Like many of my generation, I’m named after someone I never knew, an uncle who lost his life along with five others in a Lancaster bomber over Belgium in 1944. A trip to Germany last year found my wife and I close to that country from which so many failed to return from two world wars, so we took a side trip to find my uncle’s grave.
That was not difficult. A visit to the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission www.cwgc.orgallows a search for every known lost Canadian, and provides the location of their grave if they have one. Thousands do not, especially those lost in the horrors of Vimy, the Somme, Passchendaele, Beaumont Hamel and other battles in the First World War. Those battlefields have been returned to farmers, but they continue with the annual “Iron Harvest” of unexploded munitions when cultivating each spring. Some are still injured and killed when unearthing the millions of shells and bombs which remain under their fields.
My uncle is in a Second World War cemetery in Adegem in the Flanders region of northern Belgium. We stayed in Ghent, a nearby city with lovely buildings along the canal system which northern Belgium shares with Holland. After some directions from our host at our bed and breakfast, we rented bicycles and rode to Adegem on the picture-postcard tree-lined paths which run along the canals. After a couple of hours we reached the town, but before visiting the cemetery, stopped at another location which had come up in an Internet search of Adegem.
It turns out that the cemetery is not the little town’s only recognition of Canada. It also has a private Canadian war museum. We had read about it on the website, and expected perhaps a small collection to honour the Canadians who liberated that part of Belgium during the Battle of the Scheldt in 1944.
We were hardly prepared for what we found – a large building in beautiful surroundings, with a restaurant able to seat dozens of visitors. The museum displays are impressive, but more remarkable is the story which led to its creation.
The museum is owned and run by Gilbert van Landschoot, who is carrying out the wish of his father Maurice, who died in 1987. After a severe heart attack, and knowing he was dying, Maurice for the first time told his family about his role in the Resistance. Adegem was occupied by the Germans, and Maurice pretended to be a sympathizer, even gaining access to the airbase so that he could take a shortcut when moving his cattle. In fact he was opening fuel cocks to drain fuel from fighters so they would crash shortly after takeoff, and radioing information to the Allies.
Maurice was discovered as their advance began, and disappeared into the Underground, crediting the Canadians with saving his life. There were 6,000 casualties in the Battle of the Scheldt, and Maurice’s dying wish was that his family do something to commemorate those Canadians, as well as the Poles who fought with them.
Gilbert has done that with great enthusiasm, and the museum features extensive displays of wartime artifacts from both Canadian and German forces, along with video displays using footage shot by Canadians during the battle. It was deeply touching to see the displays and to hear Gilbert’s passion for thanking Canada. But the visit also provided some chilling reminders of the consequences of war. Gilbert described Adegem as a “black village” – half the residents were Nazi sympathizers, and one could sense some old resentments remained. Perhaps that’s why Maurice chose not to fan old flames by not speaking of his experience earlier.
Then there are the stories you don’t expect. Each of the dozens of mannequins dressed in a Canadian uniform had a different face. Gilbert modelled each one himself, based on a photograph of a Canadian soldier.
It turns out that photographs were not hard to find. There were two nicknames for the Canadians. One was “the water rats,” which came from their one-month slog through the mud of the flooded peninsula. The second nickname was “the lover boys.” Some of the Allied sympathizers in the village greeted their liberators with extra enthusiasm, and after the war, more than 140 children in the village were born to Canadian fathers. I asked whether any Canadians visiting the museum had recognized their father’s face on one of the mannequins. Gilbert said yes, they had.
We had lunch and rode to the cemetery, where we found preparations were being made for an annual commemoration service to be held the following day, attended by the King of Belgium. We also learned that despite the apparent good condition of the cemetery, work had begun on a five-year levelling and renovation program. When you hear the words of the poem on November 11 this year, you can be assured that in Flanders fields, Canadians have not been forgotten. [email protected]