Monday December 8: Ieper
Several months ago Flo wrote a song dedicated to the WW1 R & R hostel in Poperinghe known as Talbot House. In 2006 when she was there for the first time, the impact on her was significant. The words of “The tired old piano” tells the story of the piano at Talbot House and how it became the repository of the memories of the men who sought refuge in this place of peace during the darkest days of the war. Tubby Clayton the Army chaplain, who set up this gem, loved these men and wanted them to have a respite from the daily nightmare of the front line. The philosophy of this house was that rank was left behind when you entered through the front door and that the time spent there was one of positive and nurturing experiences to try and heal the many wounds these young men carried with them. When I arranged the visit to Talbot House I wanted to come today due to our other weekend commitments with Johan and the Harelbeke service. However when they replied that the house was shut on Monday I was really disappointed. I wrote back explaining that we wanted to record Flo’s song on the piano they made special arrangements to come in just for us. The tour started with a superb account from our guide about the nature and purpose of the house and he wove a moving narrative and softly drew into the world of these men. You could have heard a pin drop as he quietly drew a picture of the suffering of the frontline soldier. He was an actor/storyteller/historian all wrapped into one. Pure magic.
And then it was time. Flo and Paul had some time on their own at the piano testing the sound levels on our fancy recorder and things were in place. The CS family squashed into the piano room, workers across the road and on the top floor stopped working on our behalf. The stage was set. On top of the piano was an enormous photo of a group of WW1 soldiers gathered around the very same piano listening. It was if the men were listening to Flo. “The tired old piano” was sung, recorded and everyone there was spell bound. Once again she had us in her grip. How does she keep on doing this? For someone so young she has a poise and dignity beyond her few years. It was a gorgeous experience and a memory I will carry with me forever. When we produce our CD next year this will be a gem. Paul Sinkinson then took over and played a musical piece he selected that gave him a sense of the WW1 story. What an accomplished musician this young man is. His piece sounded like that from a professional pianist. He has real talent this kid and will definitely be a part of the CD as a backup musician. Fun and craziness then ended the emotional tension with Rod trying to sing along with Paul and Flo. It was a hoot and IS recorded as is Chloe Oborn’s wonderful playing. Go Chloe! What a few hours we had there …..yet ANOTHER one of those beautiful memories. We have accumulated so many to hang onto and to treasure.
From this idyll of peace and humanity it was time go into the cold and one of the most confronting places on the western front; the shooting post and death cell. This is the antithesis of everything that is Talbot House. This is a place of despair and cruelty. Here the men convicted of capital offences in allied armies except the AIF, were shot at dawn. Our 2006 book gives a detailed account of the shooting post and its impact has not lessened over the two years since we were here. What a horrid place….it chills me. Leaving ‘Pop’ as the WW1 men knick named the town, it was back into the groove of commemorations. Kate, Chloe Oborn, James Georgiou, Michelle, Jarrad, Hayden, Tristan, Judy and myself all had men to remember. Many of us had our own relatives, an added pressure. A couple of highlights:
Chloe Oborn sharing her commemoration with Donna Handke when they did Elder Oborn (as they discovered on the 2006 trip they are related!) Chloe’s commemoration of Theodor Pflaum a Birdwood boy and brother of Raymond, and finally Jarrad Thorpe……..what can I say about this boy? The Meningie folk need no explanations but to those of us who have only just got to know this young man ….well today was a turning point for this tall, lanky, loud country kid. Throughout his schooling giving public speeches or any form of oral presentations has been a ‘no-go-zone’ for Jarrad. Many people share his dislike for this type of public exposure and he was quite anxious at each of his commemorations. However despite his very strong feelings about public speaking, Jarrad has completed four individual commemorations. Each one was clearly something he worried about. But today he gave an account that was confident, articulate and incredibly moving. Jarrad I salute you for your guts and courage in tackling a personal challenge that a lot of adults shy away from. Robert Verrall was remembered by a tall, proud young Aussie boy who is slowly evolving into a man. You continue to be a surprise packet! For my commemoration of my father’s cousin, Bruce Lyal Godfree, I tried something different. Bruce was only 17 when he enlisted and I asked the boys of our group of the same age, to join me behind the headstone. Hamish, James F, and Hayden stood in row as if they were a guard of honour. I made the point that our boys were the same age as my father’s cousin and like the WW1 boy, have their lives ahead of them. To look at the three was a powerful image of how this war snuffed out so many dreams and so much potential. It worked. Doing our commemorations was especially hard today as the temperature was down around the 2 degree mark! God it was cold.
Lunch was at a restaurant on top of the highest peak in the area, Kemmelberg. It is not particularly high but has a commanding view over the area and was important strategically in both World Wars. The track up to the peak was a cobblestone path and very steep. With the icy conditions the bus could not make it up with us on board. So all 34 of us walked up the hill with ice falling from the branches of the trees around us, while Richard went back for a run up. He made it up but some of the slower of us had to head for the trees to avoid 40 tons of metal. A nice hot Croque Monsieur awaited us at the top so the climb was worthwhile. As 2 of our cemeteries were quite close to the town of Messines, we stopped there to look at the church and allow Paul and Flo to play with its carillion. They had a go at "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" but the bells couldn't quite keep up with their fingers. The locals must have thought there was something weird going on. One of Beth's soldiers, Robert Heath, was killed by a shell quite close to the town, and even though his remains were never recovered after the war, we have a good description of where he was initially buried. Mal showed this to Rod who immediately identified the area and, with a quick detour, he took Mal and Beth to the shell hole which would probably have served as his grave. 90 years later and there is still a huge scar on the landscape from one shell.
Our final commemoration was that of Jarrad’s and it was done at sunset. As we have established over the trip we always say The Ode at our final soldier’s grave for the day and this was perfect. The sun was going down as we remembered them.
Travelling back to our hotel the common feeling was of cemetery fatigue. We had hit the wall and I was glad that tomorrow was our day at Bruges would be one for fun, ice skating and shopping. However one more emotional hurdle – farewelling Rod Bedford our sooooooooooperb guide. His wife Jackie joined us for dinner and when it came to the thank you speeches and presents our emotionally robust tour guide actually had a few tears. We dressed him in the very fashionable CS beanie and scarf making him look like an escapee on a day pass! A book and CD along with other bits and pieces and it was time for him to respond. He spoke of our group fondly and it was clear we have a strong link with this funny Pommy WW1 encyclopaedia. More goodbyes as our tour draws to its inevitable close. What a day….we keep on saying this …sorry readers.
Today I commemorated my great, great, great uncle. I never realised how the emotions would hit me. As I sat at his headstone after the commemoration my eyes began to water as I looked at where my own flesh and blood lay. When I said my last line my voice became choked up and then when I put my hand on the headstone I looked up to the sky. I felt he had finally been laid to rest. Uncle George I will always remember you.
I chose to play “The name of life” because this sing means a lot to me. It tells of the stories of the forgotten soldiers and helps me to feel what they went through. The notes flow like words and they tell their story with great sadness.