Monuments of Remembrance and Hate

By Captain Tom Pett

As Remembrance Day approaches, and in light of the recent and horrendous attacks in Canada, I thought it best to reflect and let the members and friends of the Regiment see a different side of my tour as the Operations Officer for Canadian Forces Support Unit (Europe) in Niederheid, Germany.  One of the many perks to living in Northwest Germany is the proximity of so many memorials and reminders of what the people in Europe have had to deal with throughout their history.

The first stop on my family’s tour this past summer and fall was to Vimy Ridge.  For those who have not yet had the pleasure to visit in person, I can tell you this:  As you approach the ridge from the Arras area, it looms in the distance like the Rocky Mountains from Airdrie.  The monument rises into the air like a lighthouse on the horizon of the sea.  My family is extremely lucky to have been there a few times as it is only a two and a half hour drive from my front door.  We were able to take WO (Ret’d) Trent Hiscock and his wife Cheryl as our latest guests.  They were amazed and saddened by the sheer size of the ridge and the sacrifices that were made by so many.

Our next stop on our return from Vimy Ridge was Fort Breendonk, in Willebroek, Belgium.  Not as well-known as other concentration camps, this small and unassuming fort was host to many atrocities.  I have seen a few concentration camps in Germany, but this was different.  There were over 300 deaths at the hands of the Belgian sympathizers, many who were originally political prisoners before the Nazi final solution came into play.  The fort was built prior to the First World War, was converted to a jail, and then a concentration camp during the Second World War.  The tour is humbling and provided a lot of detail on the war and what happened to the guards and prisoners before and after.  It was very chilling and perhaps the most poignant concentration camp to see and learn how horrible humans can be to each other.

During the summer, we travelled south, to a beautiful area call Garmisch-Partenkirchen.  There is a nice resort run by the Americans, called Edelweiss Lodge where most service members can stay as long as they are currently serving or are retired from service.  The lodge runs day trips at a very reasonable price.  One of which, is a trip to the famed Eagle’s Nest and Berchtesgaden.  The town (like you see in the movies) is very beautiful and many of the houses have not changed in centuries.  The Eagle’s Nest is perched high atop a mountain overlooking the town.  The chalet itself was only visited (on the books) 13 times by Adolph Hitler, as he was afraid of heights.  He signed the invasion of Poland in one of the rooms and some of the members of the 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment (yes, from Band of Brothers) still have their names carved in the fireplace.  The chalet is very touristy now and a cafeteria takes up the main part of the chalet.  The elevator ride up is typical and although many make the wrong distinction, the elevator is actually made of brass not gold.

Our final stop this October was to Ypres in Belgium to attend the Menin Gate Sunset Ceremony.  This ceremony has happened every night since 2 July 1928, with the exception of during the Second World War.  The ceremony has a huge following and the night we were there, there were approximately 2,000 visitors.  I am told this is a common number and can get even greater around Remembrance Day and on weekends.  The gate was the entrance to the old city and many of the manes on the walls are soldiers who had died and have not yet been recovered.  I was lucky enough to find the names of five Strathconas near the top of the inside of the monument.  Hearing the band play and seeing some of the elderly townsfolk, who were obviously children during the war, was a staunch reminder to what took place there in the last century and I know my kids took away a lesson that they will never be able to replicate.

In the next coming months, I will be travelling to Krakow, Poland and in the spring we will travel to Moreuil, Normandy, and my oldest and I will be taking part in a school trip to Arnhem in the Netherlands to learn about the battles from a villager who was ten at the time of Operation MARKET GARDEN (I know, pretty cool, my school trips were to the zoo).  My family and I will miss the history and the many great experiences we have had here in Europe, but we are looking forward to returning to Canada this summer.