Nearly 1,400 Canadian soldiers who died liberating the Netherlands rest in a pristine cemetery with perfectly spaced rows of white grave stones nestled in the Dutch countryside.
Most of those buried at the Canadian War Cemetery in Holten were in their early 20s.
Those soldiers who died so young were remembered Monday during a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands.
Dutch and Canadians gathered to remember the soldiers killed bringing freedom to the Nazi occupied Netherlands at the end of the Second World War.
“Only the veterans with us today can really know the fear and desperation they must have sometimes felt, or the courage and resolve it took to press forward,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper during the ceremony.
His speech reflected on the past while also alluding to the present and the need for Canadian troops to continue fighting for freedom around the world.
“They knew, they understood deeply, that there are some things on this earth worth fighting for, worth dying for. It was true then, it remains true today.”
Their sacrifice has not been forgotten by people in the Holten area. Canadian flags and signs thanking Canada can be seen lining the streets in town. The cemetery is immaculately maintained by schoolchildren, who laid a bundle of yellow roses at each headstone during Monday’s ceremony.
“The heroes who liberated the Netherlands, like the men and women who serve our country today, understood that when there arises a great evil, a threat to all the things that define our existence as a free and just people, such enemies must be confronted. Even if it means not just the risk of great sacrifice but the expectation of such,” Harper said.
He pointed to the national war memorial in Ottawa, which is called The Response, because that’s what Canadians do.
“When tyranny threatens the free, when cruelty torments the innocent, when desperation overwhelms the human spirit, we choose to respond. We choose the high road forward, not the easy road out. We choose risk not for reward but for righteousness. We choose to fight for freedom, we choose to defend the innocent, we choose to bring hope to the world.
“This is what we’ve always done, this is sadly, what we are still called upon to do today and this is what we must always do.”
St. Catharines MP Rick Dykstra attended the event with Harper and Chatham-Kent MP Dave VanKesteren.
“The solemness of the event was quite striking,” Dykstra said. It said a lot about how grateful the Dutch are for Canada’s efforts in the war, he said.
Dykstra said both his parents are immigrants to Canada from Holland and they struggled as children during the war. His mother’s father was in the Dutch resistance.
“Having a direct connection with your own family, when you are here it really strikes home how difficult it was,” he said.
Nine members of the Lincoln and Welland regiment are buried at Holten, he said.
“The headstones here are a stark reminder that doing the right thing comes at great cost but to do nothing comes at a yet more terrible price,” Harper said.
“To our veterans I say this - we understand the reason our soldiers fought and died here so many years ago is that a great evil arose, built a fortress and attacked its neighbours and no one acted to stop it until you.
“With your bravery here, and your struggle and your sacrifice, you remind us of the eternal truth - freedom is not free. It’s been paid for with blood, sweat and tears.”