On This Soil They Died
A few years ago, my friend challenged me to walk 1,000 kilometres in a year. Now, I’m not much of an epic goal setter, but this idea interested me. I love to walk in fair weather, but I’m a couch potato if it’s dripping outside, and both of my climates are notably drippy. I needed some incentive to healthy up. I dutifully did the math, decided that 2.75 kilometres per day was doable, and I opted in.
I won’t keep you in suspense, on December 31 at about 4:00pm, I did manage to reach my goal. It was exhilarating to have set this goal and to have achieved it, but what was even more memorable, were the things that I discovered during my year on foot.
Just behind my Dutch house, a gate opens to a few square kilometres of farmers fields scattered with historical villages, all linked together by a network of tractor-trails that traverse the rolling hills and valleys. I know, we’ve all been brought up to believe that the Netherlands is dead flat, but there is a little tail wedged between Belgium and Germany that is distinctly different from the rest of the Netherlands. It is hilly, and this is where I live, and this is where I do most of my walking.
The route I return to again and again connects my village to the farming village of Thull, about two kilometres away. Once I pass through my gate, I follow a tractor-trail through a series of fields, and then down a short hill, where there is small clearing in the brush at the bottom on the left. The first few times I walked this way, I didn’t notice the clearing, but one day, something caught my eye. It was a burning candle. I stopped to take a closer look, and I saw a little lantern placed in front of a stone about the size of a bicycle wheel. The stone had a plaque fixed to the front which read:
Op 24 november 1944 kwamen hier door een oorlogsongeval om het leven. (On November 24, 1944, these people lost their lives at this place through an accident of war)
Leonard Lambrichs 27; Willem Vijgen 24; Willem Wijers 14; Karel Knarren 11;
Johan Thiessen 11; Philippus Roverts; 10 Maria Thiessen 9; Lambertus van Eck 9
As I read this, I was appalled. Academically I had known that the war was fought here, but now the idea struck me that World War II had taken place on this very soil, and that it had affected many of my neighbours directly. That it took their children. Family Knarren lived in my house before me. They now live just a few doors down the street. I began to talk to family and friends about the war, and I found that everyone has a story of survival or loss.
During the five years that the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, 234,000 Dutch men, women and children died of war-related causes, and there is a very small degree of separation between then, and now. The stories are about grandparents, uncles, cousins, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. Arthur’s father, Hans, when he was nine, was lined up with the rest of his class and made to watch the execution of some townspeople who had disobeyed the rules set out by their occupiers. Later, when he was overheard by an enemy soldier cursing the Nazis, he was struck on his back with the wooden butt of the soldier's rifle and knocked over.
Canadian troops led the fight to liberate the Netherlands from Nazi occupation. During the autumn of 1944, they made their way into the Netherlands via Belgium in the south and began fighting their way north. It would take another nine months and many bloody battles before the war came to an end for the Dutch in the north. 7,600 Canadians soldiers died during the liberation efforts. My grandfather, one of the Canadian troops, survived.
When the Nazis began to feel the pressure of the advancing Allies, they cut off food sources to the areas north of the Rhine River. The winter of 1944-45 is known as the Hongerwinter. 30,000 Dutch people died of starvation, disease, and exhaustion. Arthur’s grandmother, Miep, was one of many women who set out in search of food for her family. Riding her bicycle fitted with wooden wheels in place of long-gone tires, she kept to the small and bumpy roads from Naarden to Zwolle, nearly 100 kilometres, to trade linens for food with farmers. The farmers usually allowed her to take a rest before making the return trip. It was essential to be alert; getting caught with the goods could prove fatal.
During my year of walking, I found other memories tucked away here and there. A monument to an allied plane shot down beside a castle near my home; a Canadian, an Australian and five British airmen lost their lives. A monument on a hilltop to paratroopers who risked the jump in the dark of night to press forward against the enemy lines. And in every town, war graves. The tell-tale arched white granite stones lying row on row, each engraved with a maple leaf, the name of a soldier aged 18, or 21, or 25, and a short sentence such as “You died so that they might live” or “He did his duty” or “We will remember when others forget”.
It took me a few months to track down the story of the rock.
The villages in my region were liberated in October 1944. A few weeks later Leonard Lambrichs 27, and Willem Vijgen 24, two Dutch soldiers, were deployed to the tiny village of Thull to clean up discarded munitions left behind when the Nazis retreated. Friday, November 24 was overcast and gloomy. The young men were scouring the fields behind the village when they found a large munitions deposit just next to a tractor-trail. They walked back to Thull to get a wooden pushcart that would make it easier for them to remove all the weaponry in one load. As they turned back to the fields, many of the village children spotted them hauling the cart toward the tractor-trail, and followed along behind. Leonard and Willem loaded up the cart and began to push it up a short hill when it exploded.
Lest we forget