it Veterans Day. Serbia and Belgium call it Armistice Day.
Belgium, as some of you may know (as all of you should know) was where Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote his famous poem In Flanders Fields.
|Poem on Display at the Canadian Vimy Ridge Museum
Belgium is also home to the head office of the company I work for and I traveled there a few weeks ago with three of my coworkers. Our plane landed at 7:00 A.M. and we wouldn’t be able to check into our hotel until much later that afternoon so we decided we would drive to France and visit Vimy Ridge. One member of our party was American, and one a Brit that has spent most of his life in Canada and the other fellow and myself Canadian.
The battle at Vimy Ridge was a watershed moment for the Canadian armed forces and for Canada as a nation. We were barely a country unto ourselves, having taken the title of Dominion of Canada a little more than 50 years earlier, and Vimy marked the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought as a cohesive unit. The battle, which began on April 9, 1917, and ended on April 12, 1917, was won by the allied forces and has come to symbolize the moment that Canada stepped out of adolescence and into adulthood.
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial was unveiled by King Edward VIII on July 26, 1936, and sits on the highest point of a 250-acre preserved battlefield park. Standing at the foot of this colossal monument you get a real sense of perspective about the battle that occurred there a hundred years ago. If you close your eyes you can almost hear the raged battle cries, the thundering booms of heavy artillery, and the staccato bursts of machine gun fire.
To say that visiting the monument and touring the nearby museum was an emotional moment would be a gross understatement and oversimplification of what it felt like to be there. I have lived my entire existence at a distance from the atrocities of war. There have always been at least one or two degrees of separation between myself and the places I don’t have the courage to go and the acts I don’t have the emotional strength to carry out.
Standing there, surrounded by the ghosts of both good and evil, running my hand across the cold Seget limestone and letting my fingers follow the carved lines of the names of the heroic dead brought with it the stark realization that hundreds of millions of people owed their livelihoods, if not their lives, to millions of complete strangers who were as committed as they were brave.
One of those grateful lives is my own, of course, and one of those committed strangers, a little more than a year after The Battle of Vimy Ridge and a ninety-minute drive to the south, made the ultimate sacrifice. He was my father’s mother’s father, my great-grandfather, and his name was Edwin Byard Hill. He was a private in the 43rd Batallion of the Canadian Infantry (Manitoba Regiment) and was killed in action on August 8, 1918.
My grandmother was just a little girl when her father left for the war and she spent almost eight decades without him. That fact alone boggles my mind as I have been fortunate enough to have both my parents with me for every minute of my forty-three years here on earth. I had all four of my great-grandparents in my life for at least sixteen of them with the last one passing when I was well into my thirties, so to have lost a parent at such a young age must have filled her heart with more anguish than a child should ever have to bear.
After our visit to the Vimy memorial, my colleagues agreed to make the pilgrimage to the burial site of my great-grandfather at the Mézières Communal Cemetary Extension in the Somme region of France. To the knowledge of my immediate relatives, I was the first person in the family to visit the war grave.
|Thank you, Great-Grandpa Hill.
Two of my colleagues accompanied me into the cemetery and, after we found my great-grandfather in Extension 4, Plot I, Row B, Grave 16, they let me have as much time alone as I needed. I took a bunch of photographs and stood, and then kneeled, and had a good long chat with him. There were tears, and even as I type this I am welling up with profound sadness for he is just one of millions that gave everything so that others could have something.
Great-grandpa Hill, everyone who served alongside him, everyone who served before him, and everyone who has served since are owed our gratitude not just on this national day of remembrance, but every single day we wake up, check our phones, create or enjoy art, work, play, eat, live, breathe, and exist under the warmth of the sun and within the almost limitless boundaries of freedom.
To you, we owe our lives, and for this, you have our eternal thanks. May peace reign over your heart and protect your soul.
If you’d like to take a look at more of my pictures from my trip I have made the Facebook album public.