Monday, May 7, 2012

Day 28 - Battlefields - Plugstreet Wood, Messines Ridge, Armentieres, Fromelles, Bullecourt

Monday 23rd April 2012
From our itinerary:
After checking out of the hotel we travel through the Southern Salient visiting the areas around Plugstreet Wood and the 1914 Christmas Truce. We also see where the Australians attacked during the Messines Ridge Operations in 1917.
Travelling on we pass through the town of Armentieres, known to many Australian troops and after lunch travel on to Fromelles, which was a disaster for the 5th Division in July 1916.  We pay our respects at the new CWGC cemetery Pheasant Wood, containing mainly Australian soldiers.
Our next area of interest will be the Bullecourt battlefield of 1917 and the Digger monument.  It was here that Pvt Francis Neal was wounded and became a POW. We also explore the nearby village of Lagnicourt where Pvt Barber was captured.
Our day ends at the lovely Hotel Beatus in Cambrai where we stay for three nights with dinner.

Bright sunshine and blue skies this morning we have a few minutes in the square where I photograph the electronic cats and the fountain before we get into our day’s touring.
Our first stop today is at Railway Dugouts Burial Ground, which is a United Kingdom cemetery designed by Lutyens.  We hear of the VC winning self sacrifice of Second Lieutenant Frederick Youens who lost his life taking the blast of a hand grenade to protect others. He is buried here in this sacred ground.  We alight from our vehicle and spend some time reading the headstones and paying our respects to the fallen.
Visiting important sites to all the combatants is a feature of our tour that we have specifically requested. I don’t want this to be a one eyed, “only interested in Australians” trip. This is one reason I decided to go with a British company. I wanted a balanced visit, paying respect to all those lost from all sides and to visit sites relevant to the range of participant nations.  I wanted commentary from another perspective. I wanted to avoid any sense of jingoistic “aren’t we great… weren’t we just sooo good coming here to rescue France” in our visit.   Australia participated in that obscene war out of self interest just like every other Government.  Our men were conned by propaganda lies and jingoistic bullshit, just like the men of every other combatant nation. Of course, with the choice to follow our own family members Australian sites will dominate, but we Australians were not the only ones who suffered and not the only ones who fought valiantly and in terms of raw numbers our losses are dwarfed by those of the French and United Kingdom and Germany.  Australians have much to be proud of in France. As members of a wider humanity we also have much to be ashamed of. Much to be angry about and of course we have much to weep about. Much to remember. We must never forget and we must never allow ourselves to romanticize the horror of that conflict or of conflict generally. We must not allow ourselves to settle into stupid levels of jingoism in our remembrance and we must not allow ourselves to be so distracted by the past that we do not focus our attention on the actions of our current governments and the treatment of and preparedness of our currently serving troops and veterans. There’s nothing we can do for the dead of the Great War other than to remember and ensure that our armed forces today are used carefully, competently and most importantly, with restraint and with the maximum protection possible and only after all peaceful alternatives have been exhausted.
As we travel we note the myriad of sites and cemeteries, there’s just so many it’s impossible to stop at every one. Our next proper stop (ie we get out of the car) is at the Spanbroekmolen Mine Crater  aka the One Tree Crater, now a peace memorial and it certainly is a peaceful spot.  Trees surrounding the rim are reflected in the water. This deep deep pool, is what remains from the detonation of a huge stock of ammonal buried with care and amidst much danger deep deep underground.  Tens of thousands of tons of ammonal that simply vapourised some, mutilated others and contributed to the mental scarring of a whole lot more. We’ve been hearing about the underground warfare such as is illustrated in the fairly recent Australian film Hill 60, which Bill says is pretty accurate. Some of these massive explosions were so enormous that they were heard in London.  A friendly cat comes over and I enjoy giving it a friendly pat. In the cold climate and season the cats grow such thick luxuriant fur!  Australian cats don’t need such heavy protection.  I think an unspoken “sorry” to this lovely, trusting and affectionate feline as I think what a lovely fur coat a cold climate cat must make!  Gasp.. no of course I would not do such a thing, but I am finding my mind is very easily distracted from the subject at hand. Hmm probably avoidance behavior. Sigh.
The beautiful countryside is haunted by the ghosts of soldiers.  We pull over by the side of roads, or in quiet areas in the middle of roads as Bill’s arm sweeps across indicating the line of an advance or a forming up point.  Over in the distance, see that farm over there, the advance headed through across that slope. The line of the advance was continuous across that hill out of sight.  At other times we have explanations of what exactly enfilading fire is, or other essential battle jargon.  We stop near a dense woodland over a low rise and hear about the catacombs, a complex of underground shelters and tunnels where up to 2000 Australians were able to rest out of the line.  You cannot visit these at this point, but investigations are underway to check whether they are safe, or can be made safe to open to visitors.  Periodically we stop at another cemetery.  The next is the Royal Berkshire Cemetery extension where the following is provided for us to read serenaded by birdsong:  
Designed by H Charlton Bradshaw, the memorial was inaugurated by the Duke of Brabant on 7 June 1931. It commemorates 11,447 men with no known graves who fell in the Battles of Armentieres, Aubers Ridge, Loos, Fromelles, Estaires, Hazebrouck, Scherpenberg and Outtersterne Ridge. Four Victoria Cross holders are on its panels: Sapper W Hacket VC, 254th coy, RE kia 27 June 1916; Captain W H Johnstone VC, 59th Coy, R E kia 8 June 1915; Private J Mackenzie VC 2nd Scots Guards, kia 19 December 1914; and Acting Captain T P Pryce VC, 4th Grenadier Guards kia 13 April 1918.  The Rosenberg Cheateau Plots to its left were moved from their original site in the chateau grounds in 1930, the owner refusing permission for their staying there.
The Hyde Park Corner (Royal Berks) Cemetery on the other side of the road was started by the 1st/4th Royal Berkshire Regt in 1915 and when extra ground was needed for burials it was extended to this side in June 1916 as Berks Cemetery Extension.
The last post is sounded at 7 pm on the first Friday of each month in remembrance of, and as a tribute to, the dead who fell in the Great War. 11 November, Armistice Day is celebrated with special events by the Ploegsteert community and the first Friday in June is set aside for a ceremony attended by the Australian Ambassador and other dignitaries commemorating the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917.
In peaceful corners sometimes surprise explosions occur
We move on to the site where a charged mine that was not exploded during the war was set off by a lightning strike in 1955.  Blowing out the windows of the farmhouse we see there today.  What an almighty shock that would be so close to your house. We hop out of the car to check out the photo on the information board. It shows people in the bottom of the crater looking rather like ants in the huge hole in the ground.  There are still some unexploded charged ammonal mines around today! Evidently the risk of leaving them must be considered less than the risk of disturbing them.
Everywhere there is evidence of the patient forbearance and respect paid by the local people to the war dead and the mourning relatives they left behind.  At the edge of a ploughed field a small private wooden memorial that simply appeared one day.  The farmer has left it alone and indeed must determinedly avoid damaging it for it to still be in place.

One of our roadside “pull overs” is one of the sites associated with the Christmas Truce. A memorial and information board has been erected and pilgrims have left footballs as an evocative tribute to the events.  In this area at the appropriate time of year, school children are brought to participate in re-enactments of the events here.  They are kitted up in the right outfits for both sides and are marched into the line or a proximate estimation of them where the trench line no longer exists.  It must be an awesome experience for them. Again we marvel at how history must surely come alive when you can learn about it where it took place.
Nearby is a farmhouse where Capt Bruce Bairnsfather stayed and created the famous comic character “ol Bill”.
We adjourn to Armentieres for lunch.  As we enter the town we get a bit of a run down on where the Mademoiselle from Armentieres had her premises.  When reviewing service records and interpreting them for visitors it’s always a sensitive situation when it turns out that the hospital the soldier was sent to was a VD hospital.  How do you break it to the family that their war hero had VD with all that implies about brothels and sexual conduct.
Bill regales us with a tale about the time he had to do this with an Australian doctor. A gentle refined man on the trail of his father, wife and family in tow.  Only one way to go about it.  Bill waited for a quiet moment and took the doctor aside to break it to him gently.  How did our Australian doctor respond. He cracked up and enthusiastically called the wife and family over by calling out… hey, grandpa had VD! haha.. A disgrace? A shame? They thought it was hilarious.   One of V’s rellies was likewise in the VD clinic, I’m sure one of mine was as well.. maybe not in the same war...
In a moment alone the four of us tourists have been talking about VD and sex and battles. Heck. If we were on the battlefields of the Great War we’d probably be in the brothel at every opportunity too.  Use it while you’ve got it. You could be dead tomorrow, or you could have it shot off.  A moment of escape and pleasure in the hand (so to speak ;o) ) against possible censure and pain of treatment that might never happen? Not so hard a choice one can easily imagine.   Maybe not something we'd advocate in our happy prosperous and peaceful lives, but none of us is prepared to sit in judgement on these men living through a horror we can't even imagine.
Mademoiselle from Armentieres performed an essential service. Over and above the call of duty really. Probably not too many soldiers she failed to offer “stress relief” to.
Treatment wasn’t pleasant for VD in the Great War. Not pleasant at all. I comment that they stuck things up your equipment to treat it.  The men are appalled and sceptical. Hubby looks at me in horror. No antibiotics in those days. The only alternative was to bleed it out. Doesn’t bear thinking about… The men wince as Bill provides a detailed explanation of the treatments inflicted for VD during the great war.  Eyes watering? It’s well beyond that. That’s an additional level of heroism! They deserve a medal! Good grief...  and to cap it off it was a disciplinary offence. Self inflicted wound was how it was regarded. 
I volunteer one of my own little snippets of historical trivia. After the Great War when the men came home there was a syphilis epidemic.  It became an issue in the campaign for women’s rights.  There was no such thing as rape in marriage and the fact that your damaged and in more than a few cases cases violent, traumatised husband had syphilis was no excuse.  It was a big problem and the feminist movement rose to the challenge. 
VC Corner Australian Cemetery
Lunch out of the way we are off to another cemetery stop. This time Australian unknown soldiers. VC Corner Australian Cemetery.  They have taken a different approach here. No headstones, just a swathe of grass over the graves with a large cross on each. Just Australians here.  Thank god I can’t see a rising sun anywhere.  As I walk forward however there is a large rising sun that has been hidden by the memorial cross. I tear up and turn away, regaining composure.
We move on to the Australian Memorial Park Fromelles and the famous statue which we are surprised to read was only installed in 1998. It feels in our hearts like it has always been part of our war iconography. It’s a beautiful statue expressing a beautiful sentiment. Fromelles is known as the worst single day in Australia’s history.  That this is the case is a reflection of the magnitude of the losses to what was at that time a nation of only 5 million people. Pointless inexcusable slaughter. I find it so hard to forgive what was done in places like Fromelles.
Of course by the time the battle had stagnated to trench warfare the Germans occupied the high ground. This enabled them to simply rain down death on the allied lines and forced those occupying the low ground to take an offensive role to try to capture the high ground and “get out from under” so to speak.  I understand this but still cannot forgive the events. I try to understand but forgiveness is impossible.  Anger can cool to implacable resentment... occassionally.. but that’s about as good as it gets. Perhaps we shouldn't even try to lose our anger about the bloody outrages of all sorts that are inseparable from war.
Around the Australian battlefields the Australian Government has been erecting bronze signs in relief showing the various battles relevant to that site.  This is supplemented by all sorts of signage all over the place.  The battlefields are incredibly accessible to solo visitors. It would be just so easy to do a tour like this for yourself if you didn’t need or want the additional guidance and commentary provided by a commercial battlefields tour company.  I am aware also that for Australian sites there is a pretty hefty battlefield guidebook available as well.
We continue to pass unexpected reminders and memorials here and there. None more so than this grave in the middle of the road.

On to the new cemetery at Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) where recently found and in many cases, identified, soldiers have been reinterred.  This is the first time that a government has used modern forensic technology to identify the remains of the dead.  On the way here we have noted Prowse Point Cemetery unique among the cemeteries as it is named for an individual.
We are heading for the Digger memorial at Bullecourt. Along the way we pull over and Bill pulls out copies of the service records, red cross records (where available) and unit diaries for our relatives who were captured during action in this area.  We start with Pvt Neal and soon we are looking at the forming up area for Uncle Andrew Barber. It was along this grassy embankment by the road where we have pulled over.  Gee, you’re joking. Right here.  I try to imagine the events of the night. It’s not easy in this scene of lush rural serenity.  I make a renewed attempt. Think mud. Think shelling. Think fear and the stench of death. Gore. No. I see green. I see rain. I see quiet solitude. The ghosts are sleeping. The war dead suffer no more. Even the survivors have now passed on and suffer no more. Strangely, I am gradually feeling a degree of closure. It seems a bit silly, but really, it's sort of like burying the dead visiting these now peaceful fields that in our minds on the other side of the earth have continued to represent the most horrendous battlefields in history.
Uncle Andrew lived to a ripe old age. In his latter years he lived with my grandparents. He was my grandmother's eldest brother. One of six Barber brothers. My grandmother was the youngest child and the only girl. I have inherited the wallet Andrew bought in London and his much worn and damaged discharge papers from the war.  Andrew never married and according to his service records his time as a prisoner of war destroyed his health.  Conditions for POWs varied, but death rates among prisoners were high.  Bill recommends the book Prisoners of the Kaiser by Richard Van Emden.  There’s not a lot of books about Great War POW experiences, but at least there is this one, written when all of the contributors were over 100 years old. Talk about cutting it fine for recording witness testimony. Being a prisoner was no picnic, and not so different in the Great War to what was dished up in WWII.
The sunshine of the morning is long gone. The wind is bitter the rain is biting cold. We continue to clamber out into the wet, heads tucked deep in our rainhoods.  Nothing so paltry will keep us in the car at the digger memorial.  A few minutes contemplation and silence is not a lot to ask. 
We’re on our way to call it a day, but we take a moment to note one of the reconstructed little memorials dotted around the place.  This one was originally built in wood, quite spontaneously by relatives so many decades ago. The wood was deteriorating so the local community reconstructed it in stone and reattached the many plaques to the new more durable memorial.   

We adjourn to the warmth and comfort of the Hotel Beatus in Cambrai and settle in for a rest before a group dinner. But all is not rosey for the other group. In the course of the day one of the elderly men has slipped in the wet on perfectly level ground and badly broken his leg. He is being well cared for in hospital in Belgium. David of Bartlett's Battlefield Journeys has things in hand and our erstwhile dinner companion is scheduled for surgery tomorrow. No chance of his continuing on the trip unfortunately.  The other group trail in a couple of hours later than us, looking totally wrecked.  I'm certainly glad I'm not  thirty years older and trying to do this trip.

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