April 2017: A Centennial Great War Pilgrimage, Part II by Roy Toomey

I believe it is important to always remember what our military men did, and the sacrifices they made for King and Country. As a historian, I also hope that by remembering our military past, and the terrible price paid in men’s lives, we can avoid such brutal, costly wars in the future. One of the hopes of all historians is that we learn from the errors of the past. However, it does a disservice to our fallen to consider their deaths a “waste.” Why did the people of Vimy place maple leaf banners on their homes and along the streets of their town for the 100th anniversary, and why did the President of France himself come to the April 9th ceremony? Why does the “Last Post” get played EVERY night at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium? Yes, the Great War was an imperialist conflict. Yes, the Great War was a destructive, deadly quagmire. BUT, did our men die for nothing? Not at all. They died to preserve the independence of the French and Belgian peoples, who are still grateful to Canadians today!

Grave of Private J. Toomey, 1st Battalion, Australian Infantry, at Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium. A long lost cousin? It always hits harder when you find your own name on a grave in a military cemetery.

On the first day, Dan, his son Eben, and I flew into Brussels. Our hotel was not far from the Manneken Pis statue. Not so impressive, to be honest. The statue is tiny, and, as we later found out, not only located in Brussels. There is another “Manneken Pis” in the little town of Geraardsbergen, which we accidentally found, that is possibly older than the one in Brussels! Nevertheless, he’s a world renowned “celebrity,” so we had to visit. More importantly, my grandfather, who served in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals during the liberation of the Low Countries in World War II, still talks about visiting the statue. It was at least interesting to stand where my grandfather stood 72 years ago. A short walk from there is the old city square, called “Le Grand Place.” That really is spectacular: grand, ornate, and gilded 17th century buildings in all directions. It was a beautiful place to sit and enjoy a pint of delicious Belgian ale on our first night in Europe.

Old city square (Grand Place) in Brussels, Belgium. The tall building at right is the Brussels City Museum.

Come back soon for the next blog post to read about our continuing adventures in Belgium and France! To see all my photos from our trip, please visit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/roytombstone/albums