I was twenty years old when my eighty-year-old paternal grandfather, Sidney Turner, passed away in 1974. Although I had not seen him for a few years, he was pretty special to me. He was of the age that belonged to the generation caught by the murderous Great War. Sorting through his few possessions after his death brought to me the realization that I knew little of his youthful experiences. As a young boy, I had seen his bare, deformed feet; he said it was trench foot from “the war,”but since I wasonly eight, the explanation meant little to me. In settling his affairs, I developed an obsession to discover what he had endured as a young soldier. I began to learn of the deeds and sacrifices Canada and the British Empire made on what was once known as the Western Front.
In the summer and fall of 2010, my life and personal circumstances changed dramatically after a life-threatening health crisis. However, life can give you lemonade from lemons, and so it was for me. These events gave rise, one cold Alberta winter day, to the idea of a spring motorcycle tour of Europe. It had long been one of those notions that float about, similar to “Wouldn’t it be nice to win the lottery?” My Great War obsession dictated that the first goal was to see where Private Sidney Turner served with Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) in Belgium and France during 1917 and 1918. My second goal was to visit the small English town of Chinnor, which he left in 1911 for a better life in Canada. Third was to pay my respects at other battlefields and cemeteries where tens of thousands of young Canadians of two world wars lie buried. Once that was out of my system, there were many more European adventures and sights in store.
On May 2, my bike and I arrived at Germany’s Frankfurt airport to begin the grand adventure. The first day of riding was north along the Rhine; the numerous castles and churches overlooking the famous river constantly required photography stops. I could feel the spirits of history passing up and down this river as I wondered how many flags had flown over the various towns. At Koblenz, the roads led west into the hills and dense forests of the Ardennes. Again, history was my companion; on these roads, German armies had invaded France in 1870, 1914 and 1940. In Belgium, memorials appeared honouring the valour of thousands of Allied troops who held firm in the Battle of the Bulge. West through Belgium, the road brought me to the fields where the Battle of Waterloo was fought in 1815. From atop the Butte du Lion, you can view the battlefield considered by many historians to be the birthplace of modern-day Europe. If only that stupid Abba song using this place name had not continually played in my mind.
When touring on my bike, I search for winding, two-lane roads to ride. For the first several days this worked well, and the roads in Germany and Belgium are well paved. Many follow the original footpaths that skirtand traverse streams, rather than bulldozingstraight paths up hillsides. For a flatlander from Alberta, it was motorcycle heaven. For hours we carved corners, and as my technique improved, the speeds increased. I saw few police vehicles, but before leaving Frankfurt, I was warned of zero tolerance for speeding in towns. Fair enough; the country roads were addictive.
Belgium is green, fertile and very clean. I was so impressed – it seemed to me it must be vacuumed daily. By staying on the two-lane roads, I was experiencing it up close and personal. However, after three days of back roads, the dangers of doing this became obvious. Many of the village streets are cobblestone, and farmers use the roads to drive herds of cows and sheep between their pastures. Their manure droppings are slippery, making it easy to crash. Most town centres have a roundabout with a centrepiece statue or fountain that is a drawing card for locals to congregate on the roadway. Scooters, cars, tractors and livestock all take part in this circus, and all believe the right of way is theirs. Before running out of luck, I took to the autoroutes, as they can be safer.
At the western Belgium town of Ypres, French, Belgian and British armies stopped the Germans from reaching the vital Channel ports during bloody fighting in 1914 (Canadians were included in British forces). For the next four years, British Commonwealth forces defended Ypres, and hundreds of thousands from both sides died. Dozens of cemeteries (some with tens of thousands of grave markers) and memorials now dot these peaceful green fields where the young men of my grampa’s generation fought for king and country. From Passchendaele Ridge, one sees two gentle slopes rising up to where dairy herds contentedly graze in the warm sunshine. History books tell us what happened here; however, it was impossible for me to mentally transform this idyllic scene into the one from the pictures of 1917. The artillery-blasted trees, rain-filled shell craters, decaying corpses, greasy mud, machine guns, barbed wire and poison gas where thousands of young Canadians died are now peaceful pastures. All of that horror happened right here? Many of those young men still lie undiscovered beneath the green grass. Fifty-six thousand names of the missing are precisely chiselled on the walls of The Menin Gate in Ypres. As I stood alone at the Canadian memorial on this infamous ridge, the tears welled up and streamed down my cheeks. Were a person emotionally unmoved here, I could only presume they had no soul.
For about a week I explored named places from books and television programs. I stood where British and German soldiers played soccer at Christmas 1914, where a youthful Adolf Hitler won his first Iron Cross for bravery, saw the brooding memorial at St. Julien near where poison gas was first used and Canadian troops held firm. I felt my senses tingling at the first-aid station where, in 1915, Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields.” Snug in my tent the first night there, I was very conscious of trying to fall asleep surrounded by the spirits of so many dead soldiers. Following guidebooks, I tramped the fields, making certain to visit the small, out-of-the-way and lesser-known cemeteries.
Quoting from my daily notes: “As I rode out through these fields where so many men still lay missing, they seemed to express that they are content with their sacrifice. This land has been reclaimed, restored, productive and at peace for over ninety years now; that hundreds of thousands come to pay their respects each year seems to give solace and allow these spirits peace.” I signed the visitor’s book that is in each Commonwealth cemetery with the words “Sons of Canada you are not forgotten.” Strolling the cobblestone streets of a once-devastated Ypres, where Grampa and fellow Commonwealth soldiers marched, is a treasured memory now. Viewing the museum photos and fields, Grampa became a hero to me by virtue of his answering the call to serve.
I took the ferry from Calais, France, to Dover, England, to find the small town of Chinnor, which Grampa left in 1911. My inquiries brought me to a cousin who still lives there; she did not know anyone had gone to Canada! Each of us was thrilled to learn unknown family history. A huge smile was on my face while standing before the counter of the butcher shop my great-grandfather owned over one hundred years ago. The town war memorial is inscribed with the names of several family members who fell in the Great War.
My primary concern about riding in England was obviously riding on the left. The closest call of the trip was shoulder-checking as if I was in Canada. A blaring horn and flash of a speeding white car told me I just escaped death. Riding in England was fun, but streets are heavily congested and drivers are aggressive. Keep your eyes open and maintain a healthy safety zone around you.
Back in France, I toured Juno beach, where Canadians landed on June 6, 1944. On the bluffs overlooking the beaches at Dieppe, my anger boiled up as I could see how little chance Canadian troops had on August 19, 1942. In 1918, the Strathconas fought their most famous battle, at Moreuil Wood in France. The battlefield was difficult to find, but Grampa`s guiding hand on my shoulder made sure I did. On a bright Sunday morning in Albert, France, I had a most surreal experience. While sitting on a plastic chair in McDonalds at breakfast, I realized the window view of the fields beyond was that of the old British front lines. On July 1, 1916, thousands of young men climbed from their trenches, and by noon, sixty thousand were dead, wounded or missing. It was in these fields before me that this calamity happened. Ninety-five years later, I sat in comfort and safety (except for the “food”) and reflected on how incongruous this was. For the only time during my tour, I felt like an intruder.
At Vimy Ridge, the tears flowed again when I saw the most magnificent memorial on the old Western Front. Listening to John McDermott sing “The Green Fields of France” on my MP3 player made real for me the sorrow of thousands of bereaved families. From my notes: “Thus began my visit at the memorial. For me, the only means of describing its impact is that upon first sight, it seizes one’s attention by the throat in a vice grip and does not relax until you murmur ‘My God, that is magnificent!’ and are struck dumb in amazed stupor. It then relaxes its hold, as if to say ‘Now that I have your attention . . .’” We Canadians should be proud of this memorial symbolizing deeds and sacrifices that most people today know little, if anything, about.
Europe has far more green space than one might expect. Germany is surprisingly rural once you leave the major cities. France proved to be an absolute joy to travel through. The French province of Lorraine reminded me of central Alberta with rolling plains, large farms, small towns and light traffic. Unlike in most of straight-line central Alberta, the riding was great on the curving and well-paved roads. I rode at 150 km/h on an autoroute and felt like the king of the highway. That misconception vanished as a southbound bullet train whooshed past at twice my speed and disappeared in seconds. Riding at high speeds on the autobahns and autoroutes is a blast! Just remember to shoulder check and look ’way back before using the fast lane.
The Alps are heaven on earth for motorcyclists, and all the clichés are true. Don’t get too distracted by the vistas though – it is a long way down. High traffic volumes on autoroutes in major cities encourage lane-splitting. I cautiously trailed several French riders at 80 km/h and questioned my sanity in joining them. I felt somewhat saner when other riders tailgated me before slipping past, mere inches from my mirrors. Apparently, they regarded my pace as far too sedate.
All I had heard about Italian drivers is true. In cities, traffic laws are regarded as suggestions and stop signs are ignored. Scooter riders apparently have a death wish; no matter how fast I rode to escape this insane escort, one always cut me off. Italy is well worth a visit; just be warned – you have a high probability of becoming a traffic statistic. The new brake pads I installed before the trip were completely worn down upon my return to Canada. It was part of the price for riding in small towns and on mountain passes, and surviving Italy.
At last my obsession with the Great War was sated, and my journey continued. I rode through Germany, Holland, Belgium, England, France, Switzerland, Italy and Austria. The total distance I rode in Europe was just over 14,000 kilometres. Most of the trip I tented, as there are many campgrounds and the average cost per night was about 10 euros. Surprisingly though, I rarely met fellow riders in campgrounds. Few travel on large touring bikes outfitted with all the gear many of us over here own. Restaurant meals can be very pricey, so I bought the basics at grocery stores; this kept the daily cost to around 10 euros. Gas was expensive though; two fill-ups a day cost between 50 and 60 euros.
Canadian flags were proudly displayed on my bike, and each day someone would approach, amazed at my journey so far from home. In my opinion, to truly appreciate how fantastic our country is, one must travel abroad. That was apparent to me within days of my arrival, and it reinforced my gratitude as I knelt silently before a maple-leaf headstone bearing the inscription “A Canadian Soldier of the Great War.”
The Last Post
By Glenn Roberts
Reading Mr. Turner’s article brought back a flood of memories of my travels in Europe in 2010. I was riding with Paddy when we stopped for the night in Ypres. It was the most emotional two days of my existence as we toured the In Flanders Fields Museum and, like Gary Turner, rode around the countryside visiting battlefields and cemeteries, some with crosses for as far as the eye could see.
I was so moved by the Last Post Ceremony I felt compelled to offer a bit more information about it.
This ceremony takes place every evening of the year, regardless of weather conditions. At 8 p.m., the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, is the scene that attracts tourists and locals alike to pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of war dead that defended this town in the nearby battlefields.
The daily tribute began in 1928, but was short lived, and then on November 11, 1929, the ceremony began again with local volunteer fire department buglers sounding the Last Post, and it has continued every evening since, with the exception of four years while Germany occupied Ypres from May 20, 1940 to September 6, 1944. The ceremony continued in England during this part of the Second World War.
On the very evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres from the German forces, the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, in spite of the heavy fighting still going on in other parts of the town. Bullet marks can still be seen on the memorial from that time.
The Menin Gate was chosen as the memorial dedicated to the British and Commonwealth troops who were killed in the Ypres Salient and whose graves are unknown. It was this gate, on the way to the Menin Road and the Ypres Salient Battlefields, that so many British and Commonwealth solders passed through.
It is believed that approximately 300,000 British and Commonwealth troops died on the Ypres Salient with 90,000 in unknown graves – over 600,000 dead when taking enemy casualties into account. Today, the walls of the gate are inscribed with almost 56,000 British and Commonwealth names of those never found who still reside in the surrounding fields.
Each evening, representatives from various Commonwealth countries are invited to lay a wreath if they are in attendance. I was fortunate the night I attended the ceremony that Parks Canada employees working at Vimy Ridge represented Canada.