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Old friends, old wounds: Canada's bond with Dutch runs deep

Gilles Turcot slowly unfolds several sheets of paper that he's brought with him from Quebec, listing the names of all the men once under his command who are buried in the Holten Canadian War Cemetery, and points to a name: Sergeant Leo Caissy.

While it's a joyful week in Holland as the country celebrates the 65th anniversary of its liberation by Canadian forces, for Mr. Turcot, 92, a painful memory predominates: His failure to save Sgt. Caissy, who lay dying under heavy enemy fire.

"I don't know how many times I called for stretcher bearers during the night," says Mr. Turcot, who was a 26-year-old lieutenant-colonel commanding the 22nd Royal Regiment. "But the fighting was too intense."

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In the morning Sgt. Caissy was dead, only two weeks before the German occupiers in Holland surrendered to Canadian forces on May 5, 1945.

It's been six and a half decades since the Dutch ecstatically welcomed their Canadian liberators and the gratitude shows no signs of dimming. Some 400 Canadian veterans are being treated to a week of solemn ceremonies and free lunches, pats on the back from strangers and almost as many kisses as they got that spring when the war in Europe ended. On Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will attend a commemoration at the Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery along with the Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende.

But in the back of everyone's minds is the thought that there may not be very many celebrations of this magnitude left. "Of course you want to keep coming back," Mr. Turcot says, "but it brings so many emotions." One more medal was added to Mr. Turcot's already crowded chest this week when he received an award of gratitude from Holland's Princess Margriet, who was born in Ottawa in 1943 during the royal family's wartime exile there.

Tuesday, on Dutch Remembrance Day, Mr. Turcot and his fellow veterans were driven to a lavish ceremony at Holten cemetery, where 1,335 Canadian soldier are buried. Along the way, houses and farms flew Canadian flags, children and motorcycle police waved smaller versions and a banner read, "We will always remember you." Earlier the veterans were served small cakes adorned with maple leaves, and wondered about the etiquette of eating the national symbol.

The green and prosperous Holland of today is unrecognizable from the bleak landscape they fought through in early 1945, when the fields were flooded after Germans blew up the country's dykes and the starving population existed on sugar beets and tulip bulbs.

"I didn't even recognize it as the same place," said Ron Monkman, 86, who is making his first trip back to Holland since he fought here as a corporal with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. "But back then you were soaked and muddy and you couldn't stop because that was quitting. You had to put everything into it to save Holland."

In May 1945 the Dutch, having barely survived what they called the hongerwinter, showered the Canadian soldiers with flowers and kisses (to say the least; some 1,800 Dutch war brides came to Canada.) In return, the soldiers handed out chocolate, taken from packages sent from home, and cigarettes. By one estimate, six million cigarettes were handed out in the months after liberation. "In those days," Mr. Turcot says, "smoking wasn't a sin."

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"Holland and Canada - no two countries have such a strong bond," says Gerry van't Holt, who remembers being a five-year-old awed by the sight of Canadian tanks rolling into his town, Hardenburg, and watching a soldier, who seemed giant, reach down to hand him his first piece of chocolate. Now, Dutch children are taught about the Canadian war effort, and every Christmas Eve at Holten they place a candle on each grave.

Walking among those graves, Jan de Vries stopped to place a Canadian flag next to each comrade from his unit, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. He has done this at war cemeteries across Europe. Mr. de Vries, 86, happily shared his war stories - bad Army dentistry, fighting from barn to barn, hanging from a tree after his parachute became snarled in its branches. The war stories are one thing, but increasingly, he says, he's overcome when he visits these sites. "I never used to be so emotional. I guess it's that I'm getting older. You don't like to think it's the last time you might visit."

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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