BELGIUM & FRANCE,: With the passing of President George H.W. Bush and the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, last week was a poignant, and somber reminder of historical events during the 20th century. For travelers to the sites of the two World Wars, there are countless memorials, cemeteries, and museums which serve to commemorate those who sacrificed their lives to preserve our freedoms.
Two of the most powerful memorials, one from each of the World Wars, are solemn expressions that we should visit to remind us of the horrors and insanity of the conflicts of mankind.
St. Julien Memorial, Ypres
The first is the St. Julien Memorial in the northeast sector of the Ypres Salient in Belgium. (A salient is a battlefield feature projecting into enemy territory that is surrounded on several sides by enemy forces.)
The memorial is a small park situated in the village of Saint-Julien, Langemark, Belgium. It commemorates the Canadian First Division’s participation in the Second Battle of Ypres and is noteworthy because it marks the first time poison gas was used in wartime.
The Brooding Soldier
As with so many things that capture our imagination, the “Brooding Soldier” sculpture by Frederick Chapman Clemsha is sobering, haunting, powerful and, yet uplifting in its simplicity. The 36-foot monument was the result of a design competition by the Canadian Battlefield Monument Commission in 1920.
Today, it serves as the focal point of the memorial park.
On April 22, 1915, the German army advanced with 168 tons of chlorine gas contained in nearly 6,000 cylinders buried in their trenches north of Ypres. Canadian troops who had been at the scene only a few days to protect the lines southwest of St. Julien became the victims of the first poison gas attack on the Western Front.
A north wind carried the initial gas attack to the north and west of Canadian lines and into the trenches of French colonial troops. After witnessing the early casualties, the French abandoned their trenches creating an 8,000-yard gap in the Allied line.
Fortunately, the drifting gas also affected German infantry positions. Without reinforcements, the Germans were unable to exploit the break, allowing Canadian and French forces to hastily regroup their defenses.
While holding the line for two days, 6,035 Canadian soldiers were casualties, representing one man in every three who went into battle. Approximately 2,000 of those 6,000 troops perished in the fighting.
In tribute, the Canadian Memorial is an example of landscape architecture at its finest.
Visible for miles around, “The Brooding Soldier” column rises from a circular flagstone terrace. It is sculpted at the top to form the bowed head and shoulders of a Canadian soldier whose hands are resting on the butt of his down-turned rifle in the “arms reversed” position.
This traditional pose is used as a gesture of mourning and respect for the fallen performed at funerals and services of remembrance in Canada.
Surrounding the column and central terrace are gardens of tall cedars trimmed in the shape of artillery shells with low cut cedars representing shell explosions.
To the right of the memorial, other low cut foliage symbolizes the encroachment of the drifting gas.
Some of the soil nourishing the gardens was brought from various locations across Canada to represent the spectrum of Canadian men who fought shoulder to shoulder on the battlefields of 1915.
The memorial at Saint Julien was unveiled on July 8, 1923.
Nearly three decades later, following the Second World War, Donald Harcourt De Lue was commissioned to create seven works for a memorial to the fallen soldiers of D-Day located on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France.
The most famous work is the celebrated spiritual centerpiece sculpture of the Normandy American Cemetery, “The Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Waves.”
Where the “Brooding Soldier” of Canada peers down in reflection, the 22-foot high nude bronze figure of an American youth is depicted with arms outstretched, looking to the sky. His legs and feet are curved back while his arched body appears to be rising from the waves below.
Cast in Milan by the Battaglia Foundry, the pedestal of the statue on the floor in bronze bears the inscription:
“MINE EYES HAVE SEEN THE GLORY OF THE COMING OF THE LORD“
Omaha Beach is the beach for the seaside villages of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and Colleville-sur-Mer. Beautiful as they are, do not expect to see sunbathers or swimmers on the landing beaches of Normandy for they are hallowed ground for which the French have paid total respect for 75-years as thanks for their liberation from tyranny.
To the right of the 9,387 crosses, Stars of David and the statue is an overlook with a view down and across the bluffs to the massive expanse of beach terrain, the troops had to negotiate on D-Day.
Standing at the promontory, it is nearly unfathomable to comprehend the bravery of the young men who fought and died there. It is unimaginable to ponder how they managed to succeed against such overwhelming odds.
This is the tribute that De Lue so masterfully captures in his bronze memorial at the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach.
Travelers to Europe should experience many of these sites during their journeys in order to appreciate the full measure and magnitude of the sacrifices made by so many; the Anne Frank House, Dachau and Auschwitz, the World War I trenches, Flanders Fields and the Normandy American Cemetery to mention a few.
And while you’re at it, you will quickly discover it is impossible to view the “Brooding Soldier” and the “Spirit of American Youth” without shedding a tear and quietly saying “Thank you.”
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an is award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is a founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime
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