Wednesday, January 16, 2013

In their footsteps

I’d found a guy online who did Tours of the Ypres Salient and after a couple of emails had booked him to show us around, with special emphasis on the places where the 17th (Grandfather Adamson) the 39th (Gt Uncle Parrish – Greta’s uncle) and the Otago Regiment (G’ma Ballantyne’s brother) had served.  At the appointed time, a very English looking gentleman in a Volvo drove into our street just as I was taking some photos of the Cloth Hall and introduced himself as Bob Findley.

Introductions made, we popped back into the Hotel to use their lounge chairs and he explained where we were going and presented us with a folder of his research for the boys we were following.  I was gobsmacked – it will make a wonderful addition to family tree research I know both families are doing.  Trench maps, modern maps with the trench lines marked etc – just wonderful.

While Sanctuary Wood didn’t really have any connection to ‘our boys’ it was the first place he took us because it is the only place around Ieper where the trenches are still intact.  Seems the land owner returned in 1919 and roped off several hundred metres of trenches figuring family members of those who fought may one day want to return – thank God he did… he then figured he could charge (and did) and his nephew now thinks he can rip tourists off and is the most unpopular man in town.  Tour guides (like Bob) have ganged up on him and were refusing to take visitors there if he kept hiking his prices.

Sanctuary Wood … as you might suspect from the name was a place where the troops rested when they came off the line.  The Germans soon figured this out and blew the living shitter out of it and now there are only 6 ‘bits’ of tree left .. all that was left of a whole wood.  It is littered with bomb craters .. don’t forget that WW1 was an artillery war, but the trenches are still there … 3 lines of trenches and their connecting communications trenches, ammunition niches, duckboards etc.

There is also a museum there with thousands & thousands of dollars worth of priceless war relics – you name it, it’s here.  It is just such a shame that the ugly toad who owns it now is not more willing to look after it better, display it better, label it better and show more respect for what he ‘owns.’

We saw rolls of barbed wire, wire stakes, weapons of every imaginable kind (from both sides) carts, trench mortars, gas mortars, field telephones, uniforms, boots, shells of every kind and hundreds of photos.  Most chilling were the before and after photos of Ypres town … it was just mashed!

From here we went to Polygon Wood, and to Anzac Rest, home of Johan van Dewalle who found 5 unidentified  Aussie soldiers in unmarked graves in 2000 during some local roadworks.  His little café is now a little bit of Australia, complete with Aussie flag, caps, badges etc.  Three have now been identified, the first of which was Jim Hunter, KIA in Polygon wood on 26th September 1917 and buried by his brother John.  This identification has led to the setting up of a group wanting to build a permanent and fitting memorial to all the ‘Brothers in Arms.’   It’s galling indeed that the Australian government doesn’t want to come to the party with some cash to help this happen.  We signed a petition and I suspect I may be writing a couple of letters to some lazy politicians when I get home.

We said our goodbyes to Johan & his wife and were off to the New Buttes British Cemetary which also housed the New Zealand Memorial to the Kiwi soldiers who had been killed in the area but had no known grave.  This was one of the places I had specifically asked Bob to take us to .. Grandma Ballantyne’s younger brother Arthur had been KIA in the area and was listed on this memorial.  Needless to say, I shed a few more tears.

New Buttes also contains a memorial to the Aussie 5th Division.  It is such a beautiful place and we were the first ones to track the snow to the NZ Memorial.  The Anzac Five are also buried here – and have been interred in a row by themselves.

From here we went to Tyne Cot Cemetary .. final resting place of over 12,000 allied soldiers including one from B Company 17th  and an Aussie VC.  It is huge, quiet, beautiful yet just so wasteful!  It is right of what was once the German Front line because the cemetery also contains 2 german bunkers, which had become field dressing stations once the Allies took that part of the line.  Cemetaries always sprung up around dressing stations… no need for too many guesses why.

Last stop before lunch was Gravenstafel where on 12th October 1917, the Kiwi’s lost 2700 men in 4 hours and required another 1200 as stretcher bearers to get the wounded out – the mud was so awful they needed 6 men to a stretcher.  This place and this day has been described as New Zealand’s Blackest Day, and probably is, in reality, their Gallipoli.

Arthur had survived Gravenstafel (part of the Battle of Passchendaele) on 12th October 1917 only to be killed near Polderhoek Chateau on 24th November the same year.

We came back to Ieper for lunch… grabbed a roll and a cake at a little bakery (the most beautiful little cakes I saw in Ieper) before heading out again.. this time to Hill 60 … part of one of the best planned and best executed exercises of the War.  According to Bob, the movie of the same name is very accurate.  English & Aussie tunnelers dug deep under the German front line … 27 tunnels in all and deployed 50,000pound bombs/mines at the end of each.  Let off simultaneously at 3am, they blew the crap out of the German front line and ‘vapourised’ (Bob’s words) thousands of German soldiers.

Hill 60 now is missing it’s top, is littered with craters and the battle that followed the detonation of these mines resulted in at least 2 VC’s being awarded.  Only 3 of the mines deployed for that night didn’t explode .. one went off in the middle of a thunder storm in the 50’s and the other is still sitting in its tunnel… under a farmhouse that was re-built in the 1920’s… not a very sought-after piece of real-estate as you might imagine.

There is a captured German bunker up the top (well it’s now at the top … wasn’t at the top originally) that the Poms captured, and did a quick renno to make it a British bunker … while the cement was drying a German bomb landed in the wet cement but didn’t explode … it’s still there.
It turns out that the NZ Otago Regiment (Arthur Cunningham) and the 39th Australian (Edward Parrish) had been engaged earlier in the war in the same battle and these two boys had served at the same time on the same line, separated only by a few hundred metres.  So next stop was the NZ memorial on Messines Ridge… built like all other memorials from Portland Stone, but this one is surrounded by NZ native plants.  It has a stunning view … one side down to where Parrish and the 39th were fighting and on the other side across to where Cunningham and the Otago Regiment was fighting in June 1917. 

It was in this area that Albert Parrish won his Military Medal on 13th October 1917.  The line the Aussies were fighting on stretched from Derby Crossing to Waterfields, just a few km’s  (and a couple of days) from Gravenstafel and just a few hundred yards from the Tyne Cot Cemetery.

Second last stop was Hyde Park Corner from where Edward Parrish had marched up Mud Lane and back to the front on Messines Ridge.  We stopped at a little café for a coffee and imagined these young men heading back into battle near St Ives.

Final stop, and only because we were in the town of Messines was the Church of St Nicoclas.  Before the Kiwi’s took the town of Messines, it seems a certain German Corporal was treated in a makeshift dressing station set up in the crypt, for a shoulder wound … how different the world might be now if the medic at that dressing station had not done such a good job.

Out the front of the church (which like so many others on the Salient) was almost totally destroyed is what looks like some strange pavement repairs.  Only when you stand and look at it properly do you realise you are looking at a map of the Land of the Long White Cloud!

It was now getting on for 4.30 and the sun was going so, the end of a thoroughly memorable day was fast approaching…. And the only thing I have not mentioned was getting ‘bogged’ in a snowdrift at a cemetery whose name I now can’t remember.  We’d stopped there to look at the grave of another boy from the 17th Bttn AIF and the depth of snow turned out to be more than Bob expected.  A passing truck driver and another motorist stopped to help, but without any kind of tow rope couldn’t manage to extricate us.  Thankfully, Johan came to our rescue and towed us out.  Poor Bob was mortified – seems the only other time in his life he’d been stuck in snow was 30+ years ago as a copper in the UK. 

I’d had an extraordinary birthday … one I will remember for a very long time.  Thanks Bob … great company, and an extraordinary knowledge of this part of WW1 and a passionate deployment of that knowledge… I couldn’t have asked for more.

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