In 2019, I completed my first Battlefield Bike Ride (BBR) with Wounded Warriors Canada (WWC). This was BBR19 – Operation Overlord. During the ride we travelled from Dieppe, France to Juno Beach in Normandy. This was the Canadian beach for Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day. We arrived on Juno Beach on 6 June 2019, 75 years, to the day, after the landings. It was truly an emotional journey.
So, I was looking forward to BBR20 – The Liberation of the Netherlands. After all, I have a number of friends who are Dutch and there is such a strong bond between Canada and the Netherlands. Unfortunately, COVID19 came along and brought that idea to a thundering halt. Oh well, there’s always next year. Well, 2021 saw no relief from COVID19 and BBR was cancelled yet again.
I guess the WWC, saw two cancellations as a bad omen and decided not to go with the third time lucky concept and changed the venue completely for 2022. BBR22 – 100 Days to Victory was a commemoration of the last 100 days of World War 1 and Canada’s pivotal role in those 100 days that brought a close to WW1. It was a great return to Europe, to the BBR family (new and old members) and to helping one of my favourite charities. However, there was unfinished business!
So, following BBR22, I decided to conduct my own personal, although somewhat abbreviated version of the ill-fated BBR20 and BBR21. On 20 June 2022, I began my own BBR – BBR20/21.1 – The Liberation of the Netherlands. I say truncated, because without Magic Places moving my gear from stop to stop, I had to take all of my gear by train to locations from which I could ride out to the cemeteries.
2020 had marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War 2. For Canadians, this marked the end of 6 years of fighting that saw over 1 million Canadians serve, with approximately 42,000 killed and another 55,000 wounded. FOr the Dutch, this was the end of 6 years of occupation, tyranny and hardship. In the final months of WW2, Canada was given the important and deadly task of liberating the Netherlands. During the 11-month campaign, more than 7,600 Canadian soldiers, sailors and airmen died before the formal Nazi surrender on May 7, 1945. For the Dutch, there is no confusion as to who liberated them from the tyranny of the Nazi regime – Canada. And, while most Canadians have lost sight of the heroic work done by Canadian Service men and women, the Dutch have not.
This is my personal pilgrimage to the Canadian Military Cemeteries in the Netherlands.
As I did in 2019, to honour the fallen in Northern France, my plan was to follow the path of the 1st Canadian Army in their struggle to liberate the Netherlands. Along the way, I would pay tribute to the fallen at the three largest Canadian Military Cemeteries in the Netherlands: Bergen op Zoom, Groesbeek and finishing at Holten.
BBR20/21.1 – Day 1 – Bergen op Zoom
Following my visit to Ypres, Belgium, I boarded the train to Bergen op Zoom. This task was easy to achieve (or at least would have been if Google Maps cooperated). The Bergen op Zoom Canadian War Cemetery is located on the edge of the city, so after checking into my hotel, I hopped on my bike to ride the short distance to the memorial.
So, as I rolled up to the gates and walked into the cemetery at Bergen op Zoom, I had the privilege of sitting there among the headstones that mark the 1,115 soldiers, airmen and sailors (964 of them Canadian) who gave their lives to help liberate the Dutch people. My only distractions were the chirping of the birds and the wind rustling through the trees.
After my quiet reflections at the cemetery and a visit from some Dutch Military Police officers who were conducting a routine security check of the cemetery, it was time to head back to my hotel to plan the next day in my pilgrimage.
BBR20/21.1 – Day 2 – Groesbeek
Early in the morning (too early according to the conductor of the train that I was taking – bikes are not supposed to be on the train until after 9:00 am) I hopped aboard the local train to Nijmegen. I had found a nice small hotel on the northern outskirts of the city and went and checked in before going for a bit of a tour of the city.
Tuesday morning dawned and after a nice breakfast I rode the short distance to the Groesbeek Canadian Military Cemetery. Here lie the remains of 2,617 soldiers, sailors and airmen of WW2 who fell securing a future for the Netherlands. Canadians make up 2,338 of them. Here, there were a few other visitors, mainly Dutch people who take opportunities to pay their respects to those who have fallen to
I took the opportunity of the close proximity to Arnhem to visit that city and the river that contributed to so many of the problems for the airborne units in Operation Market Garden, then it was back to the hotel to pack up before my next destination.
BBR20/21.1 – Stop 3 – Holten
I arrived in Deventer, Netherlands, at midday, but rather than push off to Holten Canadian War Cemetery, I decided that a bit of time off was in order. So after checking into my hotel, which was more of an apartment in a very old building, I chose to do some sightseeing around the city and head off to Holten in the morning before the day started to heat up.
I got up early (5:30) to pack up and make the 20 km ride out to Holten. It was sunny and cool, a welcome respite from the humid heat that we have been dealing with for the past few days. It was a gorgeous ride in this morning allowed me to arrive just before 8 AM. And apart from the birds chirping and the 1,394 headstones, I’m here by myself.
A couple of things that I’ve noticed here: As with all of the cemeteries managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the grounds are immaculate. And as with most other War Cemeteries, there are all sorts of notes at headstones. There are Ukrainian flags at several of the headstones for soldiers of Ukrainian descent fighting for Canada and who are remembered here. On top of every headstone is a poppy held in place by a stone. Somebody has gone to a lot of effort to place these poppies. It’s good to know that they have not been forgotten about here in the country that they liberated. Also, there are no flags flying from the two flag poles.
The other thing about this Cemetery is that there is a visitor’s centre; something that I have not seen at other Cemeteries. Unfortunately, it is not open today. They may have been able to answer why the flags weren’t flying.
The time has come! It’s time to head back to Deventer and to end my BBR20/21.1 ride and post. It has been an honour to spend these few days visiting these quiet resting places. I will always remember that Freedom is not free. The 1,394 headstones here are eternal reminders that somebody must pay that enormous price so that we can enjoy our freedom.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.From “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon
Honour the Fallen; Help the Living