03 October 2008

Beautiful Belgium

Dear readers... here we are in Ypres/Iepers in Belgium, where everyone speaks very good English (as well as French, Flemish dialects & Dutch). We arrived yesterday afternoon & are staying in a B&B in Dikkebus run by two very, very odd people. There are 2 Aussie girls here too though so that's comforting. Yesterday was spent exploring Arras, which has a beautiful square surrounded by these very Flemish-style townhouses, a style we were to see repeated in Ypres. As you cross the French border into Belgium, the countryside is dotted with cemetery after cemetery of white headstones. It is very sobering & all together, Commonwealth casualties amounted to about 500,000.... By the way, this is one of the windows in the Arras cathedral - modernised as the church was also bombed to bits.
This is the main square of Iepers (the Flemish spelling) which is really pretty although this was not the case after 1914 when the entire place was bombed to buggery by the Germans. The aerial photos of the entire region are staggering as the entire countryside was completely decimated by shelling so that all that was left were shards of trees & massive holes in the ground. We visited the "Flanders Fields" war museum today which was very good - lots of interactive displays & some very moving photos and poems written by soldiers. Unfortunately, the place was teeming with school excursions which tends to alter the mood a little - but maybe that was a good thing?
This afternoon, as the temperature plummeted to about 10 degrees, we were on a bus tour of the battlefields & cemeteries. This is Hugh & Steve enjoying the brisk weather at the NZ Memorial at Brandhoek (I think?). The Kiwis, including Uncle Dugald, recaptured this town in October 1917 on their way to Passchendale. I have to say that the freezing wind & icy rain added more to our appreciation of how terrible it was for those poor boys. And the mud! Oh my gosh.... The bus stopped us off at one place called Hill 62 which is the only site of original, untouched trenches (Canadian) that a farmer found in his backyard after the war & has kept as a private museum. It really rammed it home, especially in the wet today, and I was particularly shocked to see how many shell holes there were all over the place & how close they were to the trenches. There were even some tree stumps with shrapnel markings (which we also saw on some of the buildings in town).
This is a photo taken at Tyne Cot cemetery, right near Paschendale & the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world. It was very beautiful there - like a garden - and was very peaceful, which made it hard to believe, as we looked out over the fields, that this was the scene of such terrible carnage on October 12, 1917 (& prior to that also, of course). Reading the headstones, which are very simple, was moving as these men were all so young. One that we read today was only 15...
So, all in all, a very sobering day. There were hundreds of school children about on excursions and one can only hope that some of what they are seeing is making an impression on them. Interestingly, our guide told us today that there has never been a single episode of vandalism against any of the memorials or in any of the 171 war cemeteries in the region. Tonight at the Menin Gate where we saw the ceremony where The Last Post is played, there must have been about 500 kids & some of them were laying wreaths for their school. Obviously, there remains a lot of respect for these brave men & women. So, tomorrow (our last day), we are going to Poperinge to see where Uncle Dugald spent his last days & we'll visit his grave before we head to Lille to catch the Eurostar back to London etc. I will try to write some more from London as mum & I have hatched a plan to plant a little NZ Hebe bush at Dugald's grave but we have to steal a spoon from somewhere to dig up the dirt... Yes, they sell the plants here so that's a bit of luck! We saw two black swans today too & they are native to Australia so who knows how they got here? Cheerio from the front cobbers. Au revoir!
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