There comes a time when one considers where they came from, and the history of their own family. In doing my own family ‘tree’, I remembered stories from my childhood of one particular person who had been killed in the First World War. His name was on the war memorial in our town centre, yet I knew very little about him, other than the family stories.
In 2012 my wife and I planned a visit to the UK , to allow me to take part in a 50 year reunion of those of us who left the naval college that we attended in 1962. On leaving the college most of us went to sea, and for many of us our paths never crossed again, so this reunion would be an interesting event.
While I researched the international travel arrangements my wife suggested that we visit the grave of my uncle, who was killed at the age of nineteen in World War One, and is buried at Ypres in Belgium. My uncle was my father’s brother, and growing up in the UK in the 40’s & 50’s I knew that my parents were not wealthy enough to take a trip to Belgium. I thought that this was a great idea. All of my father’s generation are now dead, which made me, as an only child, the obvious link to visit my uncle’s grave.
We flew in to Paris (via Colombo in Sri Lanka), and stayed in a small hotel called Hotel France Albion for three nights.
I’d booked us first class tickets on the TGV for Lille, which was a very fast train. The train left from Gare du Nord. The station is imposing, but we soon found our way around and realised we had an hour to wait for departure time. We’d left the hotel early to allow for traffic problems, but as luck would have it we arrived with plenty of time.
Gare du Nord outside & inside
The difference between 1st and 2nd class was not a lot of money, so we decided to treat ourselves and travel 1st Class, because we’d never travelled 1st Class on a train, so we were quite looking forward to the experience. The ticket stated that we were booked in coach 2 and gave our seat numbers. As we approached the train we could see the second coach from the engine and it had a large #2 on the side, in addition the small neon sign by the coach door flashed # 1, so we assumed that this was the first class area of coach # 2. We found our seats, but they were not positioned as I expected after seeing the coach plans. The area had a limited number of seats and was split from the rest of the coach by an electronic door, so I assumed that this was the correct area.
Later when the ticket inspector checked our tickets he never said anything other than ‘Good morning’. On reaching Lille (an hours fast ride from Paris, which is just over 200 km), we had to walk the length of the train to exit the station, and this is when I realised that we had been in the wrong coach, and we had travelled 2nd class for a first class price, so I still haven’t experienced first class rail.
I’d allowed us 20-minute transit time at Lille station. Wrong, the station was so crowded, and the queues so long to gain information about the best way of getting to Ypres in Belgium, that we missed the connection. We hadn’t bought our onward tickets as this next journey is classed as a ‘local’, and local tickets could not be bought via the web. Eventually we bought our tickets and we knew that we would have to change at Kortrijk, which is just inside Belgium. We had about fifteen minutes to change platforms / trains and from investigation the station only had eight platforms, so it didn’t look too daunting. My investigation on the internet about Kortrijk station gave me the impression that to get from one platform to another was via a subway system, which would not be too hard as there were ramps from the platform to the subway, and with our wheeled suitcases this would be easy. Wrong again – we could not find ramps only steep steps down to the subway and more steps up to the required platform. With two suitcases and only one male to manhandle them down and up the stairways, while my wife handled the hand baggage, we only just made the connection.
Ypres railways station is quaint, with a touch of old world charm,. We found a large open spaced car park, empty taxi rank, and that it was very quiet on Sunday afternoon. After checking around and realising that we would not be able to find a taxi without some help, we visited the railway ticket office. The ticket office employee was very helpful and ‘phoned for a taxi. The taxi arrived within a few minutes and we were soon at our accommodation close to Menin Gate.
After checking in to our hotel – The Albion – no connection at all with our Paris hotel of a similar name – we explored the town.
The hotel was around the corner from the town centre (Grote market) which is not a large area, but it is a very interesting area. It is a square dominated by the Cloth Hall, which we thought had been built some hundreds of years ago until we realised that Ypres had been destroyed in WW1, and rebuilt as it was before the start of the war. The Cloth Hall we so admired as being a piece of history was rebuilt in 1928! The people of Ypres used the original plans and as much of the old stones as they could, to rebuild their buildings. All the ‘old’ houses of Ypres, along with many farms and villages in the surrounding areas, which were also destroyed, were rebuilt as close as possible to how they looked prior to 1914. The town has a very nice ‘feel’, and we found the people to be very friendly and pleasant.
Ypres in 1918
In the evening (Sunday) we joined many others at the Menin Gate for the 8.00 pm short remembrance ceremony, to honour the 56,000 allied troops who do not have a known grave after the battles around Ypres. Each name is carved on the walls of the Gate.
Behind the crowd are columns & columns of names. It is a very moving ceremony, which is held every evening at 8.00 pm, having been started in 1928. The buglers who play the ‘Last Post’ are all volunteers.
The following morning we were picked up by our ‘Battlefield’ guide Jacques, for a four-hour guided tour of the Messines battlefield area outside Ypres. My uncle was killed in this battle in 1917, and is buried in Croonaert Chapel Cemetery. When arranging the tour I mentioned that if it was possible I would like to see his grave. We were shown various military advantage points as Jacques explained how the battle was fought.
After some time (about an hour) we were shown the German trenches at Bayernwald, and how the British attacked up hill.
It was then that Jacques took us to the small cemetery where my uncle is buried.
I was surprised to see how small it is with ‘only’ 66 graves. It is in the middle of a field, which is farmed for crops (wheat I think). It is not a church cemetery just a well-maintained area behind a small wall that remembers those who died.
I found the grave of my uncle, and as I stood looking down on the memorial Jacques offered me a small white cross and a single poppy to place on the grave.
As I placed the small cross on my uncle’s grave,
Jacques quoted the words of the poem ‘For the Fallen’ , which is also known as the ‘Ode of Remembrance’ by Laurence Binyon –
They went with songs to the battle; they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
My uncle joined the army for King and county, he was so keen to fight that he lied about his age – and was dead at 19.
It was a very moving moment for my wife and I, which will be remembered for the rest of our lives. The thoughtfulness of Flanders Battlefield Tours, and Jacques in particular, offering the cross and poppy, was something that I never expected. At the end of the tour I was presented with a folder, which contained all the known details of my uncle, a copy his service record and details of the part that his regiment (Cheshire Regiment) played in the Messines Battle.
On leaving Croonaert Chapel Cemetery we moved to ‘Hill 60’, you may have seen the film, which came out in 2010.
This is the memorial to the Australians involved in the tunneling under Hill 60. The dark spots on the plaque are bullet holes from WW2. Hill 60 is 60 metres above sea level – hence the name. The hill is a man-made hill from the spoil after creating a railway line cutting in 1850.
A German pillbox on Hill 60.
After the tunnelers had finished their work and placed mines (about 53,000 pounds of explosives) in the tunnels under the German lines they waited for the offensive to begin in the early hours of 7th June 1917. The Hill 60 mine was part of 23 mines placed below the enemy lines. The explosion of the mines was heard in London.
Today the remains of the blast at Hill 60 is now a large lake overgrown with vegetation. To illustrate how large the explosion was I took a photograph of our guide, who stood at one side of the crater, (the person inside the orange circle) and I stood at the other side. The experience of touring the battlefield and having detail aspects of the battle explained was well worth the long trip from Australia.
Later we visited the Tyne Cot cemetery, and with Jacques explanation we better understood the whole battle area.
The following day we caught the Eurostar from Lillie to London so as to meet up with the others attending the reunion in North Wales.