A trip of a different kind this time.This one was instigated by the two David's, perhaps war has more of a fascination to men than to women. But either way it was an emotional couple of days for all of us and a grim reminder of the atrocities of war.
This year has seen many Remembrance Day celebrations and on going memorials in the UK with the 100th anniversary of World War 1. So we really couldn't have picked a better time to venture over the channel.
We took the ferry from Dover to Dunkirk early in the morning so we'd have the day to drive through northern France and up into Belgium. First stop was for Judy to visit the grave of her great uncle in the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetary. Wonderful to be able to track him down as he was actually injured during a battle not far from here and sadly died later in this evacuation hospital.
The hundreds of portraits on the walls( the faces behind the headstones) , the snippets from letters and diaries of these young men buried here set the tone for the next couple of days. You can't help but be touched by this site and the many others we saw. The number of casualties is unbelievable and in this place alone there are almost 11,000 graves from 30 different nationalities.
Our next stop was the highlight for me. I had grown up with a picture on our wall of a great uncle, David Stuart McGregor, who had been awarded the VC, posthumously, on October 22nd 1918 at the age of twenty three.
So while up in Scotland, a couple of years ago, we had made a point of searching out more information about him in Edinburgh Castle. He was part of the Royal Scots Gurards Regiment of the British Army, and in a part of the castle was a picture of him and his medal which has been donated to the Miliatry museum.
Sadly his grave wasn't in one of the Military graveyards which are so pristine and well cared for, but in the small town graveyard, alongside twenty other service men from different regiments. It was all a bit scruffy, with long grass, weeds and a rather uncared for look nothing like the military ones, but we found him and were able to pay our respects.
Close by was the city of Ypres, also in Belgium, which was the site of three major battles from November 1914 through to November 1918. As the German invasion of Belgium brought the British Empire into WW1 it was Ypres because of its strategic position, that became the focal point. The British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African and French forces were all involved and it was one of the first places to see the use of chemical warfare - the Germans used a chlorine based poisonous gas. The last of these battles, known as the Battle of Passchendaele, saw the city almost totally obliterated and most horrifying of all, almost half a million lives lost.
But from almost total ruins the town was rebuilt, with money paid by Germany in reparations. An amazing feat as buildings like the magnificent Cloth Hall and St Saint Martins Cathedral are exact replicas of the 13th century origninals. The market square in the town centre had a wonderful feel to it and we soon discovered some generous Belgium hospitably in a lovely coffee shop. A few more hours could easily have been spent wandering though the town, Muesum and other memorials.
In Flanders Fields Museum is housed in the the Cloth Hall. One of the most poignant parts of this trip must certainly be the Menin Gate, a memorial within the city of Ypres. This was the gate that so many of the soliders passed through, leaving the city on their way to the battlefields. Now a Memorial site bearing the names of over 54,000 soldiers from the British Army and Commonwealth Forces who's graves are not known. Although the New Zealand soldiers names are found on a different memorial.
Just wandering though during the day and seeing all those names is sobering enough but the evening ceremony is very emotional. It was started by the local people of Ypres to express their gratitude to the soldiers of the Commonwealth who lost their lives while defending this area. Every night at 8pm the traffic is stopped and members of the local Fire Brigade play the Last Post. This was started in 1927 and has been played almost every night except for a time during the Second World War when Ypres was occupied by German Forces.It is known the world over and the crowds start to gather by about six o'clock of even earlier. We were lucky that it was a quiet night, compared to most I gather, and we managed to get close in and enjoy they ceremony. Anywhere from one to four buglers play and tonight we had all four. But what made it more exciting for us was that after the buglers there were a number of wreaths placed at the base of the wall.
The first being by Lieutenant Colonel Mike Beale and the General Manager of New Zealand's Veterans Affairs, Jacki Couchman. And even better was to be able to have a chat with the two of them afterwards.
On a slightly different tangent we went in search of some very special beer for some very special friends! Described by those that know their beer, as the best in the world, we tracked down the Westvleteren Brewery. Out in the middle of the country we were delighted to come across a 'Drive in' ,with cars lined up as they accessed this Belgium nectar. The monks of Sint Sixtus Abby are responsible for the brewing of this beer, initially because it was one of the cheapest and safest beverages available but more importantly to generate extra revenue. They went commercial in 1838.
The next day we headed further south, this time into Northern France, to some more WW1 sites and memorials around the Battle of the Somme. Gosh it was even more heart rendering, as we visited Thiepval, the largest British War Memorial in the world, where over 74,000 soldiers are commemorated. On one day alone there were more than 60,000 casualties, a war where some described these Englishmen as being thrown like lambs to the slaughter.The Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest battles ever, and the largest in WW1, in which more than a staggering 1,000,000 men were wounded or killed. There was always mention of the New Zealand forces but it was good to find the Caterpillar Valley New Zealand Memorial which is one of seven memorials for NZ here in Northern France and Belgium. Here amongst the graves of other Commonwealth soldiers there are 214 burials and also the names of more than 1,200 officers whose graves are unknown.
The New Zealand Memorial near Longeuval inscribed -in honour of the men of the NZ division, first battle of the Somme, 1916. "From the uttermost ends of the Earth"
Our last stop on the days journey was a tiny ancient fortified town of Le Quesnoy. A place we had never heard about had it not been for some good research from Judy's brother.But this small Northern French town is immensely proud of its very strong connections with New Zealand. Having being liberated in November 1918 by our NZ forces after four long years of German occupation.
They continue to pay tribute to to these brave soilders, some of which gave their lives to free the town, without any loss to civilian life or damage to the town. There is a NZ monument along the wall of the town, where the young NZ soldiers scaled the 18 meter high ramparts on ladders. And every year on our ANZAC day they continue to celebrate their gratitude to these young men. There's even a street named Rue Helen Clarke and a pub aptly named the Cambridge Pub and a number of NZers come to lay wreaths here every year.
What a handful of very proud little kiwis we were today after finding this spot and a wonderful note to finish on.