A group of Dutch Dignitaries are in Alberta to celebrate and strengthen a bond of friendship shared between Edmonton and the town of Bergen op Zoom, Holland. They arrived Sunday and will make a presentation of a very special bell to our soldiers on Wednesday before they head home Thursday.
On Tuesday Mayor Don Iveson welcomed the delegation of mayors, aldermen and historians to City Hall.
“Welcome to your whole delegation. It was thrilling to meet with you yesterday (Monday) and talk about our shared history, as I mentioned earlier, but also our opportunities to work together around the logistics industry, food and agriculture, bio-business, bio-based chemistry and tourism.”
Bergen op Zoom Mayor Frank Petter received the welcome graciously.
“Thank you so much for inviting us to share some of the future of the beautiful municipality of Edmonton. We are very glad that we can be here. We are not only talking about the future, we are also talking about the past. Many Canadians visit every year in October, our region and our city, to commemorate, together with us, the soldiers that gave their lives for our freedom. Often very young soldiers that were buried nearby Bergen op Zoom. So it’s great that we have this bond that is built not only on the future, but especially on the past and everything that you did for us and our freedom, and I want to thank you for that.”
Bergen op Zoom is like Edmonton in many ways. Just outside of city limits you’ll find a patchwork quilt of farmland. Where the countryside isn’t agrarian, it’s forested. On the fringes of the city are tall steel electrical towers, but in the downtown core you’ll find independent coffee shops, bistros, libraries and churches. For the most part the buildings are no more than a few stories tall. The streets are clean, the architecture a mix of modern and historical. The people are industrious and the meticulous gardens boast a certain house-pride in the residential areas. Sounds familiar?
However, our two cities are vastly unalike in many more ways. Bergen op Zoom is closer in size to Grande Prairie. She is a coastal town, nestled between the southern Dutch Zeeland fjords that reach into the North Sea like fingers that form the delta of the River Waal coming off the Lower Rhine. Our Dutch sister city is less than ten kilometers north of Antwerp, four times closer to that Belgian city than Rotterdam to the north. Rotterdam, the third European city to suffer the fate of the German Luftwaffe’s “scoured earth,” campaigns after Gurnica in 1937 and Warsaw in 1939. Some sources record 60 tonnes of bombs flattening the major port city just some 40 kilometers north of Bergen op Zoom in May of 1940. She is, by comparison, if not ancient or wizened at least seasoned and experienced. Founded some time in the 12th century the city was besieged by the French in 1747 in the Austrian War of Succession.
While Edmonton has had years of hard crops, times of tough oil prices and one tornado, Bergen op Zoom has survived periods of true anguish in her history.
According to Lt Col. Troy G. Steele, the modern day Commanding Officer of the front line regiment that liberated Bergen op Zoom from Nazi clutches, the battle to free the Low Countries in Europe was the bloodiest since the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
At the spearhead of the push into Western Occupied Europe were the South Alberta Light Horse. That regiment was the first to ford the dykes and push the Nazi forces out of Dutch towns following the battle of Schelde.
Today, as it was during the Second World War, the regiment is based right here, stationed in Edmonton as well as Medicine Hat and Lethbridge.
South Alberta Light Horse Regiment’s Lt Col. Steele says more than 13,000 allied troops fell during the complex, amphibious, often constrained fighting, including some 6,400 Canadians who led the allied force that penetrated along the left allied front, liberating Dutch towns as they went.
Steele says the people of Bergen op Zoom are tremendous in their remembrance of the Canadians who traded their lives for Dutch freedom. He’s been to the region four times in his military career.
“The outpouring of emotion when they find out that you’re Canadian is unbelievable. They’ve got whole sections of towns called Canadaland as subdivisions. I feel more Canadian there than I do here sometimes, you walk down the street and every house has a Canadian flag on it. It’s just unbelievable.”
“It’s an interesting story about the Welburg Bell,” says Steele.
Just outside Bergen Op Zoom, not 8 kilometers north lies the towns of Welburg and Steenbergen. Those towns and many more in the region were liberated by Canadian soldiers. Many people were killed during that action in addition to Canadian fighting men, including innumerable Dutch civilians during heavy fighting as allied forces battled the occupying Nazi forces street to street and house to house.
In 2005, in an act of remembrance the local people built a memorial including a massive bell that they ring every year on the 11th of November.
“Well, I think it was in 2010 that the bell was actually stolen, so a replacement bell had to be found.”
The local communities raised some money and had a new bell made. It was no small amount, the replacement bell cost some 10,000 Euros, about $15,000 CAD. In an act that demonstrates the closeness that’s been forged between Canada and Holland, Steele says a local Canadian created a fundraising campaign to help the Dutch pay for the huge replacement bell.
Steele’s 2010 battlefield tour included the ringing of the Welburg bell. He says they were overcome by the outpouring of emotion by the Dutch citizens at that ceremony.
“We just could not express how much we were impressed by this. So, when we went back in 2016, what they did is, they took a church bell from a church that had been liberated, and they made a replica of their bell with the smaller bell and they gave it to the Regiment as an artifact of remembrance.”
The people even paid to have the bell shipped here to Edmonton. It was passing through customs at the writing of this article.
“They would be honored if we would ring it in unison with their bell on Remembrance Day, November 11th, as a sign of unity and harmony between the two cities.”
The delegation of Dutch dignitaries will present the South Alberta Light Horse with a replica of the bell in the Liberty Monument in Welberg, Holland. This bell will be installed in Light Horse Park in Old Strathcona, and, as the people of Holland have suggested, it will be rung simultaneously with its sister bell in the Netherlands every Remembrance Day.
“You’ll start to see that bell as part of our history now. It’s a part of Alberta’s history. It’s a living piece of history being delivered here in your lifetime.”
You can witness the ceremony at the Dutch Community Center at 13312 142 St at 7:00 Wednesday afternoon.
Steele says they have great plans for Light Horse Park.
“We’re going to plant Flanders Fields in that park. From the town of Welburg they plant 10,000 poppies every year in honour of Canada. You see these fields of poppies and they’re all dedicated to Canadian soldiers. We’re going to get those poppies transplanted over into Light Horse Park.”