Remembrance


I bought C one of those bars of chocolate inspired by the Sainsbury’s Xmas tv commercial which I saw the other night, the one celebrating the WW1 footie match between the British and German troops during a lull in the fighting over Xmas 1914.  I don’t know about you but I reckon it’s by a country mile the best tv commercial of the festive season. And spookily it has just appeared on tv as I begin to write this. That is eerie.

Oh I know it’s promoting a supermarket brand and all that, and it even convinced me to buy some Belgian chocolate I wouldn’t ordinarily choose, but its positive message about the essential goodness in people and the horror of war has touched people I think and tapped into that huge emotional wave of remembrance that the public have felt over the 100th anniversary of the Great War’s commencement.  And it has reminded me that I’ve been meaning to get a posting done on our recent trip to France and Belgium to visit the memorials and sites around the Somme and Passchendaele battlefields (where my grandfather fought).  I have to tell you we had a belting time.

Accompanying C and me were her brother and sister-in-law C&L and our oldest friends L&S. To get the mood sorted we went with the guys to see the play War Horse the evening before we set off. I think we had all wanted to see it for ages – in fact we may well be the last people in England to experience it. And it was as good as the hype and all the reports. The storyline’s a wee bit schmaltzy but the lifesize puppets are just brilliant. Great show.

We set off early the next day and caught the shuttle over to France. We stopped and had some breakfast in some tres French-looking cafe. It looked great but all he had to offer was some baguette and coffee. Ah well it filled a hole and cost un bras et une jambe but c’est la vie eh.  We trundled on down towards the Somme area but it was a stinker of a day and because we were using A roads, taking forever. It’s easy to forget how big N France is when you’re pootling along. Long story short we got to the Somme area by mid-afternoon and started visiting some of the smaller cemeteries…

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Then just south of Albert we hit all the key sites and came across Thiepval cemetery and visitor centre. It’s a hell of a place with a massive memorial monument designed by Lutyens. C and I walked up to it in the pouring rain; it was very atmospheric…

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We visited some trenches (in someone’s back garden!) and you couldn’t help wondering what these bloody places must have been like to survive in, in the cold and wet and all the mud…

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We’d had a fairly long day by this stage and the weather was getting worse so we found our way back to the main road system and headed up to our base at Ypres. It took us a good three hours in the driving rain but the small hotel C had found for us was just excellent. We’d bought a bit of  booze en route and settled in for the night and had a good old chat and laugh.  Next morning we went downstairs for the best breakfast I’ve ever had in a hotel. We saw a lot of stuff the second day which had dawned a lot brighter. First off we went north a bit towards Dijksmuide to wander around an excellently-preserved trench system…

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Then we headed to the east of Ypres where we took in the stunning cemetery at Tyne Cot, the largest British military cemetery in the world. As you approach the site, the view is protected by some high walls but get beyond these and the sight which awaits the visitor is breathtaking. It’s like a sea of white head stones…

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I’ve seeing nothing like it in my life. There were people from all over including many German visitors who I was touched to see were paying huge respect. We spent a couple of hours there just reading the grave stones and taking in the stunning scenery. From the cemetery hill you can see all the way down to Ypres which was heavily damaged indeed almost destroyed in the War but never fell into German hands. Despite a brutal battering it remained a ‘they shall not pass’ point and has become symbolic ever since.

We returned to the town which has been re-built beautifully and spent a while in the excellent Flanders Museum in the centre of the town. C and S did a bit of retail relief and we all gathered later in one of the square’s many bars for a refreshing drink or two. We then found a place for an early dinner which wasn’t that great but the town was absolutely packed and it could take us in. Throughout the year visitor numbers to the town have been growing enormously to witness the town’s most famous ceremony; the playing of the Last Post under the Menen Gate. It happens every evening at exactly 8pm whatever the weather and the crowds are just amazing…

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It’s not just old Brits there on a personal journey either; the place was full of young French and Germans, but most especially Belgians who turn up every night to remember and give thanks to the young British and Commonwealth men who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their country. I can tell you when the trumpeteer played the Last Post and then one of the officers read out the words of Robert Laurence Binyon’s classic lines, there was many a lump in the throat and not many dry eyes under the Gate…

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

I just love those words.

We headed back to the hotel and had some more drinks and some quiet reflection on all the great sights we’d witnessed. It’s a poignant but so well-worthwhile visit. We got back on Sunday afternoon and our friends headed home – there’s was a longer journey. You never know how folks are going to gel but it was a super trip and great fun. But just to complete the whole Remembrance thing a couple of days later C and I headed into town to go and see the Poppy memorial ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ at the Tower of London, which saw the moat filled with 888,246 ceramic poppies, one for each British fatality during The First World War. We were desperate to see it before it was all removed.  It’s a cliche but it was truly stunning and moving. The place was absolutely packed but in a very British way, people took their time queuing; very quietly, orderly and patiently. It was  a scene worth waiting to witness. Could it possibly be the most admired expression of public art we’ve had in this country? It must be the most visited. We loved it.

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pp

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3 thoughts on “Remembrance

  1. Hi 8055bell and thanks for checking in. The trenches were in the garden of Avril’s tea rooms in the village of Auchonvilliers, which became colloquially known as ‘Ocean Village’ by the British forces. You’re welcome anytime.
    pp

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