I was born and raised in Teralba, a suburb that still seems apart from the rest of Newcastle. 21 years passed, during which time I would frequently visit my grandmother on my father’s side.
I still recall trips to Newcastle, a big occasion for a young lad, on the 363 bus from Speers Point. Gran lived alone at Boolaroo, but I never made much of her being alone. No, she was just the quiet lady, generous of spirit and it was such fun listening to Blue Hills on the radio with her. But there was something never discussed; that’s the way society was at the time. Her missing partner. All I grew up knowing was that he had died of a shell explosion somewhere in a country called Belgium.
Much later in life I inherited some pussy willow leaves with poignant messages writ upon them. “There were some nice places but none so nice as home”, “To Bessie from W from far across the sea 1/8/1916” and “From A55 to “Kelmont” where would I sooner be” are some that I still hold.
It really wasn’t until my brother found his inscription at the War Memorial in Canberra that I started to get interested in my missing grandfather. I had been there a few times and never bothered; now, somehow, in my later years as the seventh decade rolled around, it seemed important.
I gathered more details and the thought came into my head that on my next trip to Europe I should make the effort to see his name on the Menin Gate at Ieper, formally Ypres, one of the most famous battlefields in history. I wondered just how cathartic an experience it would be.
The following is how it panned out when I boarded the Quasimodo Tours bus, and I quote an email I sent home at the time:
“Today’s the day. It was with some difficulty that I slept last night. I’m wondering how I will react to all of this.
Odd, I thought, all I’m thinking about is myself and not what he might have gone through. I note there’s a thick fog outside the window and wonder what would have happened on a day like this. They wouldn’t have been able to see each other.
I remember too, yesterday, the Dutch couple I met up with were pointing out an earthy field as we rode along and were saying this is called “polders”. It was from this natural, clay based material, that the special church at Lissewege was constructed.
I had visited the church earlier; unbeknownst to me it is mentioned in the “Da Vinci Code”, something to do with the devil’s head carved in stone I believe.
The field meanwhile was sodden, as they had been in the war. I eyed off the slush and thought how horrible it must have been living in the goo, where every footstep was an exercise in itself, mud stuck to your kit and never left it, the thought that tomorrow would only bring more of the same.
Now it’s today and I’m on the tour bus. Strangely, in some ways, our tour guide is an ex-pat Aussie and she’s an attractive middle aged female named Sharon and she’s been doing this since 1990. She does it because she is passionate about the First World War. Very passionate.
Other members of the tour are mostly English though there’s also a young Canadian couple.
Sharon begins by explaining the war’s origins, how Austria, Hungary and Germany were ready to “expand” and had taken steps already so that when the crown prince of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo it was the excuse they were looking for.
The Germans had a plan to knock off Belgium in six days then run riot through France in around a month then this would allow them to send most of their troops to Russia whom they estimated would take 6 weeks to mobilize.
In the fields to where we are travelling, it all went horribly wrong, beyond anything that had happened before or since in human endeavour. The tenacious Belgians held out for 32 days and flooded fields to delay the advance. The Germans took Ypres (now Ieper), relinquished it, and never got it back. The Allies held 10% of Belgium in a small triangular shape, the salient that stayed.
Our first stop is the Passchendale Ridge. It’s far and away the highest piece of ground yet it’s only 56 metres high at its peak. The 40 square kilometres were attacked by the British. For every one metre gained, and I ask you here to imagine how wide the room you are currently in is, probably around 4 metres; they lost 35 men. Imagine in your comfortable room there are 140 bodies in your house. This will start to put you in the picture for what is about to come.
In this area of Belgium there is not a building, a tree, a blade of grass older than 85 years.
At Poelkapelle there are 7,500 buried, 84% of whom are “Known unto God” only. This is not the first cemetery we pass. At one stage there were literally hundreds of them. These days they have been consolidated somewhat.
We learn how the fabled story of the Christmas football matches (three of them), when opposing troops shared provisions and had a game, only happened in 1914. Things got nasty after that and the generals didn’t like the thought of you actually seeing the opposition. Heck, you might even not want to shoot them.
The Germans took to putting a jagged edge on their bayonets. This act infuriated the sensibilities of the British and they shot any prisoner on the spot if he had one. The French took to urinating on their blades before combat in the hope of promoting infection.
Meanwhile, Belgian civilians were trying to escape, many to Holland who remained supposedly neutral; but they eventually put up something unheard of at the time – an electrified fence; and on this hundreds of Belgians perished. The Dutch also bought concrete from the British and sold it to the Germans. It was used to build trenches and bunkers. It’s called profiteering. Others may have other names for it.
Then came the gas. The first recorded use was by the French in a grenade but the bulk stuff was first used here. It was stored and ready to use for a month before they actually unleashed it. Had they done their homework they would have known the prevailing winds are in the opposite direction. It was chlorine gas, the first of 17 different types that would ultimately be used.
The Belgians and Zouaves (mainly from Africa), copped it first and worst. The Germans gained over 2 kilometres then stopped. During the month they were forced to wait, their reserves had been sent to France and they had no more momentum.
The Allies learnt quickly that a moist rag over your face helped a lot and if that moisture was urine it worked even better. We are shown a picture of some soldiers with female sanitary pads strapped to their faces.
Though we tend to think it was an all German thing, the facts are that the British used ten times more gas than the Germans ever did and the mustard gas description was appalling beyond my capacity to comprehend. Imagine your lungs slowly disintegrating to the point where you died an agonizing death. The gasses that were slow killers were preferred because injured soldiers used up more manpower.
Those who were affected but didn’t die often passed it through to their children in later life, many of whom developed cancer as a result.
We next reach a Canadian cemetery, over 2,000 of whom are here. It’s called Vancouver corner and has a large memorial with a figure in a “rest on your arms reversed” position or, as many like to call it, lying down.
We learn here that there were 1,500,000,000 shells fired. Of these one and a half billion, one third failed to explode. On average, over 250 tonnes have been dug up each year since the war. If, like me, you have visions that it is diminishing, then dwell on this – in 2006 they unearthed 700 tonnes. Imagine, two tonnes, per day, from something that happened nearly 90 years ago.
Each year in this area they average 3 deaths from unexploded munitions, 20-30% of which are chemicals.
The Belgians, without any assistance from any of the conflicting nations, spent 20 million euros on a special machine to dispose the chemical shells. The known figures are that they have enough work for sixty years but have no doubt that it will go on for well over another hundred as they find more ordinance.
Until 1976 they simply dumped them at sea but a treaty put an end to that.
The disposal people are all volunteers, 5 have died since 1980 doing this work.
They have devised special suits for chemical disposal. It’s a two layered affair and the body’s core temperature can quickly rise to 40 degrees inside them. Thus an individual is only allowed two disposals per day. After each individual disposal the suits are incinerated to avoid contamination and a new one put on. It costs the government a fortune. No other country contributes.
Every day during spring and summer, every year, at 11.45 and 4.30, munitions are blown up at a special site.
We have pulled in to one of Sharon’s friends places. She explains they bought half a hectare with the intention of farming. On the first line of ploughing, 120 metres in length, they unearthed 29 shells.
She alights and returns with some of the things they’ve uncovered. Among them is a Lee Enfield .303 with a bullet in the chamber and a full magazine, meaning it was being used in conflict at the time. Another item is a large shell with cordite in it.
Then there’s something else she doesn’t bring onto the bus as the large cannon projectile is too heavy to carry.
Every day throughout this entire area, on all these country lanes, 90 years after the event, people put discovered munitions on the roadside for the bomb squad to pick up. They are in little piles beside telegraph poles, next to posts. If a chemical one is found, the bomb squad is called in and, if it’s leaking, they put it in a plaster cast and mark where the leak was.
In 1917, on the 31st of July, a battle started. The scenario is that most of the fighting was done in the summer, so it was timed to coincide with favourable weather. Unfortunately, it rained heavily for the two weeks beforehand. This did not stop General Haig, clearly not one of Sharon’s most favourite people to ever inhabit the earth, from insanely ordering the command to attack.
More than 300,000 troops were lost. As a direct result of Haig’s decision more drowned in the quagmire than were actually shot. Having closely looked at the mud the day before I can fully understand.
At the infamous Passchendale the Kiwis lost more per capita than any other nation and the Canadians won more V.C.s (9).
The Kiwis are the only nation not to accede to the Belgians’ request to consolidate the grave sites. Thus you see their memorials at quite a few places, all with the “From the uttermost ends of the earth” tag.
We stop at Tyne (river) Cot (short for cottage) Cemetery, named after the Northumberland Regiments who fought here.
There are 11,908 graves and a massive wall listing a further 34,888 who are missing after August 16th, 1917. There are 3 Australian V.C. winners buried here.
The shape of the wall echoes the shape of the salient (a military term for a line that penetrates) that was here.
The persistent fog swirls around the masses of white tombstones and the background of barely visible winter trees adds an eerie touch to the moment.
I notice wreaths have been laid here and there by English school classes. Apparently they get an actual name of a particular soldier, find out as much as they can about him, and then visit his grave and the war sites. It’s something that has my wholehearted support.
The breeze springing up pushes the chill air against my eyes and I initially blame that for the moisture in my vision but soon realise it’s more than that. The wreaths have affected me and when I tread the narrow path to the information centre my mood isn’t helped by this crystal clear voice that is suddenly apparent, its invisible host reading out the names of the deceased, a new one every five seconds. Inside the centre photographs appear on a wall of the deceased as his name is read out. In here nobody speaks.
Back on the bus we go past a house of someone Sharon knows. She explains how undermined everything is with the trenches and such, then proceeds to relate how, in 1999, the lady of the house sank up to her neck in water when she got caught in an old trench and was lucky to be rescued from the mud in time. Just four years later their bedroom sank 15 centimetres.
We pass Polygon Wood that changed hands 15 times and are reminded that 35 bodies were recovered last year, 70 the year before, 5 of them Australians. They believe they have these narrowed down to 7 possibilities.
At Hellfire Corner we are reminded that, on average (dwell on this time frame) a shell fell here every 5 seconds.
We stop at the Messines Ridge. The almost unbelievable effort that went on here was extraordinary. This time, with the much smarter Canadian Plumer in charge, they had dug 24 tunnels, the longest 750 metres and set mines at the end.
They then bombarded the ridge for a fortnight and the Germans returned fire. Then, at 3.00 a.m. on June 17th they stopped and, unbelievably, so did the Germans. They thought the Germans might have wind of what they were about to do but went ahead anyway.
At 3.10 a.m. they detonated the mines. With 45,000 lbs of Ammonal and 7,800 lbs of guncotton in each hole, 19 of them went off. To this day, it remains the biggest man made earthquake ever.
”It was an appalling moment. We all had the feeling, ‘It’s not going’ and then, the most remarkable thing happened. The ground on which I was lying started to go up and down just like and earthquake. It lasted for seconds and then, suddenly in front of us, the Hill 60 mine went up.”
85,000 troops attacked the ridge, 7,000 were lost but, for the most part, the Germans had been stunned by the massive 40 tonnes blast and it was the single most successful battle of the entire war.
Of the 5 that didn’t detonate, two had already been overrun, the Germans had discovered one and two misfired. In 1955, a tree was hit by lighting and detonated one of them in a mighty explosion. There’s still one out there somewhere.
Hitler served here, was a brave soldier, was awarded the Iron Cross 1st and 2nd class and lost a testicle when shot. He worked for a field hospital for four years, was never promoted because he never had leadership potential.
In the next village was man named Winston Churchill. As the Americans entered the war, a man named Patton also arrived. Of course, just across the way was a man named Rommel. Within less than an 8 kilometre radius these men fought against each other, 30 years before history repeated itself.
The Royal Army Medical Corps have a mixed reputation. At times it was said that R.A.M.C. was an acronym for Rob All My Comrades, on the other hand they won more V.C.s than any other corps.
Our next stop is the Menin Gate. It’s here that my grandfather is commemorated. It’s from this gate that the sculpted lions were removed in the 1930’s by a grateful mayor of Ieper and now adorn the entrance to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
I locate my grandfather’s name.
They have to send one of the Canadians from the bus later to collect me as everyone is waiting. Later on Sharon will remark that it seemed to have affected me and I freely admit that it did. In fact, I lost it and was shocked at how emotional I got. She asks me if she could place a poppy at the site the next day. I thank her profusely but decline the offer. She later asks my grandfather’s name, in such a way that I suspect she is going to put one there anyway. Later still I say that if I returned the next day there would be a poppy there anyway would there not? The way she looks at me indicates clearly that there will be.
We next visit a trench site at Ieper, excavated by volunteer diggers and filmed by the BBC which is why it was saved from industrial development. Here you can really get the feel of how awful it must have been to actually live here. There were two adjacent trenches. On one side you went to the front, on the other the bodies were brought back. It didn’t do for the fresh troops to see how they were going to end up. At this site, no larger than the house where I now live, there’s a plaque indicating that they have unearthed 155 bodies. Sharon said that it’s now out of date. In fact it’s now 205. She was here when they unearthed the 200th. She is not only passionate about this tour, she is emotional. You can see the welling in her eyes and she storms off to the bus banging the sides of her hands together.
I later query her about how amazed I am that someone who has been doing this for 17 years, with a break only for her daughter, can still have so much feeling. She blames it on being a female, but it’s more than that.
Our last stop is where Valentine Joe Strudwick is buried. He lied about his age, enlisted when he was 14, was wounded, went home, came back again and died when he was 15. School children are often shown this grave, many older than he was when he died. That’s why there are a lot of poppies here.
It’s also where John McRae spent much of the war, having enlisted when he was 40. He was a doctor and he would work, sometimes up to 72 hours straight. Eventually he ended up on the Somme where he died from the flu, bought on by overwork but, before he went he wrote a little piece. That piece today is learnt by rote by his fellow Canadians in every school in their country.
Sharon later tells us that the poppy grows on fields that are disturbed and where there is no competition. Hence they flourished in this area during the war.
Oh, and the poem? It’s called “On Flanders Fields”.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.