YPRES, BELGIUM—The countryside surrounding this ancient city seems impossibly peaceful now, compared to the violence and gunfire that gripped it nearly a century ago.
The only reminder of the carnage that occurred here during the Battle of Mount Sorrel in 1916 is a modest, brick memorial, erected last month by a group of retired Toronto soldiers determined to honour the sacrifices of one particular unit of Canada’s World War I army.
For three years, former members of the 48th Highlanders of Canada, a Toronto army reserve regiment, have been raising money and negotiating with French and Belgian landowners to build memorials in the exact locations where a previous generation of 48th Highlanders fought and died.
Their project is also designed to remember the wider 15th Battalion, which the 48th Highlanders raised in Toronto at the start of the conflict. It was later augmented by replacement troops from across the country.
Canada has built magnificent national monuments in France and Belgium to commemorate its war dead, including the towering white memorial at Vimy Ridge. But almost nowhere in Europe do individual units have private monuments.
“Right down at the level of a battalion or a unit, there are virtually no Canadian memorials on the Western Front,” says Brig.-Gen. Greg Young, a retired Toronto reservist, who is leading the 15th Battalion Memorial Project.
“Some other individual units have their own plaques in churches here and there, but there is nothing right out in the battlefields,” says Young, who unveiled the Mount Sorrell memorial on Oct. 22.
With the 100th anniversary of the war approaching, Young and his colleagues wanted to do more to preserve the 15th Battalion’s wartime memory.
Since 2008, he and his team have raised more than $50,000 in private funds to build five simple memorials in France and Belgium.
The dedication ceremonies are grassroots affairs attended by Young and a handful of other retired Toronto officers, as well local residents — still keenly aware of the Allied role in driving German forces out of their villages.
“I’m here to pay my respects to the Canadians, and to remember,” said Henri Quanerst, a Frenchman who attended the unveiling of the 15th Battalion memorial in Festubert, France, last month. Quanerst wasn’t alive during World War I but he remembers, as a child, the shooting of two family members by the Nazis in 1940, and the subsequent liberation of his village by the British.
“There’s a culture of awareness in this part of Europe about the history of both wars, and a common belief in remembrance,” says Young.
The group has scouted out three more sites for additional memorials to be built next year, if more money can be found, he adds.