There are certain places you visit which leave you feeling humble and privileged to lead the life you do. Today I spent time in several such places as I paid my 35 euros to join the Flanders Battlefield Grand tour ( North Salient). There were 7 of us on the minibus – 4 Brits, 2 Aussies and 1 American and our Belgian tour guide who himself had served 27 years in the military. He was very informative and had a very impressive handlebar moustache. First stop was Essex Farm (advanced dressing station) cemetery. This is where it’s believed that John McCrae wrote his famous poem ‘ In Flanders Fields’. We visited the bunkers and walked amongst the graves. The most poignant being that of V.J.Strudwick who was just 15 when he was killed in 1916.
Passing through Boezinge where the Germans used chlorine gas on the allies we stopped off at Langemark a German cemetery. The most noticeable difference to the British graves being that these poor devils were buried en masse – sometimes 4 to 8 in one grave which was somewhat preferable to the mass grave in the centre which holds around 25,000 souls.
A quick stop off at Vancouver Corner where 2000 Canadians fell victim to tear gas and chlorine and then onto Tyne Cot cemetery which looks out towards Passchendale. Sadly I didn’t have time to track down the grave or inscription for Arthur James Manton who served in the same regiment as my Great Grandfather – the Royal Warwickshire, and could be related to me. I can always pay a visit dragging the van and dogs with me. All the while we were driving through the countryside and stopping to look out at the view our guide would be reminding us that during WWI there were no trees, no houses, no animals, no crops just mud and trenches and bodies and artillery. That kind of thing really hits you hard when you’re leaning against a German blockhouse where the enemy would have laid with their guns and obliterated anyone coming up the hill.
Our last stop was Hill 62 – Sanctuary Wood. Now a small museum this was once a farm. Upon returning back to what was left of their home after the war the family discovered Allied trenches and bomb craters on their land and have left them alone. If ever one place made me come out in goosebumps this was it. Walking through the museum to the wood at the back was a bit like entering The Hills Have Eyes – don’t ask me why but another lady on our tour could see what I was getting at. You walked out into the wood to be met by bomb blasted remains of trees amongst the new growth, a line of shells used by the british to fire mustard gas, piles and piles of shrapnel, artillery shells and barbed wire and there were the trenches. It has to be one of the most unbelievable things I have ever seen and I actually stood in a WWI trench in the mud and you can’t even begin to imagine what hell it was to live and fight in. Back in the museum were 1000’s of artefacts and photos – some pretty gruesome. On a table in the centre of the room were an assortment of wooden viewing boxes. You looked through the view finder and turned the handle to see original photos on glass plates in 3D. There are some images that will stay with me for a long time.
My last thought as we left was how much my Dad would’ve loved this. I could almost picture his face and the tears he would have had in his eyes so I’m doing the history bit for him