Calgary

Volunteers upload the stories of Canadians who died liberating the Netherlands in WW II

May 2020 will mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the German occupation of the Netherlands. Thousands of Canadians died liberating the country, and now Dutch and Canadian volunteers are collecting their pictures and stories and posting them online.

For 75th anniversary, project aims to 'add something from a brother or sister'

Groesbeek Cemetery in the Netherlands contains the graves of 2,338 Canadian soldiers. A Dutch organization is hoping to tell the stories of the soldiers buried at the largest Canadian war cemetery in the country. (Jeff Semple/CBC)

Seventy-five years ago the campaign to liberate the Netherlands from Nazi control was just underway.

Canadian soldiers played a key role in ending the brutal five-year German occupation during the Second World War. Tens of thousands of Canadians took part in the mission that was launched in September 1944, wrapping up in May 1945.

More than 7,600 Canadian soldiers lost their lives in the campaign. Most are buried in three main cemeteries across the Netherlands in the communities of Holten, Bergen op Zoom and Groesbeek.

Canadian troops were greeted with jubilation, and time has done little to dull the memory of the Dutch when it comes to their sacrifices.

Dutch civilians and Canadian Army troops celebrate the liberation of the Netherlands from German occupation in May 1945. (Alexander M. Stirton/Canadian Department of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-134377)

Schoolchildren still tend to the graves, the royal family still sends thousands of tulip bulbs to Ottawa each spring. and there are active branches of the Canadian Legion in the Netherlands.

Now, as the 75th anniversary of the liberation approaches, a Dutch organization is hoping to tell the stories of all the soldiers buried at Groesbeek,  the largest Canadian war cemetery in the country.

Alice van Bekkum heads the Faces to Graves project, which aims to upload pictures and stories of the Canadian soldiers buried at Groesbeek to a website. 

She has helped collect the life stories of more than 2,000 Canadians. Van Bekkum was honoured with a Sovereign's Medal from Canadian Gov. Gen. Julie Payette this summer for her efforts.

Van Bekkum says she hopes to provide some insight into their lives before they became soldiers. "We have the basic info of every soldier but if you add something from a brother or sister it is a different story," she says.

Alice van Bekkum receives a Sovereign's Medal from Gov. Gen. Julie Payette for her work documenting the stories of Canadians killed overseas in the Second World War. (Supplied by Alice van Bekkum)

To tell that different story, van Bekkum has been reaching out to families of the soldiers in Groesbeek, many of whom have never been able to visit the final resting place of their loved ones. "Relatives in Canada also grieved for their soldiers, for their brothers, their sons," she says. 

Pte. James Earl Hoover is one of the Canadians buried at Groesbeek. Hoover, who served with the Calgary Highlanders, was killed in action in Germany but was buried in the Dutch cemetery.

His nephew Jim Hoover picked up a pamphlet about Faces to Graves while visiting his uncle's grave. Once home, he contacted van Bekkum to arrange to have his uncle's story posted online.

"At 20 or 21 years old, to be thrown into that kind of an event, you can't help but having feelings for what they sacrificed."

The story of his uncle's life was one of the first on the Faces to Graves site. Now Hoover is pitching in to help find the families of other fallen Canadian soldiers, calling and writing to their Canadian regiments.

Jim Hoover put together the biography of his uncle James Earl Hoover to be posted on the Faces to Graves project (Erin Collins/CBC)

Hoover says he has connected with "sons, daughters, nephews and nieces" of soldiers, and they were all "excited to get that connection."

Hoover hopes to visit Groesbeek in May to visit his uncle's grave again and to attend the ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of liberation. 

"You can really feel the appreciation they have for the Canadian forces that helped to liberate Holland," he says.

Donna Maxwell has felt that Dutch gratitude too. "The liberation was so joyous for them that they have never forgotten it," she says.

The Calgary nurse was born into a military family and her father served overseas in the Second World War. She has compiled the pictures and stories of more than 1,000 Canadian soldiers who lost their lives.

Donna Maxwell looks at a binder containing the names of all the Canadian soldiers buried at Groesbeek. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Maxwell has created a website, Soldier Seeker, to help with her search and has made several trips to Europe to tour cemeteries and battlegrounds. She says the Dutch see Canadian soldiers "as their own sons" and take care of their graves accordingly.

That gratitude and commitment to remembrance, Maxwell says, are at the heart of the Faces to Graves project, to which she has contributed more than 300 pictures. "There needs to be a face to the name, we need to remember these people," she says.

For those efforts the amateur researcher is slated to be the guest of honour at the ceremonies at Groesbeek this spring. Maxwell says she hopes to attend.

"If we don't remember, we are just going to make the same mistakes again," she says.

About the Author

Erin Collins

Senior reporter

Erin Collins is an award-winning senior reporter with CBC National News based in Calgary.

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