Saturday December 6: Ieper
Our first day in the Ypres Salient was the day I would feel anxious about. This place is Marty’s story for me. To add to this day was a message from Mal: Ali had been taken by ambulance to the hospital with a gastric attack. She has experienced these before but it meant that Mal would not be with us for the day. Ali would be ok but needed to rest for the next few days.
Beth and Hamish became min-Mals and took on the responsibility of taking the photos with gusto and maturity. They did the right moves being down and getting a hundred shots of every aspect including the shapes of the leaves!!! Gorgeous.
As our guide tells of the mud and gore of Passchendaele as being the worst of the worst I don’t need any more emotional triggers to set me off. However being at Birr Cross Roads again where Rhys Parasiers completed his gut wrenching commemoration in 2006 was all a bit much. There are two images in the front of our 2006 book: two young boys commemorating their relatives in their own way. One was of Rhys on his haunches leaning over his great uncle’s grave after sobbing his eyes out. I have that photo framed and it sits on my piano at home so to be back here was hard. Flo spoke of her friend Rhys and the whole Roy Victor Parasiers story. It was raw and real. Chloe Padman had another relative today and she is growing in stature in her presentations. Again Hayden, Melanie and Steph Sanders took centre stage. These kids are good. And then it was soon my turn. I have shared my great uncle Martin with kids for years now and have done it at his gravesite on four separate occasions. It does not get easier. Today the sun would stream through and the woods were at their best. I made my way through the memories of my beloved mum and her enduring love for this man she only knew as a four year old. I told the group of the little kid who sat proudly on the shoulders of her favourite uncle Marty and would slip her tiny hand into the creases of his slouch hat. She would look at the advertising posters of the day and ask her uncle how the Pears soap could kill Germans. The words “Pears soap kills germs in the bath” had been translated by the young Cathy within the context of wartime. Priceless. As I wound through his narrative I felt the sadness take hold. Completing my commemoration it was obvious his story had touched many. How could it not? How could any of these thousands of stories not touch, not change and not impact on one’s view of our world? The group formed on the top of the butte in front of the 5th Division Memorial looking out over this serene and spiritual locale.
Yet another extraordinary moment at Johan Van De Walle, the man we have come to know over the years as THE expert on the underground war, told us of his work in excavating the “Zonnebeke Five”. There were the five Australian soldiers whose remains were located under a road and Johan was called in to direct their careful removal. He spoke in quiet tones of the man whose body was complete as he was covered in a groundsheet at burial and he had virtually been mummified. It was confronting stuff. However the love and care he displayed was obvious and every member of our group experienced something powerful in listening to this man’s account. These five were reburied in October last year and Donna Handke was there along with Mike Goodwin, Rod Bedford, Anny De Decker and Johan Durnez. The five new graves were not far from Marty’s. With so much pent up emotion the walk through the woods was essential. It cleared the tears and refreshed us all.
Lunch was at Johan’s inn which appears at the end of the beautiful walk through the woods. Hot soup, massive rolls stuffed with salad, cheese, meat and the most divine mayo was a treat. Our goodbyes and thankyous completed it was off to the final cemetery for the day, Tyne Cot. This one is the largest Commonwealth War Cemetery in the world and never fails to make its sad impact each time I visit it. This year we had a soldier there who was a relative of Flo’s and in the late afternoon sunshine she delivered a strong and confident commemoration to Edward Feely. If not enough tears had been shed for the day Johan had one more opportunity to touch us all yet again. We ended up at Hill 60 and as he gave out a variety of sweets to the group as it was St. Nicholas day, he spoke of this place. Before the war it was an artificial hill created from the backfill from the excavation of the railway tunnel. It formed a hill where the only use it was put to was for a retreat for the young lovers of the town. During the war it was bombed and craters formed as tunnellers created a honeycomb of tunnels for underground bombing to take place. Many craters were formed and thousands of men were killed in the process of this destruction. The bodies have never been recovered so it is in fact a mass grave.
He took us into the centre of Hill 60 which is now Peace Park and sat us down in the middle of one of the depressions. Out came the CD player and the Flemish song “Thousands of soldiers” was played as he did in previous years. (The words of this song are printed in the 2006 book for reference.) It drew everyone in tightly and the impact was profound. The second piece was an orchestral rendition of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ with the Last Post threaded throughout the piece. It sounds a strange concept but it worked. When it was over Johan asked us to all leave the crater in total silence in respect for the thousands of men still in this ground. Every single person, all 32 of us, did as he asked. It was quite dark and very slippery but people just gently found their way back to the bus. And then an act of beautiful mateship: Tristan Smith was first but waited for every member to make their way up the track giving each of us a hand up the steep slippery last bit. This kid just did it without any fuss or being asked to do it. Sharon – you would have been so very proud of your boy. He is adorable and has grown so much on the last two weeks it is incredible. If you ever get sick of him…..I’ll have him!!!! The following comments give an insight into how today made yet another emotional onslaught.
Walking through Polygon Wood was an amazing experience. It was such a beautiful place but had such a horrible past. I could not comprehend the horrors that happened here so many years ago because it is so peaceful now.
Today during the sunset walk through the reserve at Hill 60 was one of the best moments of the trip so far. When Johan played the “Thousands of Soldiers” it echoed throughout the area and pierced the eerie silence. I especially liked it when he said about the soldiers having to walk through the mud with the food without slipping over.
I was overwhelmed when I entered Tyne Cot Cemetery by the vastness of the area where so many graves stand and the huge memorial of the soldiers’ names. I will never forget that feeling.
December 6 2008