We Shall Never Forget!

John 15:13 of the Christian Scriptures says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Always remember that this is what those who died fighting for our freedoms did.

Sommer Season all year

As I’ve mentioned in my first Remembrance Day post, November 11th is an important day to observe as it marks the anniversary of the official ending of World War I. That war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month thus explaining why Remembrance day is November 11th.  When in France recently, my wife and I visited the Normandy D-Day beaches. In case you don’t know the significance of those beaches, here is a history lesson.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, “Operation Overlord”, the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe started at 06:30. The target was an 80 kilometre (50-mile) stretch of the Normandy coast, which was divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beach. The Utah and Omaha sectors would be assaulted by the American Army, Gold and Sword beaches by the British troops and Juno beach by the Canadians. We visited the British, Canadian and American beaches. The success…

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We Shall Remember!

This post was first published on November 6th of last year upon returning from Europe. My wife and I spent time exploring the Normandy Beaches in France and the Vimy Ridge memorial. This was a profound experience for us and has made Remembrance Day that much more important. Never forget this ultimate sacrifice our soldiers made.

Sommer Season all year

November 11th is an important day to observe as it marks the anniversary of the official ending of World War I. That war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month thus explaining why Remembrance day is November 11th. In Canada Remembrance Day is a national holiday and all Commonwealth Nations observe this day as a day to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. For those that don’t know, the Commonwealth is an organization of 53 member states that were mostly territories of the former British Empire, which includes the United Kingdom. The United States has a day of remembrance called Veterans Day, which is an official federal holiday that is observed annually on November 11. Its purpose is to honor people who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, that is, its veterans. Armistice Day remains the name of…

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The World Should be Weeping

Aleppo, a selfish human tragedy!

In late September I saw this video in a news report.

Now I had seen many news reports about Aleppo before but this video really got to me.  This video touched me on a deep level. The Canadian band, Nickelback, has a song called, “When We Stand Together”.  The beginning lyrics are,

One more depending on a prayer
And we all look away
People pretending everywhere
It’s just another day
There’s bullets flying through the air
And they still carry on
We watch it happen over there
And then just turn it off

The song portrays exactly what I have typically done and likely most people in the world do. We see what is happening in Aleppo, and other conflicts on the news and at the end of the news broadcast, we “just turn it [the TV] off”. Our mindset is, “it doesn’t really affect me. It’s happening far away from me.” But this time was different. This video got to me. It showed the human toll of this tragic conflict. The video showed how innocent people are being harmed by a senseless civil war and the emotional cost to its first responders.  We’re told that 250 000 innocent civilians are trapped in this city that is without clean water, functioning hospitals, and no aid. BBC News reports at least 18 people were killed earlier this month when trucks unloading at a Syrian Arab Red Crescent near Aleppo was attacked by fighter jets. The aid convoy was the result of a long process of obtaining permission and making preparations to assist isolated civilians after a ceasefire was negotiated. The attack occurred when the ceasefire failed.

I wondered what I could do. Donating for aid seemed to be pointless since aid was not reaching Aleppo, so I thought educating people. As a retired teacher that made sense. Maybe if there is enough of an outcry from the world’s people, the international community would do more. Maybe if enough of the world community said to the Syrian and Russian governments, “stop the bombing or else” things might change. I know it’s not as simple as this but peer pressure works.

So you, like I was, might be wondering what this conflict in Syria is all about. Here is some history based on information from Wikipedia.

_78981659_18dbb1cb-9fd6-4299-b0b8-5ba4fd8194c1The war in Syria stems from the 2011 Arab Spring, a revolutionary upsurge of demonstrations and protests in the Arab world. The revolution started in December 2010 in Tunisia and spread. Major insurgencies occurred in Syria, Libya and Yemen.   Civil rebellions occurred in Egypt and Bahrain. Large street demonstrations happened in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Oman, and some minor protests in Saudi Arabia. In Syria , the revolution escalated to an armed conflict after the government of President Bashar al-Assad violently suppressed protests that were screaming for Assad’s removal. The war is now being fought among several factions which include the Syrian Government, a loose alliance of Syrian Arab rebel groups, the Syrian Democratic Forces, Salafi jihadist groups, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Many of these factions receive substantial support from foreign governments.

The Battle of Aleppo began in July of 2012.  Aleppo is the largest city in Syria with the Old City of Aleppo being a UNESCO World Heritage site. The ongoing war is between the Free Syrian Army, Islamic Front and other Sunni militants and  the armies of the Syrian Government who are also supported by Hezbollah and  Shiite  militants as well as Russia. The government forces and their allies are also attacking the Kurdish People’s Defence Units. The Kurdish people are an ethnic group located in northern Syria as well as in other Middle Eastern counties.  Kurdish nationalists are pursuing greater autonomy and cultural rights.

The battle for Aleppo has been marked by the Syrian army’s indiscriminate use of barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, killing thousands of people, and intentionally targeting the civilian population. This includes hospitals and schools. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to evacuate. On October 6th, 2016 President Assad offered amnesty to militants in the city, offering to evacuate them and their families to safe areas but the militants refused this proposal.

The battle has caused catastrophic destruction to the Old City of Aleppo, which I mentioned is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here are some pictures taken by a drone showing the destruction of Aleppo.

In September 2012, Amnesty International, USA requested that the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to investigate human rights-related reports stemming from the escalating conflict in Aleppo.  Their conclusions on the Conflict in Aleppo was,

Space-based monitoring of the conflict in Aleppo has revealed a steady and continuous trend of degradation to the city’s buildings and infrastructure, including residential, religious, commercial, and industrial facilities. Roadblocks and other makeshift fortifications have continued to proliferate, with over a thousand visible in the latest imagery. Other signs of military activity, such as shell craters, armoured vehicle tracks, and evidence of aircraft deployments are likewise visible, and are consistent with reports of ongoing combat involving heavy weaponry in civilian areas. Damage resulting from fighting has resulted in severe losses to the city’s cultural heritage, both in the city as a whole as well as the area designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It saddens me to see a UNESCO World Heritage site destroyed. In case you didn’t know, a World Heritage Site is a place that is listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as being of exceptional cultural or physical significance to humanity.

It saddens me even more to hear of the human suffering. The New York Times in its report, Why so many Children are Killed in Aleppo, tell us that roughly 250,000 people trapped in this Syrian city and about 100,000 are children. Children are the most vulnerable victims of the intensified bombings by Syrian forces and their Russian allies.

2821b1e600000578-3068063-image-m-17_1430817900726The Times article goes on to report that children in Aleppo face dire food and medicine shortages. Surgery and blood transfusions required for treating bomb wounds are practically impossible now. Medical workers have left children to die on hospital floors due to lack of supplies. Aid groups estimate that there are only 35 doctors remaining in East Aleppo, that is one for every 7,143 people, assuming a population of 250,000 people.

The reality is no one knows for sure how many people are trapped in Aleppo and how many are being killed. One person suffering, especially a child, is one too many. It all seems so senseless to see a world heritage site destroyed and learn of innocent people killed all because one man, Bashar al-Assad, a selfish leader who won’t give up his control of power. If the international community banded together to put serious pressure on the Assad government, maybe this nonsense would stop.

US Secretary of State, John Kerry, recently called for Syria and Russia to be investigated for war crimes since they keep hitting hospitals, medical facilities, children, and women (see The Guardian). I agree with Mr. Kerry as it appears to me that war crimes are occurring. War crimes are actions carried out during the conduct of a war that violates accepted international rules of war. There are 11 crimes which constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and applicable only to international armed conflict. These include willful killing and inhumane treatment, both of which have been violated. This would mean, in my view, Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad are guilty of such crimes. It is time for the world to wake up and stop this senseless suffering, especially of innocent children.

World Water Day

WaterDayTuesday, March 22, 2016 is World Water Day. I had not heard of this day until recently when reading a news article, so I decided to do some research to find out why a day deemed World Water Day was created. What surprised me is this day has been held annually since the 22nd of March 1993, which was the first World Water Day. How could there have been twenty-three World Water Days in the past and I had not heard of it before? Do I live in a bubble? I’ve always known that fresh water was, and still is, a precious resource and that it is rapidly disappearing due to pollution and melting glaciers. In fact, I taught many lessons to my students about it over the years, but when I did some research on the topic, I was surprised by what I learned.

If I am truly honest with myself, I have to admit that I’ve always taken water for granted. There has never been a water shortage where I live. There has always been plenty of fresh, clean water to drink, to have a shower, to operate the clothes washer, to run the dishwasher, and to even water the lawn occasionally. I’ve always assumed, like most people I suspect, that we would always have a supply of fresh water. After doing some research, now I’m not so sure.

The Water Project is a non-profit organization providing reliable water to communities in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the website, water Scarcity is a reality on our planet! That means there is either the lack of enough water or lack of access to safe water. This site says 1 in 9 people worldwide do not have access to safe and clean drinking water. That means over a billion people on our planet lack access to safe water. The site also says that in developing countries, as much as 80% of illnesses are linked to poor water and sanitation conditions.

The World Water Council is an international multi-stakeholder council that promotes awareness, builds political commitment and triggers action on critical water issues. According to the Council, 1.1 billion people live without clean drinking water. The daily per capita use of water in residential areas is

  • 350 litres in North America and Japan
  • 200 litres in Europe
  • 10-20 litres in sub-Saharan Africa

That means each citizen of North America uses 350 litres every day. That’s a lot of water. It begs the question, are we wasting water?

From an agricultural perspective, the Water Councils says the quantity of water needed to produce 1 kg of wheat is 1 000 litres. Rice needs 1 400 litres and beef requires 13 000 litres of water. Perhaps it’s time to eat less steak.

Water.org is an international non-profit organization that brings water and sanitation to the developing world. Here are some interesting statistics I found on their site.

  • 663 million people – 1 in 10 – lack access to safe water.
  • 4 billion people – 1 in 3 – lack access to a toilet.
  • Twice the population of the United States lives without access to safe water.
  • More people have a mobile phone than a toilet.
  • Every 90 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease
eye
From ideahack.me

The Guardian’s article, How will climate change impact fresh water security? says fresh water scarcity is best understood by contemplating the distribution of fresh water on our planet. Approximately 98% of our water is in our oceans, which consists of salt water, and only 2% is fresh water. Of that 2%, almost 70% is snow and ice (namely glaciers), 30% is groundwater, less than 0.5% is surface water (lakes, rivers, etc.) and less than 0.05% is in the atmosphere. Climate change has had enormous effects on the amounts of fresh water available to us on the planet. The primary one is that global warming causes the polar ice caps and the world’s glaciers to melt into the sea, turning it into seawater.

Does this mean we should we alarmed? Yes it does. Does it mean we should lose hope for the future? No it doesn’t. All the various organizations I mentioned above are working towards solving the water scarcity problem. Science is also working towards solutions.

According to The Guardian’s article, 8 unbelievable solutions to future water shortages, science has come up with innovative ideas such as,

  • Waterless bathing using a lotion called DryBath which is a blend of essential oils, bioflavonoids (group of plant pigments), and an odour-eliminating chemical that is said to save four litres of water ever session.
  • Ultra efficient showers that use a screw-in device that captures water at the beginning of a shower and feeds it back into the system.
  • Using lasers to induce rain at times of drought, an idea debated by the World Meteorological Organization.
  • Folding toilets that make more efficient use of water. Its inventors claim that if installed it could save 10,000 litres per person every year.
  • Using a solar-chemical purification process that involves exposing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to ultra violet radiation from the sun to produce a photo catalytic composite that cleans water.

According to the Canada Free Press’ article, Israel holds the solution to world water crisis, Israel has many new innovative products and policies. Some of these are drip irrigation and “fertigation,” a process of injecting fertilizers, soil amendments, and other water-soluble products into an irrigation system. Israel promotes dual-flush toilets, seawater desalination, advanced wastewater treatment and reuse, free-market pricing of water, drought-resistant seeds, cutting-edge metering and leak-detection systems, conservation education and precision agriculture.

Perhaps the most alarming thing that I’ve learned was on the World Water Council website. It said,

“As the resource is becoming scarce, tensions among different users may intensify, both at the national and international level. Over 260 river basins are shared by two or more countries. In the absence of strong institutions and agreements, changes within a basin can lead to transboundary tensions. When major projects proceed without regional collaboration, they can become a point of conflicts, heightening regional instability.”

Water-Wars-Logo
Logo from touchland.com

The prospect of “water wars” has been flaunted for decades and according to the article, Global ‘water war’ threat by 2030 – US intelligence, it may become reality within a decade. The article says the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the organization that oversees US intelligence agencies such as the CIA and FBI, was commissioned by President Barack Obama to examine the impact of water scarcity worldwide on US security. The ODNI predicts that by 2040 water demand will outstrip current supply by 40 per cent. The organization says it could lead to outright fighting, or water could be used as a tool of political leverage, similar to how gas and oil are used today. It suggests revising international water treaties and investing in superior water purification technologies that will make the increasingly scarce resource plentiful again.

The world faces many serious problems such as global warming and water scarcity. It is time for us to get our “heads out of the sand” and educate ourselves about these issues. Even more, it is time for us to get involved, even if it is something as simple as donating to an organization that brings clean water and sanitation to the developing world, taking shorter showers, or purchasing water efficient appliances. If we all do our small part, we will make a difference.

We Shall Never Forget!

As I’ve mentioned in my first Remembrance Day post, November 11th is an important day to observe as it marks the anniversary of the official ending of World War I. That war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month thus explaining why Remembrance day is November 11th.  When in France recently, my wife and I visited the Normandy D-Day beaches. In case you don’t know the significance of those beaches, here is a history lesson.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, “Operation Overlord”, the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe started at 06:30. The target was an 80 kilometre (50-mile) stretch of the Normandy coast, which was divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beach. The Utah and Omaha sectors would be assaulted by the American Army, Gold and Sword beaches by the British troops and Juno beach by the Canadians. We visited the British, Canadian and American beaches. The success of Operation Overlord was a turning point in World War II and led to the liberation of Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany.

IMG_3091In regards to the Canadian mission, fourteen thousand young Canadians stormed Juno Beach on D-Day. The landings initially encountered heavy resistance from the German Division as well as Canadian soldiers faced mined beach obstacles. They also discovered upon their landing on the beach that the preliminary bombardment proved less effective than had been hoped, and rough weather forced the first wave to be delayed until 07:35. The Canadians took heavy casualties in the opening minutes of the first wave. Since they had strength of numbers, as well as fire support from artillery and armoured squadrons, the Canadian forces cleared most of the coastal defenses within two hours of landing.

IMG_3155The fighting they endured was fierce and frightening. The price the Canadians paid was high. The battles to take control of the beachhead cost 340 lives and another 574 wounded. John Keegan, distinguished British historian who wrote Six Armies in Normandy, stated the following concerning the Canadian 3rd Division on D-Day: “The opposition the Canadians faced was stronger than that of any other beach save Omaha. That was an accomplishment in which the whole nation could take considerable pride.”

It was very surreal to stand on Juno beach, knowing what happened on that beach 71 years ago. I knelt on the sand, ran the sand through my fingers as I thought about the D-Day invasion and what our troops endured that day. I toured the Nazi bunkers that are still there and envisioned how the Nazis would have operated. One of the most emotional moments at Juno Beach was during the video the museum showed at the end; a video titled, “They walk with us”.  It consisted of newsreel footage of the D-Day assault and ends with a father and mother walking down present day Juno beach discussing what happened there with their two children. I’ll say no more other than it affected both my wife and I deeply.

My wife and I also visited Pointe du Hoc located in between the two American beaches of Utah and Omaha. To understand the significance of this place, here is a history lesson.

IMG_3294
Pointe du Hoc lies 6.4 kilometres (4 miles) west of the center of Omaha Beach. As part of the Atlantic Wall fortifications, the prominent cliff top location was the most fortified part of the beaches by the Germans.

The American assault force was carried in ten landing craft with another two carrying supplies. One landing craft carrying troops sank and all but one of its occupants drowned, another was swamped. One supply craft sank and the other put the stores overboard to stay afloat. Once within  1.6 kilometres (a mile) of the shore, German mortars and machine guns fired on the craft. These initial setbacks resulted in a 40-minute delay in landing at the base of the cliffs, but British landing craft carrying the Rangers finally reached the base of the cliffs at 7:10 am with approximately half the force it started out with. The landing craft were fitted with rocket launchers to fire grapnels (a device with hooks) so ladders and ropes could be attached to the cliffs. The cliffs proved to be higher than the ladders could reach. As the Rangers (a U.S. WWII soldier specially trained for making surprise raids and attacks in small groups) scaled the cliffs, the Allied destroyers provided them with fire support and ensured that the German defenders above could not fire down on the assaulting troops.

IMG_3298The Rangers successfully scaled the 30 metre (100 foot) cliff only to find that their radios were ineffective. Those Rangers that reached the fortifications learned for the first time that the main objective of the assault, the artillery battery, had been removed. The Rangers regrouped at the top of the cliffs, and a small patrol went off in search of the guns. Two different patrols found five of the six guns nearby (the sixth was being fixed elsewhere) and destroyed their firing mechanisms. At the end of the two-day action, the initial Ranger landing force of over 225 was reduced to about 90 fighting men.

As it was in Juno beach, it was very surreal to be there, knowing what happened on that point 71 years ago. There are still some bunkers intact but the most noticeable markings of the event were the numerous craters caused by the air and naval bombardments. Some of the bunkers were in pieces. Some of the circular gun pits, which housed the 155mm guns, are still there. As we walked about the site I tried to envision what the American Rangers had to endure to succeed at their mission.

2015-10-08 17.16.25We also made a brief stop at Arromanches, located on the British Gold beach, where one of the two portable temporary Mulberry harbours is located that were built and operational within three days of the invasion. Mulberry A was for the Americans at Omaha Beach and Mulberry B was serving the British and Canadians at Arromanches. A heavy storm destroyed the American harbor on June 19, but Mulberry B remained in use for eight months. Block ships were sunk off the Normandy coast to create protection from the open sea. These ships are still there and my wife and I marveled at the ingenuity of the Allied planners. In the first 100 days following D-Day, the harbor landed over 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies for the Battle of Normandy; successfully contributing to the liberation of Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany.

2015-10-08 16.16.41We also visited two of WWII cemeteries; the Canadian cemetery and the German cemetery. Again we were in admiration at how well-kept these cemeteries were, regardless of nationality. We were also saddened when looking at the various head stones when we learned many, many of these soldiers who died ranged between ages of 17 to 23. It was especially heart retching for my wife and I since our son is presently aged 21. Another very stirring moment for us was when we read the sign at the entrance of the German cemetery. The sign read, “Until 1947, this was an American cemetery. The remains were exhumed and shipped to the United States. It has been German since 1948, and contains over 21 000 graves. With its melancholy rigour, it is a graveyard for soldiers not all who had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.” As I’ve stated IMG_3333before, this speaks of the nature of the French nation. They have a great respect for the dignity of all fallen soldiers. The French value and honor all soldiers, no matter what side of the war they fought for.

As we did for the WWI soldiers, my wife and I now have a whole new appreciation for the WWII soldiers and the sacrifice they made to liberate France and other European countries from Nazi oppression. I will attend the Remembrance Day ceremonies this year with much more gratitude and appreciation of all soldiers, especially knowing what the soldiers of WWII had to sacrifice to  achieve their assigned goals.

We Shall Remember!

November 11th is an important day to observe as it marks the anniversary of the official ending of World War I. That war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month thus explaining why Remembrance day is November 11th. In Canada Remembrance Day is a national holiday and all Commonwealth Nations observe this day as a day to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. For those that don’t know, the Commonwealth is an organization of 53 member states that were mostly territories of the former British Empire, which includes the United Kingdom. The United States has a day of remembrance called Veterans Day, which is an official federal holiday that is observed annually on November 11. Its purpose is to honor people who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, that is, its veterans. Armistice Day remains the name of the holiday in France and Belgium.

Now I’ve always felt that Remembrance Day was an important day to remember our fallen soldiers and I have often attended ceremonies, but since visiting the World War I and II sites in France, I have a whole new appreciation for this day. In this post, I will share my experiences visiting the WWI sites and cemeteries in France and Belgium. Experiences of my visits to WWII sites will be in another post.

2015-10-11 14.29.38The first site I visited was the Canadian National Vimy Memorial which has always been on my “bucket list” to visit. The memorial towers over the scene of Canada’s most recognizable First World War engagement, the Battle of Vimy Ridge, fought on  April 9 to 12, 1917. In 1922 the French Government granted land on the crest of the ridge to the Canadian nation and this piece of land is now a Canadian National Park. To help you understand the importance of this site, here is a history lesson.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a military operation fought primarily as part of the Battle of Arras during the First World War. The main combatants were the Canadian Corps, of four divisions, against three divisions of the German Sixth Army.

The Canadian Corps was ordered to seize the heavily German fortified Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Situated in northern France, this seven-kilometre (4 mile) ridge which held a commanding view over the Allied lines. In May 1915, the French army attempted to seize the ridge but failed with 150 000 casualties. In February 1916, the British Army attempted to take control of the ridge but the Germans were able to push them away from the ridge.

IMG_3473Attacking together for the first time, the four Canadian divisions stormed the ridge at 5:30am on 9 April 1917. More than 15,000 Canadian infantry overran the Germans all along the front. Canadians single-handedly charged machine-gun nests or forced the surrender of Germans in protective dugouts. Hill 145, the highest and most important feature of the Ridge, and where the Vimy monument now stands, was captured in a frontal bayonet charge against machine-gun positions. It was the first time all four Canadian divisions attacked together and men from all regions of Canada were present at the battle. Brigadier-General A.E. Ross declared after the war, “in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”

IMG_3444For me, visiting Vimy Ridge was an “eye opening” experience even though I’ve taught about the Battle of Vimy Ridge for many years. The first thing you notice are the craters left behind from the three-week bombardment that preluded the attack that occurred on the 9th of April. They were everywhere you looked. Large areas are fenced off with electric fences with signs stating that there are still unexploded devices in these areas. In fact, the attendant in the information told us that recently someone brought in a what they thought was a rock only to find out it was an undetonated grenade from 98 years ago.

When visiting the preserved trenches, I was struck by how close the Allied and German trenches were to each other. We were told that the trenches were 25 metres apart in places. In the area between the opposing trenches, known as “no man’s land” are several huge craters. We were told that these craters were from Allied soldiers tunneling under “no man’s land” and detonating explosives. My wife and I learned about the conditions of the trenches. Soldiers would spend months in these trenches often standing in ankle to knee-deep mud and water which caused many soldiers to acquire infections in their feet known as “trench foot”. The soldiers also had to contend with rats and head lice in epidemic proportions. The food was usually canned food and not much variety either. Many soldiers perished not because of battle but because of the horrific conditions of the trenches.

The park also does a tour of the tunnels. The tunnels at Vimy Ridge were part of a 20 kilometre (12 mile) network of tunnels stemming from the city of Arras. The soldiers would exit these tunnels to go onto the battle field. While soldiers were in the tunnels awaiting battle, they had to be perfectly quiet as they could be heard in the nearby German tunnels. The lighting in the tunnels was minimal so when our guide demonstrated what it would be like in there in 1917, it was almost pitch black. The temperature in the tunnels is a constant 10 degree Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit).

IMG_3726In the nearby city of Arras, my wife and I visited the Wellington Quarry (la Carrière Wellington) a museum that opened in 2008. The museum is a section of the many kilometres of tunnels dug by the British Army in WWI. Here is another history lesson.

From the Middle Ages through to the 19th century, the chalk beds underneath Arras were extensively quarried to supply stone for the town’s buildings. In 1916, during the First World War, the British forces decided to re-use the underground quarries to aid in a planned offensive against the Germans. The quarries were to be linked up so that they could be used both as shelters from the continual German shelling and as a means of conveying troops to the front in secrecy and safety, so 500 miners from the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, were brought in to dig 20 kilometres (12 miles) of tunnels. They worked alongside the British coal miners. Many were soldiers of below average height who had been rejected from regular units because they did not meet the height requirements.

The tunnel system could accommodate up to 20,000 men and these tunnels were outfitted with running water, electric lights, kitchens, latrines, a light rail system and a fully equipped hospital. Thousands of soldiers were billeted in the tunnels for eight days prior to the start of the Arras offensive on 9 April 1917. At 05:30 that morning, exits were dynamited to enable the troops to storm the German trenches. The Germans were taken by surprise and were pushed back 11 km (6.8 miles). However, the offensive soon bogged down and it was eventually called off after casualties reached 4,000 a day.

When you visit the quarry which lies 20 metres (65 feet) below the surface you are immediately struck by the numerous tunnels down there. A guide takes you through showing the many bottles, cans, shoes, and other WWI artifacts that are still there. You are also shown the graffiti on the walls left by the soldiers as well as one of the exits that led to the battlefield. It was truly one of the most moving and spiritual experiences I have ever had.

IMG_3434My wife and I also visited the many, many WWI military cemeteries in the area. We were actually overwhelmed by the sheer number of them. We visited three or four commonwealth cemeteries, which lay many Canadians. We visited a German cemetery and a French cemetery. What was astonishing to us was the number of unknown soldiers in these cemeteries. One of the cemeteries we visited had over half of the graves as unknown soldiers. Another surprising observation we made was how well-kept these cemeteries were. There were flowers growing between every headstone, the grass was always well-groomed  and monuments were found in every cemetery. I IMG_3518think this speaks of the character of the French people and nation. It says they have great respect for the dignity of all fallen soldiers. The French value and honor all soldiers, no matter what side of the war they fought for. I was also struck by the sense of peace in these cemeteries. It was truly a humbling and touching experience to visit these resting places of WWI soldiers.

Notre Dame de Lorette is the world’s largest French military cemetery. Beside this cemetery is the Remembrance Ring  (Anneau de la Mémoire) officially known as Mémorial International Notre-Dame-de-Lorette.  This new memorial was inaugurated on November 11, 2014 and takes the form of a 328-metre ring of concrete with 500 sheets of bronzed stainless steel inside listing 579,606 German, IMG_3528French and British names. Now that is a lot of fallen soldiers and that does not include the many unknown soldiers whose names are not part of this memorial. What was so unusual to me was the fact that the French Government collected as many names as they could obtain of soldiers who perished in WWI regardless of their nationality; regardless of which side of the war they fought on. Once again this speaks of the character of the French nation. My wife and I wandered around in awe of this memorial finding our family names. It is very powerful and humbling experience to stare at 113 people with the same surname as me who fought with the Germans, the enemy of the day. As you might have gathered, my ancestry is German.

My wife and I now have a whole new appreciation for all soldiers and the sacrifice they made to maintain freedoms. Even though WWI was such an unnecessary war and a world war caused by the big egos of the leaders of the day, it was still necessary for soldiers to keep France and Belgium from being occupied and controlled by a foreign empire. I will attend the Remembrance Day ceremonies this year with much more gratitude and appreciation of all soldiers, especially knowing what the soldiers of WWI had to endure.

Will there ever be peace?

According to International Relations.com, there are ten wars where the fatalities are greater than 1000 every year and  five serious armed conflicts with fatalities just under a 1000 per year, happening on our planet at the present moment. According to the website, Syria remains the most lethal and overall “biggest” conflict, with an estimated 250,000 deaths in the past three years, of which fewer than half were battle-related deaths. The website goes on to list 15 other conflicts where less than a 1000 people are killed per year. For me, that is appalling.  For me that says something about the world’s sad state of affairs. It begs the question, “Will this planet ever experience peace?”  An even better question would be, “Is peace on this planet even possible?”

Personally I believe it is.  At the beginning of the Great War, otherwise known as World War One, the Christmas Truce of 1914 gives me a glimmer of hope. According the BBC,  a scattered series of small-scale cease fires did happen between some German and British forces. But this brief festive reprieve was not a mass event as some people have come to believe. In many places along the Western Front, December 25, 1914 was a day of brutal fighting like any other day in war times. Where it did occur, accounts suggest that men sang carols and in some cases left their trenches and met in No Man’s Land. If events where enemies put down their differences and celebrate, in this case Christmas, then those actions suggest to me that peace is achievable because of personal choices.  Each soldier involved in one of those brief cease-fires made a personal choice to make efforts of peace and goodwill towards their enemies.  It was a choice.

So is peace possible? Hans Küng,a scholar of theology and philosophy and author of many books, wrote in Christianity: Essence, History, Future, “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions”.  Many of the conflicts in the world involve tensions between the world religions. Hans Küng holds part of the key to the solution for world peace.  World religions need to understand one another and to practice what their religions teach, which is the ideals of their faith’s.  All world religions teach ideals of compassion, love and tolerance.

There have been and still are many spiritual leaders in history that have given us ways to achieve peace. The historical Jesus, the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and the Dalai Lama to name a few. Gandhi once said,”An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind”.  In other words, violence begets violence. History has demonstrated to humanity that most human conflicts have been as a result of stubbornness on the part of our leaders.  If our leaders could just learn that most disputes can be resolved by showing a willingness to understand the issues of our opponents and that by using diplomacy and compassion these issues can be solved peacefully.  Mahatma Gandhi also said, “There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no cause that I am prepared to kill for”.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal”.  His wisdom holds true not only for peace in our world, but for peace within ourselves.  Mr. Gandhi taught, “We must become the change we want to see in the world”This is by far Mahatma Gandhi’s wisest teaching. To achieve peace, be peace. How does one be peace? By a sheer act of Will. By the decision to always act peacefully and by causing others to experience what you wish to experience, that is peace.

peace-signThis especially holds true for our leaders, especially our political leaders. One cannot bring world peace to all unless a leader demonstrates peaceful acts of kindness daily.  Just think how different the world would be if our political or even religious leaders didn’t act like bullies, but instead always acted out of love, understanding and tolerance. It would be a very different world. A world living together in peace.

So what is my point simply put? Seymour Miller & Jill Jackson, a husband and wife songwriting team, say it much better than I could when they wrote the 1955 song, “Let There Be Peace on Earth,  with those beautiful words, ” Let there be peace on earth, And let it begin with me”. Peace begins with you and me!