By JOEL OPHARDT
Every spring, as if by primal instinct, college students around the world begin to plan their annual migrations away from the old and the familiar. Using cultural experience as pretext, the costly adventures begin.
A few too many pints in London, head splitting wine-hangovers in Paris, and all-night clubbing in Madrid. Before you know it, another trip’s memories have fallen victim to the haze of fleeting youth.
A shame, of course.
On a continent where many of the world’s greatest cities were decimated by a hellish war, finding worthwhile experiences barely requires a detour from the local pub.
In the lower Rhineland of Germany and the Netherlands, this is all the more true. Not much more than half a century ago the cities here were all but completely flattened, the streets littered with bodies.
Canadian bodies too.
It’s a story that is literally embedded into the fabric of the countryside, a story woven between the thousands of Canadian headstones found across this region in the Netherlands and Germany.
The Rhineland offensive was one of the most important military actions in Canadian history, and it mustn’t be forgotten.
“One of the most important battles of the Second World War, from a historical perspective, took place here, but was completely forgotten afterwards – completely forgotten,” said historian Ralph Trost of Xanten, Germany. “From a Canadian perspective, as far as I interpret it, true independence from the British colonial system was achieved through the Second World War, because that’s where Canadians were able to claim, especially, through this campaign ‘we are our own country with our own army, and we can fight for ourselves.’”
The massive failure of the Hollywood popularized military operation, Operation Market Garden, meant the war would go on for another year, and allied forces would have to find another way to cross the river Rhine, a massive natural barrier to the heartland of Germany.
The Rhineland offensive, codenamed Operation Veritable for Canadians, saw the Allies co-ordinate a basic pincer attack that would see the Ninth U.S. Army advance from the south and the First Canadian Army from the North. The two would meet in the middle, advancing east towards a bridge in Wesel. This bridge represented the last chance to use an existing structure to cross the Rhine, the key to ending the war.
The Canadians needed to travel no more than 80 kilometres south against an already weakened, but embittered German army. More than 5,000 Canadian soldiers lost their lives in a grueling battle that saw the First Canadian Army endure some of the most treacherous, metre by metre battles of the war. More than 2,500 of these soldiers now lie in the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery in Groesbeek, Netherlands, where the First Canadian Army started its campaign.
“What we are trying to educate them about is the importance of the Rhineland Offensive,” said Cathy McKell, of the National Liberation Museum in Groesbeek. “For a lot of Canadians and these youngsters, you’ve got to know what happened, and you’ve got to be aware of what could happen.”
Seeing the Canadian War Cemetery, hidden amongst farm fields outside of Groesbeek, for the first time, I struggled to process what I was seeing. Until you get to the cemetery you wouldn’t know that anything of significance had happened here, or just across the border in Germany for that matter. Your senses struggle to accept the sea of white headstones for what they represent; it seems almost fictitious that something so horrible happened in such a calm and beautiful place. It’s almost impossible to fully understand that beneath your feet lie men that changed, not only the course of Canadian history, but also that of western civilization.
“You have to visit those cemeteries sometimes just to remember that our freedom started with those guys, so that we can live in peace and freedom,” said Patrick Thijssen, head gardener for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at the Groesbeek Cemetery. “When someone comes from England or Canada, sometimes they thank you with tears in their eyes. You can do your job every day with pride.”
One of the many people who would thank Thijssen and the CWGC for their work would be Dennis Rayner, former Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Air Force flight mechanic, living in Düsseldorf, Germany. He has visited all the major cemeteries in the area including Groesbeek in the Netherlands, as well as the Reichswald and Rheinberg cemeteries in Germany.
“I have one or two old comrades [in Rheinberg], and I have, in the Reichswald [cemetery], a Polish comrade … he got killed on his first operation. One day I was walking through the Reichswald cemetery and there he was right under my feet. One of the big surprises of my life.”
“When you look through this cemetery, the Canadians are the second biggest population to be killed here [in Rheinberg],” Rayner said of the importance of visiting these cemeteries. “It says on that altar ‘Lest we forget, their name liveth forever more’. That is true, but it seems as if somehow, somewhere, someone forgot.”
Forgetting the Rhineland is a problem that Trost believes is indicative of the times. Having worked at the Museum in Groesbeek himself, he has seen the changes firsthand. In the early years, thousands of Canadian veterans would come to Groesbeek with their children. A few years later they would come with their grandchildren. Now that most of the veterans have died, he says that the first-degree connection has been lost, and the youth are uninterested.
“You have to find a different way to communicate this story to the younger generation,” said Trost. “Whether it’s Canadians or Germans, you have to express this history in terms of what it represents for their lives. It should be framed as the story that gave them democracy and freedom in both Europe and North America.”
War memorials from the Rhineland offensive are just minutes away from Cologne, Düsseldorf, Dortmund, and Nijmegen; large, beautiful cities worth visiting entirely on their own merit.
As Canadians travellers, if there were ever a detour worth taking, this would be the one. Paying respect to Canadians buried thousands of kilometres from home, that put a stop to a pattern of death and carnage for the world’s most democratic continents, is the least we can do.