FRIDAY DECEMBER 10: FINAL DAY ON THE BATTFIELDS OF YPRES
Well this is it: the last day of our commemorations and our last day in Ieper. This day is one I know is hard for everyone as it is the culmination of all our work over the last 2 years and it is always a tough day to go through. It is also our official farewell day and that just adds yet another emotional layer to contend with. However there were six commemorations to do and a final visit at the site of the Xmas Truce. The day started in a very difficult way after receiving a phone call from Paul telling me that a family friend had died suddenly the previous day. So spending a whole day in cemeteries and being so far away from home made it quite challenging to get through. However it had to be done and the day was full of young people doing what they had done for three weeks so superbly – paying respect to the fallen and remembering their ancestors. And the cold continued as did the snow though it didn’t seem so harsh today. The special moments continued with Chris and Hayden sharing their commemoration of their relative George Henry Morris and together as brothers they did a lovely job. Also Lina leaving fresh flowers she had purchased in Ieper that morning at the grave of Lawrence Buttrose was perfect. Mal’s newly found relative William Shillabeer was a fascinating story of Mal’s persistence in relation to his research and the lengths he went to contact family members. I hope he writes up something for blog….HINT……HINT!!! (Okay Jules, scroll to the bottom of the page) And while I am on the subject I want to publically acknowledge my co-leader Mr. Malcolm Ian Jurgs who has become a dear friend and fellow WW1 tragic. The work that Mal does behind the scenes for this project is just enormous and the historical integrity he brings to CS is first rate. Mal’s knowledge of the military tactics side of things along with the battalions’ stories is vast and I thank him for all he brings to the project……AND DON’T YOU DARE EDIT THIS OUT MALMEISTER!!!!!
Lunch was at the delightful Vivaldi restaurant in Messines and yes you guessed it SOUP and BAGETTES were on the menu. AND free extra servings of soup!!! Just loved the look on Dylan’s face when the soup tureen came out. However it was well made, hot and filling so let’s not complain too loudly. Following lunch it was up the bell tower of the Messines church which gives a three sixty view of the region. Normally I would go to the top but I was out of it all by then so sat in the bus with a few others who don’t like heights. However we did have an excellent view of the church men’s toilet…….a little wall just outside of the church with a place for one man……mmm…think I’ll leave the next bit out.
With the group fed it was off to the final commemoration for the tour: Benjamin Gordon Francis at Prowse Point Cemetery to be completed by Morgan. And then it was all over. The kids stayed at the grave for a long time obviously soaking in the moment……none of us wanted to leave. To complete our WW1 pilgrimage it was off to Ploegstreet Wood and the cross that marks one of the locations of the 1914 Christmas Truce. I organized with Rod to have a CD player ready and a few days earlier I bought candles for each member to hold while we listened to Flo’s new song “The Christmas Truce”. Even though this is a story about German and British soldiers and has no Australian component to it we still held our flag behind the cross in memory of our 89 soldiers we commemorated on the trip. Flo stood in front of the large wooden cross holding the same kind of candle that is featured on her CD cover and everyone else had their smaller candles in their hands. It was such a beautiful and powerful montage. I did not want it to end. However I think we had all just about run out of tears and our emotional reserves were on empty so it was time to leave it all. On the way back to Ieper Rod drew the threads of the WW1 story to an end speaking of the Christmases many millions of men endured out here in the cold many never to return home to their families as we soon would. Without any prompting or cues or emotive music the group sat in total silence as we drew closer to Ieper and went round the Hellfire roundabout we had come to know so well over the last week here. Rod took the microphone and thanked the kids for their silent respect and it was then I knew something VERY special had taken place over the last few weeks. These sorts of moments might go part way to explain the big fella’s reaction at the dinner later that night. For one last time Rod took charge of the kids’ learning and said it was crucial that each and everyone one of them do something positive with their lives and to live it to the full and to have the fun many of these men never experienced. Perfect words to draw them back to a happy place and to the joy of just being young kids who have a future. Slowly the happy noises returned as they piled out of the bus in readiness for the farewell dinner and dress up time.
Joining us tonight would be Johan and his wife Hilde, Anny Decker and of course Rod our guide and teacher. It would be time to say goodbye to these people who do so much for us and who become our CS family for the time we are together. Even though we have our driver right up to the end we would also say our formal thank you’s and goodbyes to Rickyboy the driver. When the group assembled in the foyer it was delightful to see the effort everyone went to dress up. The lads had ties and sunglasses in the attempt to look REALLY cool…..funny….and the girls looked gorgeous. In a break it was presentation time with some songs – one written by Floss to the music “I want to have a beer with Duncan” (click here) and a poem by Chelsea and Cass about everyone in the group ( Click here). What a lovely touch….humorous but not offensive and also inclusive of all. Thank you girls.
The meal nearly done it was speech time, a time to share all those things we want to say and hope we can get the words out. I addressed each group member individually and focused on the qualities each person brought to the tour: I hope I didn’t miss anyone out and that you all felt affirmed as I hadn’t planned it….it was an impromptu thing but it felt right. I had never done that before for any tours and reflects the quality of this cohort. No escape it was time to thank Johan and Anny. Always hard….always emotional but these people are deserving of our love and respect. Then it was time for Rodders. What happened next was very unexpected and a little overwhelming. I did the thank you for Rod and then he came over to me and buried his face I my chest. At first I didn’t know what he was doing but then I felt his shoulders heaving as he sobbed. Oh dear! Nowhere to hide for either of us. And then as he tried to speak he presented me with a Royal British Legion badge which had to be applied for via the London office. And to make it even more special Rod explained that only 3 a year were allowed to be issued to the Somme Branch of which he is president. I had never seen him so weepy and emotional and to receive this beautiful poppy brooch was something I will treasure forever. Finally it was Richard’s turn and everyone in the room felt the same.
Editors Note: I think Rod actually said that he had only presented 3 of these badges before in his ten years or more as a member of the Somme RBL!!!! (This is recognition for all of the work that Julie has put into ensuring that the sacrifice of our boys is not forgotten by the next generation, and for the links that she has forged between people all over the world that share the passion for this part of our history. Well done Jules!!! Thanks for all of the effort that you have put into making this the succesful trip that it was. Mal)
Quite sad to know that this was our last day. The Christmas Truce was very moving and just knowing what happened there mad eit feel very special being there.
Our farewell dinner went well, didn't want to say Goodbye. Chelsea and I said our poem that we made about everyone. Think everone got a laugh out of it.
Very emotional day for us today as it is coming closer to saying Goodbye!! So I won't say Goodbye, as Flo so beautifully sang "We''ll meet again, Don't know where, Don't know when" And I hope we do. Everyone from Meningie, we will all catch up. Thank you Connecting Spirits for this opportunity. I will not forget!!!!
Today was our final commemoration day. It brought tears to my eyes looking around at Morgan's final commemoration - it was the last one I'd ever experience with these people. We had a service at the Christmas Truce site and after I turned around with my candle still fluttering in the wind and pictured that night. When the war was temporarily forgotten; troubles were no more and festivities and soccer games took part. If only the truce lasted! At the closing of the night we farewelled Rod, Anny, Johan and Hilde. All people who have played a major part in our Connecting Spirits 2010. We sang songs, listened to witty poems and parodies, saw the boys all prettied up, definitely outshining the girls - for once.
We exchanged gifts, laughter, and hugs, Farewelled friends and wished them well, We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when.
Time is flying now, it won't be long and we will be farewelling the kids. They will head home whilst I head to the UK for a week. I'm sad that I'll miss out on all the hello's, hugs and the family atmosphere we have been sharing.
Finding William Leslie Shillabeer Mal Jurgs
For those of you who have followed our story from the beginning or who have read the Connecting Spirits 2006 book, you would know that my connection with Frank Bartley has been a key focus for me as I discovered the story of the Western Front through this project. He was my maternal grandfather’s brother who was killed on the 29th September 1918, days before Australia’s direct involvement in World War 1 would come to an end. I had heard stories of him as a young boy, much of my interpretation of these stories being misunderstood. As we prepared for the first trip my understanding of life and death for the average soldier became much clearer and, as a result, my desire to properly remember as many of these “boys’ as possible grew.
Also as a result of our involvement in Connecting Spirits and perhaps my increasing age, I have become more interested in my whole family tree. So in the lead up to CS 2010, I looked further afield for people who I may be related to who paid the ultimate sacrifice during WWI. My maternal grandmother was born a Shillabeer, and so I typed that name into the War Memorial website and three names came up, all from South Australia, two from One Tree Hill. I knew that we had family connections in that area and so began to dig. My grandmother had a copy of the Smyth family tree as one of the daughters of this family married a Shillabeer and was therefore my great, great Grandmother. I looked through this book and found one of the 3 men mentioned there. William Leslie Shillabeer, my grandmother’s cousin, from Caltowie, not far from where she was born at Orroroo. He was still just a name and so I searched more for some clues. I went through his personal service records and amongst all of the administrative papers was a letter from, as it turned out, my second cousin sent to the Army seeking information about an uncle (William Shillabeer). The letter was dated in the 80’s and I didn’t hold much hope of my second cousin still living there but gave it a go. I sent three letters; one addressed to her at the address supplied, one to the householder at the address supplied and another to an address with the same surname not far from the original address. I received one reply, from the people who now live in her old house. They could not help me with my relative’s current address but they did remember the name of the solicitors who handled the legal aspect of the sale. So I wrote to the law firm, who were able to tell me where she had moved to and a possible contact address. A fourth letter was written and this time a positive reply. It was my second cousin and she was also interested in remembering both her uncles that were killed during the war. The other was a brother of her father and therefore not a direct relative of mine. She was able to supply me with a photo and other information about William and I was able to provide information that I had gained in my research and experience with CS. Now I will be able to supply her with photos of his grave and the area in which he was killed. The connections continue to grow!!!
While we are acknowledging people, I need to add that without the work of Judy Georgiou I would not have been able to trace my family tree with anything like the accuracy she has given me. Thank you, Jude, for not only giving me information but teaching me how to find it!!! Give me a fish, I eat for a day, teach me to fish and I eat for life!!!
PS the other two Shillabeers are relatives but much more distant, I think they were my grandmother's second cousins. One was killed at Bullecourt, the other near Passchendaele. I left small CS cards at the memorials at Villers-Bretonneux and the Menin Gate in their memory. If anybody reading this has any connections with them please let me know. CS 2012 is coming up!!!!
To December 11th