Cycling to a Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands


Canadian War cemetery at the Holterberg in Rijssen-Holten, the Netherlands, the country's second largest war cemetery

My parents went through World War 2 in the Netherlands, but were too young to really remember. They were 6 and 9 when the war was over. My mom remembers planes dropping ‘Swedish whitebread” and my dad remembers they had to leave the house as the Germans were at one end and the Allied forces at the other end; my dad’s family was in the line of fire. Nowadays, our biggest worries are empty cell phone batteries and status updates on Twitter.

My dad and mom in 2011. It rains only 6% of the time in the Netherlands, but always when you happen to be on the bike.

Last summer, we visited the Netherlands. It may sound odd, but I haven’t seen much of the country, although I lived there for 35 years. The fact of the matter is, that the weather is not always cooperative for a summer holiday, so many Dutch families go south to enjoy the Mediterranean sun. It is not that we don’t like our own country, it is just that you don’t want to take the risk to sit in a tent in the rain on a muddy campsite with grumpy people who played Risk and Monopoly for four days in a row.

Sudbury, ON may have its "Big Nickel", Rijssen has its "Big Wooden Shoe"

In June, to celebrate my mom and dad’s 50th wedding anniversary, we rented a chalet in the east of the Netherlands in Twente County. Twente is a lovely area to cycle with 1000 year old landscapes, beautiful old farms, horses, quaint villages and the wooden shoe museum.

Twente's quiet narrow country roads are a great place for kids to cycle (with a little help form his dad). This is a road, not a bike lane

There is also one of the very, very few hills in the Netherlands. Rijssen-Holten is one of the bigger places in the area, with a bike modal share of 38% for trips under 7.5 km. Are you listening Copenhagenise? It has 28,000 inhabitants and lies in the Province of Overijssel. We rented gorgeous sturdy bikes and set out for a bike tour which included the Holterberg.

Not every bike path in the Netherlands is 10 ft wide and paved with red asphalt.

The Holterberg, a 65 meter high hill (200 ft) near the small town of Holten, is part of a National Park in the Netherlands. It is basically a hill with a few bike paths and one car route crossing it. At the bottom, retired people stop for coffee in one of the several restaurants. Cyclists and motorbikes tackle the hill on a sunny day. At the south end of the Holterberg, one can find the second largest war cemetery in the Netherlands, the “Canadian War Cemetery Holten”, with 1400 mostly Canadian graves in a beautiful park like setting.

Meticulously maintained, this cemetery is a piece of Canadian soil in the Netherlands

How did 1400 Canadian soldiers end up in Twente? The Canadians were on their way north in 1944 from France and Belgium but got stuck at the major rivers in the Netherlands that run east-west. They had to sit out the winter of 1944/45 before they could push further north. You may remember the book and the movie ‘A bridge too far’ (for those under 20: a book is a stack of about 250 pages or more, glued together on one side; it is like a really long Facebook page) which tells about the attempts to cross the river to head further north, to liberate the northeast of the country. After liberating the Netherlands, they’d travel further east into Germany towards Berlin. There was heavy fighting between Canadians and German troops in the Twente area for a few days, a month or so before the war was over. After the dust had settled, Commander of the 2nd Canadian Army, Lieutenant General G.G. Simonds, decided that the Holterberg would be a fitting place for the soldiers’ bodies, so a piece of land was set aside on the Holterberg. Canada owns the land now, so there is a small Canadian enclave in the Netherlands. Literally.

The information centre was about to open when we were there and should be open by now

80,000 people visit the cemetery annually nowadays. To accommodate texts, photographs, personal stories and audio-visual presentations, and provide long overdue wash room facilities, an info centre was opened this summer (Youtube video clip) by Princess Margriet, the Dutch princess who was born in Ottawa during the war.

On May 4, Dutch Remembrance Day, a ceremony is held for the fallen soldiers. Children play a big part in the ceremony, so they learn what freedom of speech and freedom of movement is all about and that young guys from far away sacrified their lives so that we can basically say what we want and go where we like.

There are still a few flock of sheep in the area

So next time you cell phone batteries are dead, or Twitter is out of service, think of it as a temporary inconvenience.

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