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Published: December 10th 2009
What a trooper am I? I jumped out of bed at 7 and marched down to the train station to disembark on the next leg of my journey. It was bright and early and I was already up-and-attem. Pride surged through my body. I thought it was pride. Turned out to be pain. However, at such an early hour, it is difficult to tell the difference between the two. My destination was a small town situated in northern France called Cambrai.
Cambrai is where I went to find my great-grandfather. He was buried there after falling in combat in 1918. This was my first and only item on my “Tour Europe” itinerary. Check out this sequence. I took a series of trains that took me from Brussels to Ghent to Lille, France and then finally onto Cambrai. My journey left me standing in the middle of the square of a quaint little town. I was armed with a couple of rough photocopied maps of the area and a strong sense of ambition. The directions to the cemetery stated that upon arriving at the main train terminal, walk 4 miles to the northwest. Needless to say, I needed a bit more detail in order to find the place. I stopped a few locals walking past and kindly asked them to point me in the right direction. Immediately, I realized that I may have a problem. My French was long in hibernation and these town’s folks did not speak any English. Every time I opened my mouth to explain my plight, they returned perplexed looks of confusion. I stood there, map in hand with three babbling Frenchmen spewing back in articulations while doing this jiggy thing with their arms. In retrospect, I realise that they were actually trying to help me. They sent me adroit and then a gauche. Quell’ horror.
I zigzagged my way along a long stretch of rural roads pointing in every direction for what seemed like eternity. Meanwhile, the oppressive French sun baked down upon me. It was hot, my pack dug into my back and a stream of sweat dribbled down my face. Thankfully, being an experienced world traveller, I decided that since I was only planning on staying in France for the afternoon that I did not need any French currency. I forgot that food and water may actually cost money. I was going to rely on the new, civilized way of extracting currency from your bank account, bank machines? However while Cambrai was a very nice, peaceful town, civilization had not yet arrived. The town had no bank machines. It was like travelling in the third world. So parched and hungry, I trudged along. After a few more wrong turns and the help of a free ride on one of their local buses, I suddenly came upon a sign advising of the location of St. Olle British War Cemetery.
The trip had taken me about 2 hours. I walked almost seven kilometres. My back screamed for a break. Beat and forlorn, I viewed the signpost hammered into the ground at the side of the highway. It pointed at an obscure cobblestone path. Upon reflection, that sign was actually pointing me to my personal plot of land. It signified the spot where blood, my great grandfather’s blood once soaked into the soil. I was home.
The beaten pathway took me from the side of a highway, behind an old garage and down a slope to a scruffy looking field. I followed the path as it curled around the slope and wound its’ way to the bottom. Suddenly, amongst the tall grass, I encountered the most well maintained plot of land my eyes ever set upon. It was St. Olles British Memorial Cemerery. The plot measures approximately 120 feet by 80 feet. A three-foot high red brick wall lines the outer edge. Entering the cemetery, I opened the iron gates and walked tentatively upon the grass. There were 6 rows of marble gravestones. I passed the first row. Each stone had a maple leaf emblazoned on its' face and listed the name of the hero buried beneath. I slowly walked past each rows looking for the one signifying the resting spot of my great grandfather. Then, there he was. In the front row of stones, front and centre, in the shadow of the characteristic British white stone cross was a marker with the name ‘William John Bellboddy’ carved upon it. That was my mother’s grandfather, Grandpa’s dad, my great-grandfather. A small red rose bush was planted directly beneath his stone. I marvelled at the sights, sounds and feelings I had encountered. It seemed a bit odd to me. That was the first gravesite of a former family member that I ever visited. He died fifty-four years before I was born.
I spent some extra time as I walked among the fallen soldiers. I was the only person (living person) within the grounds. As I walked above the resting souls of Canada’s war dead I felt different. I, like the boys buried underneath, was thousands of kilometres away from home visiting a tiny plot of land in a distant land. At 25 years of age I was actually a bit older than most of this lot. From reading on the gravestones, most of the boys were between 20 and 23 years of age. My grandfather was 27. If they had not fallen that dreadful day I surely would not have visited this place. It was so obscure, lost, unimportant. The cemetery was located at the base of a small hill. It took me all of three minutes to walk down from the highway, yet it took millions of soldiers from a number of countries almost five years to scale. The land itself remains little known and rarely visited, yet it is sacred soil. It was in 1918 and it is today.
Over 600,000 Canadian boys heeded the call of the Empire. They left their homes, families and lives as fishermen, lumberjacks, farmers, businessmen or students. They crossed the Atlantic, slogged and trudged through the mud of Flanders and Northern France and over 60,000 died for the cause of defending freedom. 89 of these young men fell during this portion of the Battle of Canal du Nord, overtaking the German positions at St.Olle. I came to Cambrai, France to find the final resting place of my great-grandfather. I would return to that spot for all 89. For those who are fortunate enough to travel to Europe, they should ensure their itinerary includes a stop at a WW1 cemetery. It is the least we can do to remember the boys. It is the least we can do to remember their sacrifice. Return to Canada and tell the rest of your family, tell your friends what you saw and encourage them to visit. This is important. It is important for the memory of the 89, their 60,000 dead countrymen and for the cause of freedom itself.
As noted, I tried to spend some extra time at St. Olle. I walked between each row. As I passed each grave marker, I read each name to myself. I also made a point to touch as many gravestones as I could. It was my way of telling the fellows that I respect their sacrifice. I remember what they had accomplished. One has to realize that these guys were real people. The best analogy is to consider all of your buddies down at your local watering hole. Standing at the bar ordering another pint, turn to your left and notice the young men in the room standing beside you. Then, do the same with those on the right. Back in 1914-1918, when the regional battalion came to your town, most of those lads would have put down their pint and joined the line. You would have been close in tow. Together, for friends, for country, for adventure, they would all rush to sign up. The ladies in the crowd would swoon over their brave lads. Tears would flow, ribbons would be waved and despite the prospect of never seeing them again, they would urge them all…”On to Europe, Go get ‘em boys!”.
Continuing my visit, instinctively, I bent down, fixed a wooden cross with a poppy attached that had somehow become dislodged since it had been placed. I exited through the iron gates, reached inside a hole in the side of one of the bricks where the guest-book was kept and signed it. I closed the gate behind me and walked back up the hill. Twenty minutes had passed since I first stood before the St. Olle British Military Cemetery sign. I left a different man. Maybe, my visit helped. Maybe my Grandfather…maybe he can finally rest truly knowing that his sacrifice was not in vain.
My backpack did not seem quite so heavy on my return trip to the station. The roads seemed shorter, the pathways more direct. From Cambrai back to Lille and across the border to Ghent, Belgium. Much time was spent thinking and contemplating during my journey from the cemetery. However, I think it was too soon. My visit was far too short. My knowledge of the events preceding my great-grandfather’s death, too limited. I had to return to my tour. Yet, this short visit was important. I could think of no better way to being my journey of discovery. It all started with a young idealistic lad, volunteering alongside his brother, his pride, his honour and his responsibility.
My next task was to find my way back to Belgium. The bible helped direct me to the ancient Belgian city of Ghent. I arrived at around 8 PM, checked into a rather deserted youth hostel and immediately set out to find food. I was starving.
I wandered the darkened, cobblestone streets, looking for any sign of nourishment. Walking up to a few of the pubs and eateries I checked out the menus and noticed one starting fact. Wow, food is damn expensive in Belgium! I just wanted a burger, not the whole bloody cow. Sure, my pockets and bank account was topped up, but I wanted to have my cash last for some time. So, I settled for the quickest, cheapest and most familiar dish...McDonalds. I sat down at a table situated beside the internationally familiar room filled with coloured playing balls and dug my chops into a Big Mac, medium fry and pint of Belgian lager. What a concept these Europeans have stumbled upon! Beer and Big Macs. How do we survive back home without it? A pint of Belgian lager is so much healthier than a jug of ‘gut-rot’ Coca-Cola. Better still, I would rather forgo the Big Mac and just have some extra beers. Now, that is a Happy Meal!
Leaving the restaurant (I always feel like I am overdoing it when I refer to McDonalds as a “restaurant”…however I digress) I took a quick gander at the town of Ghent. The most impressive sight that I was able to make out in the darkness was a mysterious castle surrounded by a canal/moat. It was pretty cool. The castle walls were made of dark, grey stones. It made for an incredible effect when lights situated in the midst of the canal shone on the castle walls. Very cool.
I eventually made my way back to the hostel and settled in my room. It was fairly early but I was just exhausted from the long journey. My roommates included a couple of Czechs and some loser (ethnicity unknown). The fact that none of them could speak English pleased me. Lights out.
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