Monday, May 7, 2012

Day 27 - Paris to Calais, Ieper, Menin Gate Memorial

Sunday 22 April 2012
The harsh cry of the alarm. That means it’s 5am.

6:40 there is a couple heavily laden with luggage wandering up the Rue de Lyon towards Bastille. Who are these people? These are not travelers with whom we are familiar.  They look similar to those we know. But they are not panicked. They are not rushing. On the contrary they are calm.  Oh hang on now I recognize them. There is that smug and well prepared aura about them.  But there’s something different an edge we’re not familiar with….
So here we are on the Rue de Lyon. Everything has gone really smoothly.  We’re leaving a little later than we planned to get to Paris-Nord for our train to Calais-Frethun but there was some time factored in for that.  At this rate we should get to Nord really early. This is almost too good to be true.  Something must be about to go horribly horribly wrong.
It’s a cool clear day but not as icy as it has been. I hope this bodes well for the battlefields.  The streets are pretty empty. Just a few cars and some sort of council truck on the Rue de Lyon.  The red lights of taxis are shine brightly without the competition from other road traffic.  So does the green of taxis.  Look there’s a green taxi.  Where?  Up there heading away from us. Oh.  We trudge. Lord look at all the green taxis… heaps of them.  Here’s two coming our way. Hubby waves the arm.  Actually he does have two arms, but just waves one of them.  Taxi pulls over.  Gare de Nord?  Do you have an address?  What the?  Maybe we should just get the Metro. Lug our baggage up and down stairs and get the metro. Eventually our potential driver decides he can cope with a trip to Nord without the benefit of GPS navigation.  We load up and jump in.
7:12 am and we are happily ensconced within view of the indicator board waiting for information about what platform to head to. Our train is the next departure.  A sizeable crowd has assembled by the time the indicator board flashes up with the platform information.  We are coach 15, seats 47 and 48  -right at the far end of the train.  We find the carriage without any problem and stow our cases in the luggage area.  Now where are our seats.  Where are our seats. Oh FFS where are our bloody seats.  The seats are not numbered chronologically.  We scour the carriage. There are no seats numbered 47 and 48. They do not exist. We check the carriage, we know we are on the right train. It’s nearing time for departure. We’re getting stressed.  We decide we have no option but to sit in a couple of the spare seats and move if necessary.  We sit. Hubby notices that above these seats, which are brightly numbered 41 and 42 there is an alternate number that is unlit so not easy to see. 47 and 48.  We feel more comfortable and settle down for the trip.  I am sadly disillusioned by the fact that they have no powerpoint for the e-notebook. I journal until the power runs out. Then we sit and watch the scenery and take a much needed nap a bit as well.
In no time an almost unintelligible (for us) announcement. I think I detect Calais in there somewhere. I watch as the train slows for a station name. Calais Frethun. We scramble to get our luggage and get off the train.  On the platform the uneven ground is puddling with water which quietly ripples with the concentric circles of rain lightly falling.  Oh. Scramble for rain gear.
We’re a disorganized mess standing in the rain when a couple nearby approach and introduce themselves.  They will be our tour companions for the next 5 days.  They go ahead to get out of the rain as we get ourselves together.  We trail down the platform way behind everyone else. Everyone else is lumping cases up the high flight of stairs.  There’s a lift.  Doesn’t it work?  Why would people be lugging heavy cases up the stairs if there’s a working life? We try it. Works for us. Good.  Then we need to get down the other side. Corresponding lift not working. Trudging down is not as bad as having to trudge up!
We rejoin our new travel companions whom I will refer to as V and E. We’re about 20 minutes earlier than scheduled arriving at our collection point and we get to chatting about I don’t recall what beyond the usual who are we and where are we from, where we’ve each been and where are we heading after the tour etc.  V&E are from Melbourne and are heading onward to Paris when we continue on to Dover and the tour’s official end point.
We’re completely into the conversation  and it is still well before 10 am when a man approaches us and asks if we’re all waiting for Bartlett’s Battlefield Journeys. Yes indeed.  We haven’t been looking out for him. This is Bill and he will be our guide.  We head for the exits as Bill goes and gets the van which he’s had to move around to the parking area due to a prowling official.
Confusion as hubby and V both head for the front passenger seat.  Both sufferers of motion sickness seeking the view with the least risk. Hubby defers to V and we get going.  Bill assures us we’ll take turns in the front day by day. The vehicle is a large VW people mover. High seats, good visibility, very comfortable and with ample room for all our luggage (phew, I’d been a bit worried about that).  For the next five days we will undertake an all inclusive tour of the World War 1 battlefields of Belgium and Europe where Australians fought. In particular we will be considering the service of six particular Australian soldiers. Three of my great uncles and three uncles of V.  Our tour is bespoke, tailored to the priorities we have each advised.  There are a lot of companies running tours of the battlefields these days. We have chosen to go with a British company whose details I got some years ago via a series of referrals from the Australian War Memorial website. The company is Bartlett’s Battlefield Journeys.
Bill hands us each a folder of plastic sleeves of which the first few pages contains our detailed itinerary.  This is the first time we get to see the details. There’s an element in faith and reputation involved in choosing this particular approach to the trip.  The folder also has spare plastic sleeves where we can put the handouts that will be provided over the next few days.  Our pack contains copies of Major and Mrs Holt’s Battle Maps of Ypres Salient and Passchendaele and the Somme. These are on sale at memorial gift shops in the area and are recommended as an outstanding guide to the battlefields.
As we get the courtesies out of the way and set off, Bill explains the causes of the Great War, the make up of the British Army during the Great War and other relevant contextual information.  We travel past Dunkirk, but no stop there.  Today we are exploring the area around Ieper.
 I’m just going with it and not writing massive notes.  I am sure I will forget some details or some stops along the way but what will be will be. Photos will be the record. I guess it goes without saying that as we drive the conversation and commentary are focused on the events around the locality during the war. 
The whole battlefields area is littered with cemeteries large and small. There are thousands of them. Following the war, the Belgian and French people freely gave the land for the various commonwealth cemeteries and memorials in perpetuity.  Our first cemetery stop is at a small cemetery - Brandhoek New Military Cemetery which was created to support the casualty clearing station here. There is another couple of similar small cemeteries nearby.
The memorial cross, the gave of Captain N G Chavasse VC and Bar, MC is shown at the bottom left of the picture

We get a run down on the grave markers and the standard features of them, rules about what each family was allowed to have, what they were required to pay for. We also hear about the conventions of commonwealth war graves sites.  The standard memorial cross for example, and the work of the war graves commission.
There is a mixture of nationalities among the fallen.  We stop to pay our respects at the grave of Captain N G Chavasse VC and Bar, MC.
It is a somber place and this is not unexpected. We pause to review the information boards near the entrance before heading back to the vehicle.
It's only about 15 minutes back to Ieper where we park in the lovely town square.  Ieper was completely annihilated in the Great War. Not a stone left standing. The images of the ruins remaining are one of the most famous images from the war. Consequently I was expecting the town to be fairly unexciting and dominated by post war architecture. Not so. Ieper has been reconstructed largely as it was before the war. It is absolutely lovely, charming. The sort of place to come back to.  Bill confirms our first impressions and is particularly enthusiastic about what a lovely place Ieper is and how nice the people are.
The Cloth Hall at Ieper, 

We head across the square to de Kollebloeme to have lunch.
We choose drinks and meals as we like from the menu but all is covered in the tour price.   Most of the party are opting for Croque Boum Boum which is best described as a cheese on toast with bolonaise sauce for €9.50.  Hubby opts for a the Carbonade Flamande which translate as “Flemish stew with fries and a salad” €10.50. I decide I’ll try the lasagna which is also €10.50.  Belgium has hundreds of varieties of beer. We are advised that all of them are great. Belgium is beer heaven apparently.  Hubby’s first sampling is Leffe Blonde and it is judged to be “lovely” as is his meal. When my lasagna arrives I’m slightly appalled.  It is served in a large soup bowl and is sitting in a soup of white liquid. Cream? Thin béchamel? I’m not sure.  I tuck in.  Oh my! It is the tastiest lasagna in the world.  Absolutely divine.  Everyone is happy with their meals. Everyone is happy with their drinks.  We’re gradually getting comfortable with eachother as we chat.  It’s always a good thing to start an endeavour with an excellent meal. Our tour is off to a flying start. The lasagna is one of the stand out meals of the trip and that is saying something with all the flash dining we’ve been doing.
Before we leave Ieper we have about 20 minutes to explore the Grote Markt.  V & E find their own way to the chocolate shop. We seek direction from Bill but we get there in the end and all load up with boxes of Belgian handmade chocolates and my personal weakness, handmade jellies. So cheap. So delicious. We wish we had less luggage and more room for taking souvenirs home.  Each of the kids/couples will need to share a small box.
It’s raining and quite cold, but this doesn’t stop hubby from insisting that we each get an ice cream cone from the shop nearby.  We scoffing our ice creams in the rain, admiring the square and the huge cloth hall. You would never know that this town was flattened in the war. It has a feel like it’s been sitting there solid as a rock for centuries. Like all of the towns we visit the locals simply love the cobbles. They’re not so practical to drive on in cars. It must increase the maintenance costs but it certainly adds to the feel of the place. Ieper is beautiful. 
As we gobble our ice creams we hear mewing.  After a while we track it down. Cats. Plastic, stylized, motion detecting cats.  They are in all sorts of colours and they have been placed whimsically on ledges here and there on the cloth hall.  When you move near one it mews at you.  Such a playful, creative touch.  We’re happy campers as we climb into the vehicle to resume our day’s exploration.

Our first stop after lunch is the Advanced Dressing Station Essex Farm. Orginally constructed of wood it was later built in concrete under an existing embankment. Bill tells us anecdotes about the events in this place, the conditions under which the medical staff worked, and talk of ghost sightings here from time to time. Doctors worked for days on end without a break. Wandering the small rooms and peering into the narrow doctor's rest room, I can quite imagine it, though imagination is helped by the photos on the information panels. The floor was not paved during the war as it is now. It would be hard to go off and sleep when there is an endless supply of mutilated men waiting for attention. It was also in this immediate vicinity that the Canadian major and doctor John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields.
As we head to our next spot I snap a quick photo of a roadside memorial through the rain. The war is everywhere here. It seems almost inescapable.

Our next stop is the German cemetery at Langemark, the only German cemetery in the Ypres salient area. To the victor the spoils. To the defeated – well, they just have to do what they are required to do.  Germany and its allies were not permitted to retain so many cemeteries. Although originally German soldiers were buried individually as their fallen foes were, after the war, in a number of waves of activity, they were told they had to exhume the dead and rebury them in a small number of sites.  Here at Langemark just under 45,000 soldiers are buried or commemorated.  This effort resulted in a very different approach with multiple burials in one grave and also a large mass grave in which 25,000 are interred.

 We are informed that Langemark is well remembered in Germany and there are many references to this somber cemetery and memorial in German towns and villages.  Among the grave sites oaks are planted, a tree with strong symbolic resonance in Germany.  We are given time to wander and contemplate the cemetery.
I am particularly struck by the series of pill box fortifications surrounded by graves.  Langemark cemetery is also known as the student’s cemetery because it is the burial place of about 3000 student volunteers who died at the battle of Langemark in October and November of 1914.  Langemark was also a site visited and used by Hitler to gee up German Youth in support of his war years later.
"The Watchers" by sculptor Professor Emil Kreiger
It is nearing the agreed time for moving on when a large coach arrives in the parking area. Until this point we have had the place to ourselves.  A great crowd of Australians gathers to hear about the cemetery and consider and pay respects to the dead of a former foe.  Among the group is one fellow in a fluorescent vest clearly labeled “Historian”.  I recognize him. This is another of the companies I was considering going with.  I am SO glad I am in a small group of only four with guide. Very very glad. I give myself a pat on the back as we climb back into the van and move on with talk about our impressions of the cemetery. Langemark is very different in atmosphere and approach to the Commonwealth cemeteries. It is very moving as any war cemetery must surely be.  We are very glad to have had time to pay our respects here.
Our next destination is Tyne Cot on Passchendale Ridge.  The origin of the name is explained.  Cot is short for a cottage. A unit who served here – the Northumberland Fusiliers noted a resemblance between the German pill boxes here and a workers cottage on the Tyne – hence Tyne Cot. Most of the localities across the battlefields were given nicknames and so appear on battle plans and maps by their colloquial names rather than the original name for that area. We spend a while visiting this, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the world and contemplating the nearly 34,000 men whose “graves are known only unto god” and whose names are listed on the Tyne Cot memorial to the missing.  
The structure on which the memorial cross sits and around which the graveyard has been laid out, was constructed over a German blockhouse captured by the 3rd Australian Division on the 4th October 1917. The blockhouse was then fitted up as an Advanced Dressing Station
There are no words to express the horror of the Great War and no words express the emotions that flow in visiting these sites of memorial to the fallen. Many of the cemeteries have information panels explaining the site and the battles that took place nearby. I find that my mind simply cannot focus on them.  I’ve read a reasonable amount on the Great War and my mind rebels against the details and can only focus on the loss and the insanity of engaging in a war of attrition.  Much to my surprise I don’t have the urge to cry here.  I’m usually very easily brought to tears when I think of those lost, but somehow here on the battlefields I’m OK.  It is what it is. So long as I don’t look at the Australian rising sun symbol I’m fine.  Consequently I studiously avoid spending any length of time contemplating the rising sun on graves and memorial sites. Instead I look for names and details.
I will leave it to our itinerary to explain the upcoming route. “We travel to the village of Zonnebeke to explore Dvr John Neal’s battlefield before we travel through the Australian areas of Polygon Wood, Glencourse Wood and the Menin Road.  It was in the Broodseind Ridge area where CSM HJ Townsend won the Military Medal for actions while on patrol.” 
We are finding some surprising coincidences with V & E regarding the service of our relatives. John Neal and Harry Townsend served in similar areas, and later we find our other uncles also served in near proximity to one another and were both captured, though serving in different units formed up in different States.  Our families were very lucky. All our boys returned home, though some were permanently invalided.  Another coincidence as it turns out that we had each decided to come here to pay our respects to all of the fallen first. Thoughts of looking for our own family members battlefields the secondary priority.  We have very compatible objectives. We even have kids of similar ages and identical cameras for goodness sake.. we even have the same political heros. We are a tour group pairing made in heaven.
Buttes New British Cemetery, Polygon Wood, Zonnebeke, looking toward the Fifth Australian Division memorial
At Polygon Wood the trees have regrown. Only a few are original. The wood imparts an even quieter atmosphere to the cemetery within.  It has a very different feel to the other memorials on more open sites. The Australian memorial sits atop a pre-existing butte which is a high mound. It was used as a firing range before the war.
Buttes New British Cemetery, looking down to the New Zealand Memorial
We tend to go our separate ways in the cemeteries. I climb to the top of the butte and look down to the NZ memorial to the missing at the far end of the cemetery. Most of the several thousand graves here are unidentified. Their occupants known only to God.  Most died after 1917, and most were relocated here from their original burial site.
Memorial Cross Polygon Wood Cemetery
At this place we have coincided with the other Bartlett’s group. An elderly man and his son who are following the service of the old man’s father, a Kiwi who served in an United Kingdom unit. Another elderly man and his Army Major daughter on a similar pilgrimage and a third elderly man who is bringing material to donate to the museum at the school in Villers Bretonneux.  A quick hello all round we will meet up at dinner tonight.
My person of interest in this afternoon’s program is Harry Townsend. He was my dad’s uncle. The eldest of four sons and the only one to serve in the great war. My grandfather was the second son, only just old enough towards the end of the war. I don’t know why he did not join up. The younger brothers served in World War II. One became a prisoner of the Japanese in Changi among those units who suffered dreadfully in the death camps.  The Townsend uncle I knew best served in the signals in the CMF.  Across two world wars all in my family who served came home. Big families lots of brothers among them. It’s pretty remarkable not to have had anyone killed.
We stop along the road at Broodseinde and consider the action of the battle.  The area in which Uncle Harry won his MM is down in the distance to our right.  It is certainly something, to think about the battles while on the battlefield where you can see the general terrain. Not at all the same as reading about it, though of course having read about it and conditions on the battlefields certainly helps the imagination.
The whole area through which we are travelling is beautiful. It would be a lovely area to come back to and explore at leisure over additional days. It is quiet and rural now.
In one place we visited during our tour, I can't remember exactly where it was, in the middle of a roundabout a sculpture has been placed.  It's a piece of modern art so somewhat stylised, but it is clearly a huge skull.  If memory serves it also has an inscription on it. Something about war and death.  I recall it as an anti -war sculpture.  A comment is made that it is an odd thing to have as a piece of public art.  Driving around the battlefields I think it is the most natural thing in the world to erect and it gives rise to some mulling over for me. Right across the lines of battle from close enough to 100 years ago, still the farmers are extracting war refuse and unexploded shells from the earth, and bones. There is an infinite supply of grisly remains and reminders here across the bloody fields of the Great War. For the local people it would be impossible to forget the war. Every day no forgetting. Every day continued danger. Every day tourists visiting to remember those lost.
Battlefield tourism is nothing new. As soon as hostilities ceased the pilgrims began. Mourners looking for loved ones or the graves of loved ones. Originally, the next of kin received a photo of the grave and information about where it was. Those who’s loved ones were missing often came over to France to look for their son, brother or husband.  The numbers lost were unprecedented. The grief likewise unprecedented.  In recent years tourism to these sites has only increased.  There is no peak season. People are just as willing to visit in the dead of winter as the height of summer. They come from all over the world.  The pilgrims see the extreme conditions as part of the experience. The soldiers bore the brunt of the worst of every season on top of the unimaginable gore and stench of the trenches, hunger, disease and pain, and nerve shattering bombardments the statistics of which are incomprehensible.  Those of us living in comfort rightly consider that visiting in cold weather, warmly dressed is a small price, and we come in droves.
Our day’s program completed for now, we head back to Ieper to check into the Novotel, tucked down a little side street around the corner from the Menin Gate Memorial  We meet up in a couple of hours to head around to the evening ceremony. Before we rest, I have an errand. A canny florist has set up business near the memorial.  We purchase some flowers and place them at the memorial privately and explore the memorial then head back along the row of shops window shopping ever so briefly and admiring the trench art for sale.  A rest in our room is now the priority.
We meet up at the memorial a good half hour or so before the service is due to commence.  Bill gives us tips about where to stand for a good view. We wait in place for the ceremony to start.  As time draws near a woman walks across from the opposite side of the street and steps over the barrier and stands next to me in a teeny little space. We shuffle to make room. She’s short. No problem, she should be in front.  Then step two: she starts summoning other members of her group and starts elbowing me out of the way as she edges in front.  No problem. The way they are standing I can see quite well.  Then step three. She waves the men over and starts with the same trick.  They are taller. I hold my ground. I can see where this is heading. They are completely shameless and it is oh so obviously a calculated strategy. When the time comes for things to start the husband just leans out in front of me so I can’t see a thing.  This is beyond the pale and I give him a forthrightly Australian “Excuse me!”  He pulls back muttering some stupid crap in excuse for himself.  Yeah right, I think to myself:. I know exactly what you were doing you inconsiderate latecomer. Pull it on someone else. It is all most unseemly.  This is neither the time nor the place.. I bite my tongue and resolve to let it go. He's backed off.  That's enough.
As the service proceeds. The assembled crowd stands quietly. Many people are videoing or taking photographs. I haven’t brought my camera.  I’m not too sorry.  I don’t see the service as a tourist photo opportunity.  I am uneasy about the paparazzi approach to remembrance. Though I suppose the photos perused later offer another opportunity for remembrance. 
Ceremony completed, Bill has organized for us to have our photos taken with the bugler and his fellows from the service in their smart uniforms.  Not really my style, but it's good to have a group photo. Then we’re off to dinner which is to be taken at Petrus.
It’s a hard choice what to have. I crave more of the delicious lasagna I had at lunch. With breathtaking irrationality I order the lasagna here. It’s nice enough when it eventually turns up, but not a patch on the version dished up by de Kollebloeme.  The restaurant is very busy tonight and they kept us waiting for a ridiculously long time for our food.  Bill ordered something that came served with chips.  The bowl of chips brought out could have fed a family.  Apparently Belgians LOVE their chips and eat mountains of them. We were marveling at the size of Bill’s bowl of chips and to compensate for taking so long with the food, what could be better than to bring us more chips?  Bizarre.  Hubby chose a starter of shrimp croquettes chosen by fried chicken tagliatelle. Both very nice. We arrange a meeting time for brekky and retire for the night.

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