Today a journey to one of the most blood soaked areas of soil on earth.
A well known poem by John McRae, written after a friend was killed in the 2nd Battle of Ypres
In Flanders Field
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
A group of about 23 are doing the trip with Quasimodo Tours today, a mixture of Australians, English and Americans. 9am and everyone is a little quiet, waiting to break the ice, waiting for somebody else to start a conversation. I’m sitting up the back of the bus and near a couple from central Victoria and an American friend, we have a chat while Phillipe ( our host for the day) starts to brief us on what we are doing and seeing today.
The first stop after about 1/2 to 3/4 driving is at a German war cemetery, it’s dark stone and shady leafy grounds give it a bleak feel. It’s a sobering start to the day, but apparently there are not many German cemeteries in the area, they really don’t acknowledge the war took place and the result they got. We move on to a Canadian memorial where it remembers in particular the first casualties from gas in the war, some 1200 Canadians died from compressed chlorine gas, but we do find out that the allies then also did use gas as well. Two wrongs don’t make a right, or so they say.
We visit Polygon Wood whee there is another Commonwealth Cemetery and a Memorial to the Australian 5th Battalion, even thought the 4th Battalion also fought there. We’re also on the infamous Menin Road and have lunch at the Hooge Crater Museum. We then check out the preserved battlefield of Hill 60 from the Battle of Messines where Australian tunnellers blew the hill up and vaporised 10,000 German soldiers in a instant. There is a movie called Beneath Hill 60 based on an officers diary made by Australians that has done quite well. The craters are all obvious and there is an English machine gun pill box built on top of a German pillbox facing east defending Messines ridge and Ypres. We also visit Tyne Kot cemetery. We visit the field dressing station where John McCrae wrote In Flanders Field, and where the youngest soldier killed on the allied side is buried, he was 15 years old.
We head into Ypres and check out the Menin Gate memorial where they have been doing a last post ceremony every year at 8pm since 1928 after they rebuilt Ypres. Ypres and most of Flanders was flattened , hardly a tree or building left standing so everything you see in this area is built after 1918, although they used the old bricks and stone and the buildings look very old. Ypres is a beautiful city.
Before the last post I’m cheauffered (sic) out out to Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery to try and find one of my relatives graves. I do find the grave of Stanley COOMBES who was wounded and died on 12th October on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele. He was in 45th Battalion on the 4th Division. The Battle was also known as the 3rd Battle of Ypres and Passchendaele lay on the last ridge of Ypres which was vital to defending the supply system for the German Army. Also there is a list of all the unknown soldiers listed on the Menin Gate memorial, there on Panel 59 is Alfred COOMBES, 34th Battalion of the 3rd Division, who died 7th June 1917 on the first day of 5he Battle of Messines. Another cousin Arthur COOMBES of 1st Battalion, 1st Division who was killed at Poziers is remembered.
Of 5 COOMBES family members, cousins and uncles with 1 set of brothers, all cousins of my grandmother, who went to the war, only 2 returned.
The last post ceremony at Menin Gate is very moving, a huge crowd, and a choir from Kent in England is spectacular, and they do this every day! The last post is absolutely breathtaking and there is only silence between the bugles and the choir, truly worth the effort to see.
I’m dusted, it’s been a long day for me, a black Mercedes brings me and a couple of others back to Brugge from Ypres.
There’s nothing remotely funny I can relate to about what I did today. The Flanders war area is remarkably small, there are cemeteries every where, they are still digging up about 120 tonnes of unexploded ordinance every year just in Flanders, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission do an exceptional job, the cemeteries and memorials are looked after so well. The scale of death from the meat grinder that was WW I is breathtaking. And the Somme area in France is very close, the war in Europe was mostly condensed to these 2 small areas.
Meanwhile Genelle and Mark went on a Segway Tour of Brugge, apparently she was so good on the machine that her and Mark were allowed special privileges like heading, at pace, out to see an old windmill. Wonder if she got it airborn like she gets the car in our driveway! Surprise, she also checked the shops out, no evidence of purchases yet, we’ll see what tomorrow brings.
Cheers from Brugge in Belgium