Sunday, November 11, 2007

At the going down of the sun....

And so there we are, in Arras in November. We managed to make the drive over with only minor deviation and even found ourselves somewhere willing to stay open and serve us a mixed grill. Incidentally the French seem to have no concept of medium rare so it's either cooked but a bit pink or completely raw. After our tucker we turned in and I was forced to endure the stereo snoring of the Beast, although apparently this is a figment of my imagination as nether of the chaps have ever heard themselves snoring. Go figure.

Sunday morning dawned crisp and bright and after a leisurely breakfast we set off on a tour of WW1 museums and places of interest. Now I must admit that for a lot of the time I wasn't paying any attention to where the hell we were being ably guided (for the most part, more on this later) by Dave Bodley of Grand Manner. All that mattered was that there was a museum and loads of cool WW1 stuff to look at. The first anonymous stop was a corker and I'd love to recommend it to you but I really don't know where we were. It looked like this though.
Built in what appears to be an old castle it was a beautifully laid out museum with loads of examples of uniforms and equipment of all the forces that fought in the area throughout the war. In my enthusiasm to take a few photographs of the exhibits I even managed to set of a couple of alarms. The uniforms were laid out in sunken displays in the floor with no annoying glass to get in the way of photography and each was surrounded by brass 'nobbles' in the floor a bit like the paving stones at pedestrian crossings so that the blind know where to cross the road. Well I took these to be an aid for the visually impared and so recklessly went tramping all over them to get in close on the uniforms. The alarms were ceiling mounted and I had assumed, as it was early sunday morning that they were doing a fire alarm test. I was soon corrected by the jolly and rotund curator who dashed out and explained in not too broken English the error of my ways. Which gave everyone in the nearby tour group a good laugh.
Here is one of my ill gotten photographs.

After having our fill of the museum and rampaging through the book shop we decided it was high time we moved on.
This display was in the final hall and was just a collection of stuff some old guy had dug up and kept in his loft for years. Nothing particularly special about it except that I think it makes a cracking photograph.

Our next stop was the South African National Memorial at Deville wood. When we arrived there was no-one else around and so the whole place seemed to have a far grander and more moving feel to it than anywhere I had visited before. There is something about being alone at a place that can make it seem more... well, just more. The memorial itself is a wonderful looking building laid out like a star fort with the lines of the local trench system left as open and perfectly mown lawns threading through the surrounding woods with a small obelisk marking each intersection. We briefly toured the museum and observed a brief moment at the accompanying cemetary before moving on.The exterior of the monument
The view down 'Rotten row' one of the trenches on the site.The South African's cemetary.

With lunchtime fast approaching we decided to move on and see what was to be the highlight of the day, the preserved trenches at Beaumont Hamel. As it was on the way Dave suggested we stop at Thiepval on the way. Seemed like a plan so we jumped back into the vans, blazed up a stinky Galious cigarette as stormed off once more in pursuit of our ancestors.

As we drove towards or destination I noticed, across the rolling hills a small brick and stone tower. After a few more minutes driving, and as more of the countryside was revealed to us this 'small tower' proved to be merely the tip of a huge monument standing proud of the woodland around it almost twice the hight of the trees. When you pull up in the car park the Thiepval monument disappears from view and once you've seen the visitors center you go out the other side and follow a gravel path into the trees. Almost without warning the monument to the missing is simply there, dominating everything once more. From a distance it looks like brick and smooth white stone but as you get closer and finally enter the massive arch itself you see that almost every surface of stone is inscribed with the names of those with no known graves. Once more we were the only ones there and spent quite some time simply reading the names on the memorial or spending a quiet moment in the cemetery of commonwealth and French soldiers.The memorial at Thiepval.
The names of the missing.

Once more time was ticking on and so we moved on to out main target for the afternoon Beaumont Hamel and the fantastic trenches and Newfoundlanders memorial. Much fun was had by all as we zigged and zagged up and down the trenches and as we strolled the German lines marveled at the courage it must have taken to cross no mans land to attempt to take them. Later that evening, in Ypres we met some Canadian chaps who told us that at Beaumont Hamel 900 odd Canadians lost there lives in less that 15 minutes during one of their assaults. Unbelievable courage.The Canadian forward trenches.
Lord S, CoS and Neil Fawcett advance along a Canadian communication trench as they head to the front.
View from the Canadian rear towards the German lines invisible but just before the tree line. The Canadian front line is crossed by the path in center frame. At there closest these trenches are not much more than 100 feet apart.

We finished our tour at another town who's name I have forgotten. I do remember that it had a very famous church spire which stayed up even when the church fell and it was said would fall only at the wars end. It fell a bit early but the old wives were pretty bang on the money. The museum here was below the church and consisted of little more that a 300 yard long stone tunnel filled to bursting with stuff. Not bad at all and somewhere I could have easily spent a lot longer.

As we piled into the van to find out overnight lodgings we all agreed what a fine day we had had. We were due to stay in Ypres that evening and planned to go to the Menin Gate to see the Last post ceremony. After a series of unfortunate miss turns it looked like there was no hope of making the ceremony and Dave seemed to be steering us towards somewhere called leper. Of course where we were actually going was Ieper. Apparently we in the Beast wagon had missed the moment the signs changed from French to Belgian. Monkeys. Anyway we made the last post and even managed to find a couple of book shops to blow yet more of the weekends taking in.

We were due back in the Chunnel on Monday evening and so had to be a bit more careful with our timings than we had been on Sunday. As we were in Ieper (Ypres or, even, Wipers) we started off at Cloth Hall and the In Flanders Fields museum. Another inovatively layed out space within the reconstructed Hall featuring a number of exhibits concerning Ieper, it's history and it's part in the war. We then went off on one of Dave's magical mystery tours and stopped off at hills 61 and 62. Unfortunately my camera had died by this point and I only managed a couple of photos. Hill 62 also had extant trenches at the site but unlike Beaumont Hamel they were not prettily turfed. Desolate looking mud filled runs surrounded by shell holes full of stagnant water and the blasted stumps of demolished trees. If not for the new trees allowed to grow freely across the site it would have felt exactly as you imagine a WW1 environment to feel. We were thankful for the school party that were there. If we had visited this place alone again it would have been just a little bit too creepy. Apparently 'they' are right about the laughter of children.

At Hill 62

Hill 61 was the site of two massive mine explosions and there effect on the landscape is clear to see and frankly boggles the mind.

Our final stop was to be at Tyne Cot cemetery the biggest commonwealth war grave in the world. Now I thought it was a great place. At least one of the other guys found it deeply depressing but I though the way they presented the visitors centre was exceptional. As you approach you become aware of a voice. It seems to be a young girl talking gently to herself. Getting nearer hidden speakers in the grounds allow you to hear what she is saying. Slowly and evenly she recited the names and ages of the lost. Its kinda creepy at first but you sort of get used to it. As you enter the visitors center her voice continues but is now accompanied by photographs projected onto the wall. The exhibits are mainly concerned with the cemetery and showing personal effect of some of it's residents but there are a fantastic set of comparative aerial photographs giving a before and after of the area involved in the third battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendale. The difference is startling. Where one shows green fields with some few remaining hedgerows and roads the second is truly a wasteland. It looks like a photograph of the most despised moon ever, covered as it is with shell craters. The area is huge and there is nowhere, and I mean nowhere that is undamaged. It's insane.

The final thing I noticed was a computer terminal giving access to the Commonwealth War graves Commission's Debt of Honour page. Here you can type in a name and find out where they are memorialized. As you do I typed in my family name, expecting nothing and got back 34 returns. Even more surprising was that there were some memorialized at Tyne Cot. I scrolled through and made a note of the panels on which their names were recorded and set off into the cemetery to find them. The cemetery is truly vast and by the time I got to the memorial wall I had forgotten one of the locations. I found two others though. I believe these names were put here to be read and so I made a brief pilgrimage to see that they were. I doubt I am related to any of them but I have determined to look into my family history and find out.

Having found them I set off back to the van to head for home with a vague feeling of disappointment that I hadn't found the other fella. Lord S was 'resting his eyes' in the cab when I got there but CoS was nowhere to be seen. As it was getting on for leaving time I left Lord S to do the preflight checks and trotted off to find Darren. I jogged up the path towards the visitors center in case he had come back the long way but he was nowhere to be seen. As I headed back to the car park the disembodied voice of a young girl softly said 'Dormer W. C. age unknown' and I gotta tell you it gave me the willys. The name I hadn't found and she goes and speaks it at me. Freaked me out. Anyway, after that I needed a fag and joined Lord S for a cheeky cigarillo while we waited for Darren to turn up. After that it was pretty much back home for tea and medals.

I thoroughly enjoyed by time in France and Belgium and look forward to going back and revisiting some of those sites as well as finding some new ones. It has certainly kept these words at the front of my mind throughout the week.

They shall not grow old
as we who are left grow old.
Age shall not weary then
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning,
We will remember them.

From The Fallen by Laurence Binyon.

Stay lucky and never forget,


Bill T said...

Well written post mate. Book me a place on the next trip.

davebod said...

hi,Soaps,nice round up of the trip,glad you liked it.
the first place we visited was at PERONNE,then latter inthe day we went to ALBERTS museum under the church which was very good.
next time we can go to Vimy Ridge at ARRAS and then onto VERDUN.
theres still lots to see on the somme.

meadows boy said...

Enjoyed the post, good luck with researching your ancestors! So far I have three who fought in WW1, it makes what is a very interesting and memorable period in our history much more personel.

Stephen said...

Great to hear about your trip - old battlefields are certainly atmospheric places. Don't know about ghosts and such but the impact of so many people with intense emotion in a single place seems to often lead to peculiar sensations when you visit.

See you tomorrow,


Stephen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keirof said...

Dear Soapy,

As a Newfoundlander I can tell you that despite the presence of Canadian civil servants in the battlefield museum, and the comments of the tourists you met before traveling to Albert, the Canadians had nothing to do with Beaumont Hamel.

Newfoundland was a Dominion in its own right in 1916 and raised and equipped the Newfoundland Regiment for the assistance of Great Britain at its own considerable expense. Later we had our own seat at Versailles, as did Canada, Australia and the other Dominions. We became an independent country after WW1 and only joined Canada in 1949.

One of the unintended consequences of Confederation with Canada was the loss of our day of remembrance on July 1st, as that is celebrated, with fireworks and a national holiday, as Canada Day. If we had not lost a generation of our future leaders at Beaumont Hamel we might not even have joined Canada.

Say hi to Darren and Andy from myself and Daphne.

Keir O'Flaherty