Before arriving in Europe, I had been told time and time again how amazing it feels to be a Canadian abroad, not just because of how awesome it is to travel in general, but also because of how Canadians are treated world wide.
It’s no secret how Canadians are viewed around the world, with many people seeing us as a polite, good natured and humble people, who often treat perfect strangers as friends. Our service in WWI and WWII, as well as numerous peacekeeping operations throughout the years, only strengthen these opinions of Canadians worldwide, and no place can you find these opinions more strongly represented than in the towns along the frontlines of WWI.
Standing in a place where you know hundreds of men from your own country fought and died in battle for a cause that wasn’t even their own fills you with a pride unlike anything else. However, what made these moments even more special to me, were the actions of the townspeople who lived near the historic battlefields.
One of the best moments on our tour happened in Ypres, Belgium, a town famous because that’s where the first gas attacks occurred during WWI. I had read about the town in history class and knew that almost all of Ypres had been destroyed in the first world war, and had only been saved through the bravery of Canadians, who spent hours suffering the effects of the German gas attacks until reinforcements arrived. That Canadian history in itself made the town special to us, but Ypres was the first place on the tour where we were able to interact with a foreign community, and it was an incredible experience to feel their welcoming embrace for people they had never met before.
At the entrance of the town is a giant memorial entitled the “Menin Gate”, and every single night since the 1920s the town has put on a ceremony here. A militia band, marches and plays the classic military pipes and drums, while people walk from one end of the memorial to the other, to respectfully lay wreaths for the fallen soldiers whose names are engraved on the monument, all of whom died over a hundred years ago.
Every night, the entire town spends almost an hour and a half, performing this ritual for the fallen whom they have never known. This ongoing respect shown by the townspeople, for soldiers who fought in a war none of them experienced personally, really astonishes me to my core.
Moments like the Menin Gate ceremony followed me throughout our trip all the way to Vimy, and knowing that the people of these towns were grateful for something I didn’t even have a part in, gave me a deeper feeling of pride and understanding, knowing how important my responsibility as a Canadian, to remember our country’s sacrifices truly is.