Yesterday I found myself sharing a narrow edge of parking lot marked “Taxi” at the train station in Ypres, Belgium, with a Flemish man who was pacing back and forth. He was late and clearly ahead of me. I was feeling defeated at the prospect of finding my way to a small cemetery outside of neighbouring Poperinge, 15 minutes away to visit the grave of my great uncle, Vincent Mulligan, who at the young age of 21 had lost his life working as a stretcher bearer for the Canadian Field Ambulance at The Battle of Passchendaele. I had one hour to meet back up with my group of touring educators and at that moment I realized that it was not going to happen. That is when “it” started.
“It” is the deep thanks and appreciation that the Belgian and French people hold for Canadians, whose soldiers fought alongside their countries not once but twice in the past century. You read about it or see news clips that sound interesting for fleeing second then disappear in seconds for the next story but it is another things to experience how authentically and demonstrably they want us to know what the efforts of the Canadian Corps means to them. The feeling remains strong even removed by a few generations.
My friend Katy meets me at the adjoining Belgian Fries shop where she asks, in French, about how to book a cab. The woman across the counter realizes we are Canadians and drops everything to place a phone call. She waits with us by the curb to ensure that we connect with the driver, all the time reassuring us that he won’t be long. She understood our task and it becomes her mission to get us to the cemetery.
The cabbie pulls-up and the pacing man immediately jumps to the back door. When he realizes that the driver motions for us to come I brace myself the the backlash. Instead, the driver calmly suggests that he drop of the other man first, then take us the 16 km to Poperinge to find my great-uncle’s grave. Both men were very interested in our trek. En route, he driver explains that his great-grandfather had been gassed during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915 but somehow survived. Immediately we made a connection with him. By the time we arrived at the Nine Elms British Cemetery out in the Flemish farm lands, he insisted on joining us our the search for the headstone. It became his purpose to make sure we were successful.
We when we finally found Row 9, plot F.1 our driver took all the pictures so that Katy and I could make a grave marker rubbing. I felt badly that we were consuming all his time but he reassured me that this was what he would rather be doing. I could see it in his face. He drove us back to Essex Farm, where John McRae wrote In Flanders Fields, to meet up with the rest of our tour group. When he dropped us off, he asked if he could use our trip as the subject of his daily blog. It was important to him to have my permission to share my personal family moment even though I would never know or see his post. He was quite a guy.
It is hard for us as Canadians to feel the deep sense of appreciation that the Belgians feel towards our nation. Even 3 generations removed from the First World War, their thanks is strong, authentic and palpable. It was a good reminder to me that the First and Second World Wars were fought on these people’s land. Those battlefields were their farms, villages and town. The memories, history and family members form both our nations are embedded in the landscape.