…..the poppies blow,
between the crosses, row on row…..
We probably all know those opening words to John McCrae’s poem, written over 90 years ago during the terrible days of WW1. McCrae was a Canadian doctor who served as a field surgeon both at the front in Flanders and elsewhere, and also in nearby Boulogne, where he died from complications arising from disease just before the war’s end in 1918. But – and forgive me if I get a little philosophical here…it was that kind of experience – I wonder if we really understand the words of the poem until we’ve actually been there, in Flanders Fields??
I know a lot of you have done just that, and recently we too had the privilege of seeing where our soldiers fought and, so very often, died for us. We had three special days visiting some of the WW1 battlefields of Northern France and Belgium….and what a different scene it must have been back then, compared to the peaceful outlook we can see today. To see the serene rural countryside where a farmer’s biggest worry today is his crop yield per hectare of rich fertile soil, yet where in 1914-18 hundreds of thousands of men fought and died to gain a few yards of that same soil only to lose it again a day or so later, just brings home that whole futility of war yet again. I read somewhere during our visits that the average gain over the ebb and flow of four years of war and stalemate, for each of the hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers from both sides, in just one battlefield alone (Passchendaele I think), was a mere two inches of ground. And of course we weren’t just there to look at the countryside – we visited some of the many, many memorials and cemeteries – and those visits really ram the message home.
Significantly, the poppies truly do blow, and there are certainly crosses, row on row, thousands and thousands of them.
Among other places, we went to Flanders in Belgium, most importantly to Ypres and Passchendaele; we went to Longueval on the Somme, and we went to the medieval walled town of Le Quesnoy in the Nord Pas de Calais district. Every place has a story to tell…..the French National Military Cemetery at Notre-Dame de Lorette which contains 20,000 white crosses, generals alongside riflemen, in memory of the 120,000 troops from both sides who died in 1915 fighting for the piece of land where the memorial now stands; the German cemetery at Neuville-St-Vaast which interestingly has row upon row of black crosses; the South African Memorial at Longueval, the Canadian Memorial at Vimy which is actually a Canadian National Park (on French soil) and also Canada’s largest war memorial, the Australian cemeteries in so many towns (including one near Bapaume where we saw a pub in the nearby village called The Canberra), and all the British cemeteries….
I’m not sure ‘highlights’ is the right word, but here’s a few of the special places, some of which are shown in photos which you can see if you click here. The following is mainly from a New Zealand point of view, I’ll admit….
:: Le Quesnoy is the town held by the Germans for almost 4 years, then liberated by New Zealand troops who scaled the medieval walls on ropes and ladders, just a week before the armistice. “Our boys”, 90 or so of whom died in the attack with another 400 wounded, are very fondly remembered in Le Quesnoy, although we’d have to say that compared with the immaculate presentation of every other memorial or cemetery we visited, the grounds around the New Zealand Memorial were very overgrown which was an unexpected disappointment. However, at least there is a memorial, and a couple of streets named in New Zealand’s honour, and every ANZAC day, there is a full commemoration held at Le Quesnoy…John Key was here on ANZAC Day 2011.
:: Near Longueval we found a cenotaph-like New Zealand Memorial, which commemorates the NZ Division’s involvement in the First Battle of the Somme on 15 September 1916 when they played a key part by capturing the nearby village of Flers. This memorial is on the spot where our involvement in the battle began and while this now places it in a very practical position right amongst paddocks of potatoes and beet, in this case it was great to see the pristine condition of the surrounds with the lawns and flower beds and hedges obviously always kept extremely tidy by the locals. The memorial itself, like the one in Le Quesnoy, notes the factual details, then adds the words at the base “From the uttermost ends of the Earth”.
:: Just a kilometre or so away lies the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery which holds the remains of over 5,500 soldiers, more than two thirds of whom are unidentified…..there are rows and rows and rows of headstones, many with simply “A Soldier of the Great War ~ Known only to God” on them. Two significant aspects here for New Zealand – after WW1 we chose not to list all of our dead on one central memorial like the Menin Gate and instead created seven Memorials to the Missing across the region – this one lists the names of over 1,200 of our soldiers who died on the Somme but whose remains were never found. And secondly, it was from Plot 14, Row A, Grave 27 that our Unknown Warrior was exhumed in 2004 and brought back to be interred in the National War Memorial in Wellington – the headstone now carries an explanation of this historic event. Quite a special place to visit really.
:: On the outskirts of Ieper (Ypres) in Belgium, we visited the Tyne Cot Cemetery which relates primarily to the battles at Passchendaele – this site contains over 12,000 graves row upon row upon row, but also a seemingly endless series of marble panels engraved with over 35,000 names of the missing. The numbers are just staggering. The battle in this area on 12 October 1917 is particularly significant for New Zealand because on that one day alone, over 800 of our soldiers died….the worst ever day in our country’s history in terms of loss of life. And while we were in the area, we visited the Passchendaele Memorial Museum and then later in the day, went to the “In Flanders Fields” Museum in Ieper. This latter museum was particularly outstanding – just reopened the previous week (by Helen Clark, no less) after a long closure for redevelopment which has been done extremely well. The whole experience of war is told in a compelling and absorbing way, often using re-enactments of personal stories of the participants, from both sides too. A place not to be missed if you ever have the chance.
:: And finally, after a very nice meal in the main square of Ieper, we went to the Menin Gate for the daily playing of the Last Post. This has been done on this site every evening at 8pm since 1928 (apart from during WW2 when Belgians in exile in the UK carried the practice on there instead), and so according to the Last Post Association’s website, we were there for the 28,886th ceremony. The traffic is stopped, the crowd is silent, and 4 local buglers play The Last Post. On some occasions, and ours was one of them, a longer ceremony is held, which includes the laying of more wreaths in addition to the hundreds on the memorial already, and in this case also, the presentation of the flag of the Swindon Branch of the ex-Naval Division of the British Legion. The Ode to the Fallen was also read, and the buglers played Reveille. A very moving and special ceremony, and to think that they do this every single evening because the people of Ieper will never forget those who ensured their freedom. And a footnote to the Menin Gate experience – I spoke afterwards to the Belgian man who had read the exhortation, and when he worked out where we were from, he went straight to one name on the wall (no mean feat as there’s over 54,000 names all told) and showed us: Captain W. H. D. Bell of King Edward’s Horse Regiment. Unusually, a New Zealand name, as our names are not listed on the Gate unless the soldier served in the UK forces as William Henry Dillon Bell did after resigning as an MP and going to England to volunteer. He was a son of Francis Henry Dillon Bell who was an Old Boy and Dux of OBHS and also the first New Zealand born Prime Minister of our country (and one of the shortest serving, just 20 days in 1925).
This blog post has been quite some time in the making – I found it the most difficult to write so far, because the subject matter is pretty intense and so hard to put into words that adequately describe how you feel when standing amidst 20,000+ headstones in an immaculately kept cemetery. Headstones for people who came from all over the world to fight a war that in some respects wasn’t theirs to fight….but fight in it they did, and in so doing, created a nation. Again that’s probably a bit on the philosophical side, but I don’t think it’s going overboard. It’s often said that Australia, Canada and New Zealand came of age during WW1, and as I touched on at the beginning, I honestly think you have to be there in Flanders or Gallipoli or the Somme to really grasp this, and begin to understand. I hope I’ve done a passable job of sharing this experience with you all.
A couple of final notes – I couldn’t help but think that, but for a quirk of fate that saw my Grandad return home from Egypt along with many others from the Otago Mounted Rifles before the ANZACs went to Gallipoli, it could have been his name on one of the memorials. But then again, if his name was there, then I wouldn’t have been visiting would I? Interestingly though, at Tyne Cot I chanced upon a headstone for “39272 Private J. H. Moffat, N. Z. Otago Regt, 3rd December 1917 Age 24”. A relation….?? Not sure, but it’s something to research in due course.
We will remember them….