Thanks for tuning in again and apologies as ever for the gap; sometimes the writing of the blog gets overridden by things I have to do. Of late, this has been helping my father with the 2014 Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal. It’s been going very well this year and I have also been persuaded by some of my colleagues to grow a beard for the Appeal. Once it got past the “I would like to scratch my own face off” itchy stage, it’s actually grown on me, if you excuse the play on words. I agreed to do nothing for a month, so at the moment I do look a bit like Tom Hanks in Castaway but what the hey, people have complimented me quite a lot and I have made a few pounds for the Poppy Appeal. No, I won’t post a picture 😛
Anyway, onwards to the subject of this post, namely a day trip I took when on holiday in Belgium. This entailed a tour around the Flanders area to visit selected great war (and some Second World War) sites and cemeteries. A very sobering experience, I can tell you. If I could briefly step on my soap box, I think EVERY child/young person should be taught about this period (and every other war for that matter) at length to impart the gravity of the situations these youngsters found themselves in, some not much more than school age themselves. If they can visit as a school group, even better.
Warning!! This is a very wordy post for me, so sorry about that, but it’s important to convey the scale of things and I hope you can stick with it!
Anyway, the first site we visited was the site of the first large-scale use of poison gas at Langemark-Poelkapelle, near Ypres. Here, on 22 April 1915 the Axis forces released chlorine gas towards the Allied forces numbering 18,000 and in doing so, killed 2,000 Canadian soldiers. The memorial below commemorates this date and those soldiers are buried a few miles away.
Although this was a huge toll and no countermeasures of note such as adequate masks existed then, the Allied forces withstood the attack. Immediately, Allied governments quickly claimed the attack was a flagrant violation of international law, but Germany argued that the Hague treaty had only banned chemical shells, rather than the use of gas projectors or cylinders which were used on this occasion. Typical politicians, splitting hairs.
Not far from here was evidence of the more conventional weapons used over the period, nicknamed by historians today as “The Iron Harvest” which is the collection of unexploded munitions and shrapnel, barbed wire and such that is ploughed up each harvest season by the local farmers.
These items, when found, are picked up and placed by the road for regular patrols of tasked soldiers to collect. Every year across France and Belgium, approximately 900 tons of this “harvest” is collected and disposed of by the current Belgian armed forces. As you can see in the image above, some of this is clearly inert and can be handled, but the soldiers and farmers have been and still are injured and killed every year by this stuff that is degrading slowly over the years. Apparently, in the Ypres area alone 260 people have been killed and 535 have been injured by unexploded munitions since the end of the First World War, not including the 20 or so soldiers collecting them in recent years.
It goes without saying that, should you visit this area, do not touch anything you find unless you are 110% sure it’s not explosive.
Our next stop was the cemetery of Tyne Cot on the Ypres Salient, the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world, for any war, containing just under 12,000 graves and the “Memorial to the Missing”. To say it was moving is an understatement and the images cannot portray the scale of the site adequately, but I hope it makes you stop and look, even for a second.
Apparently, the name “Tyne Cot” is said to come from the Northumberland Fusiliers seeing a resemblance between the German concrete pill boxes, which still stand in the middle of the cemetery (see below), and typical Tyneside workers’ cottages – Tyne Cots.
Being on the Ypres Salient and one of the places that was as high as you can get around the local area, the site was massively important strategically and fought over furiously, changing hands many times.
As I walked around, there were some notable graves and things I thought I would like to point out. Although I don’t have pictures of them, there are no fewer than 3 recipients of the Victoria Cross for acts of bravery in the area of Ypres buried here. Also here are 4 German graves, a very unusual thing, but these graves are of men that were treated here after the battle, when the pill boxes were used as a Dressing Station for wounded men.
I also noticed this grave as I was walking down one side of the site and thought, from a distance, that the stone had been distressed but, when I approached it, I saw that the there were pebbles all over the headstone. I had never seen this anywhere before, let alone in a war cemetery.
After looking into this, it appears that this is a Jewish tradition as the grave is that of a Jewish soldier. I looked into this after talking to the guide and found out that explanations vary, from the superstitious to the poignant and quote them below…
The superstitious rationale for stones is that they keep the soul down. There is a belief, with roots in the Talmud, that souls continue to dwell for a while in the graves in which they are placed. The grave, called a beit olam (a permanent home), was thought to retain some aspect of the departed soul. The “barrier” created on the grave by the stones prevents the kind of haunting that formed stories through Jewish life of souls that return, for whatever reason, to the world of the living. So, one explanation for placing stones on the grave is to ensure that souls remain where they belong.
All explanations have one thing in common; the sense of solidity that stones give. Flowers are a good metaphor for life. Life withers; it fades like a flower. For that reason, flowers are an apt symbol of passing. But the memory is supposed to be lasting. While flowers may be a good metaphor for the brevity of life, stones seem better suited to the permanence of memory. Stones do not die.
Another story tells of shepherds in Israel; on some days, they would go out to pasture with a flock of 30; on others, a flock of 10. Memory was an unreliable way of keeping tabs on the number of the flock. As a result, the shepherd would carry a sling over his shoulder, and in it he would keep the number of pebbles that corresponded to the number in his flock. That way he could at all times have an accurate daily count.
When stones were placed on the grave the visitors are asking God to keep the departed’s soul in His sling. Among all the souls whom God has to watch over, we wish to add the name – the “pebble” – of the soul of our departed.
Further on, I found a photo and cross placed by a youngster who had obviously made a very personal pilgrimage to this place with their family….
The stone wall surrounding the cemetery makes-up the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing. Upon completion of the Menin Gate memorial to the missing in Ypres, builders discovered it was not large enough to contain all the names as originally planned. They selected an arbitrary cut-off date of 15 August 1917 and the names of the UK missing after this date were inscribed on the Tyne Cot memorial instead. Additionally, the Kiwi contingent of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission declined to have its missing soldiers names listed on the main memorials, choosing instead to have names listed near the appropriate battles. Tyne Cot was chosen as one of these locations. The inscription you see reads: “Here are recorded the names of officers and men of New Zealand who fell in the battle of Broodseinde and the First battle of Passchendaele, October 1917 and whose graves are known only unto God”.
The memorial (see below) contains the names of 33,783 soldiers of the UK forces, plus a further 1,176 New Zealanders and a further 3 British Army Victoria Cross recipients are commemorated here.
Further on from here and on the way to Menin we stopped at an Australian cemetery upon the request of a gent who had come all the way from Perth for the single reason of laying a cross at the grave of his relative. It was a lovely peaceful place of manicured grass, surrounded now by pine forest.
After leaving the gentleman to his thoughts for a while, we moved on and passed a small museum where we could plainly see more evidence of the “Iron Harvest” of the Ypres area. As you can see, the items vary greatly from inert items such as plates of metal, helmets, metal poles and so on to potentially deadly items in the form of shells and gas canisters. All in all, it made the place seem quite dangerous, although I was assured that the Army had made everything as safe as possible!
Next time, a few pictures from nearer the Menin Gate and some sites where you can plainly see the ravages of war on the land, even 100 years on. Again, I’m sorry about all the text, I tried to summarise bits but there is so much history here, it really is flabbergasting.
I appreciate you staying with me and see you next time for the second part of this day trip…..