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Trip to Ypres

The Flanders countryside in Belgium is a picture of rural bliss; delightful little lanes wind their way through fertile fields where cows nonchalantly graze and crops await their harvest. The flat landscape is interspersed with trees, hamlets of red-roofed houses - and war cemeteries and monuments. The area would’ve looked very different 100 years ago. By Annie Waddington-Feather Our one day tour to Flanders from Brussels was an enlightening, if somewhat sombre day – and the gentle Belgium drizzle somewhat added to the atmosphere. The drive to Flanders from Brussels takes a couple of hours or so, and our guide used this time to give us background to the war and played a DVD documentary with deep insights and graphic descriptions of the initial boredom and gruesome conditions in the trenches. The first stop was the evocative German Military Cemetery of Vladslo, where we’re reminded of the grief on both sides of the war. Discreetly set back in woods, visitors are met by two sculptures titled ‘Grieving Parents’. “Over 25,000 German soldiers’ remains are buried here,” remarks the guide as we stare at the lines of flat gravestones, each bearing the name of twenty soldiers. After we visit the Trench of Death at Yser (or Ijzer), where Belgium forces fought under horrific circumstances to prevent the German advance. Here trenches have been reconstructed with cement-filled sandbags; it’s an eerie feeling walking along boardwalks where soldiers had fought knee deep in mud and instead of a desolate no-mans-land, there are neatly manicured lawns. It somehow seemed very wrong to take photos of an area which had seen so much devastation. A crow lands on the lawn and I recall the part in the DVD which describes crows picking over dead bodies…..

As we drive to see other memorials our guide highlights certain areas. “Because the area is so flat, elevation was important – even a 15m elevation was significant,” he said, pointing out a 45m high windmill which was fought over. Keen to accommodate the international interests of the group and we stop at the St. Julien Memorial where the Brooding Soldier commemorates 2000 or so Canadians. The gentle breeze reminds us of the horror they must’ve felt when they saw the yellow-green clouds drifting to their trenches in the first gas attacks. We also visit Polygon Wood to pay our respects to the fallen Australians. The museum at Tyne Cott has an evocative display of war artefacts and the woman’s voice reading the names of those who had fallen is a hauntingly appropriate. Later we walk round the massive crater at Hill 60, and our guide explains the part Australian tunnellers played in this subterranean offensive. He also notes out of the 21 planned explosions, only 19 went off. “One was a little late and went off in 1965,” he wryly adds. “And another has yet to explode - WW1 explosives are found regularly; just a couple of months ago workmen were killed at a building site by an unexploded shell.” Suddenly we are all keeping to the well-trodden footpaths through the wooded undergrowth. The tour ended in Ypres with time allowed in the renovated Cloth Hall museum before attending the moving Last Post ceremony held every day at the Menim Gate.

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Seeing the Cloth Hall in its restored glory held particular significance to me, as my grandfather had sent postcards of the devastated area when he visited Ypres in 1924. In amongst the postcards there was a picture of a young man, Private William J Morrison, who died in Belgium on November 26th 1915. For years we’d wondered why my grandfather had visited the area, (we had assumed the visit was something to do with my great uncle who although he had survived, had been badly gassed), and who Private Morrison was. With the help of the Internet, we discovered Private Morrison had lived in the same street as my grandfather’s family. He is buried in one of the 529 graves in the Talana Farm Cemetery. We now think my grandfather visited Ypres to pay his respects to a fallen friend. In his ill-fitting uniform, I can only wonder at the horrors this naïve young man from a back street in Yorkshire, and the many others like him, saw before he was killed, aged just n 21. 

Annie Waddington-Feather took a day tour from Brussels with www.localbrusselstours.com.

The Last Post Magazine ISSUE 10 – 2015 ANZAC CENTENARY EDITION  

FEATURING: Bill Denny, Graham Cornes, Chris Burns, Ben Schneiders, Anne Waddington-Feather, David Campbell, Sen Ricky Muir, Sen Nick Xenopho...