Monday, 1 August 2011

Ypres.





The letter I was reading was nearly 100 years old and was from a wife to her husband, an English soldier in the First World War. It was behind a glass case containing many other letters between soldiers and their famililes.

All the panels containing letters and personal effects were lit from within and provided the only light in the darkened room. Through a speaker a young girls voice quietly listed the names and ages of the dead soldiers, relentlessly and endlessly.

The letter ended with the wife saying how much she loved him and missed him and hoped he would come home safely. I counted eight kisses at the bottom of the letter.

He never got back to England, he was buried just outside among the rows and rows of pristine white headstones on Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium. The cemetery is filled with British and New Zealand soldiers who had died during the unimaginable slaughter of the Battle of Passchendale in 1917, there was a small museum annexing the graveyard and the rear wall of the cemetery was carved with the names of the 35,000 Commonwealth troops that had died during that battle.


They were buried on the low hill overlooking flat farmland that they had died for, a lump of ground considered strategic enough to send them all to their deaths.

The countryside in this area of Belgium is filled with graveyards containing the dead of the two World Wars. They are kept in immaculate condition by the Commonwealth War Graves Commision. My own grandfather, Gordon Porch lies in a small graveyard in Tunisia, he was killed in North Africa in World War 2, inside the museum you can bring up his details and pictures of his grave on a computer.

In the nearby town of Ypres there is an enormous stone arch stretching across the road into the town square called the Menin Gate. The Gate is inscribed with the names of the 57,000 men whose bodies were never identified.

It was through this town that Commonwealth soldiers passed on their way to the frontlines and now, every night at 20:00 the town stops and a crowd gathers beneath the Gate.


The Last Post is played by four buglers, a wreath is laid, a poem is spoken and the buglers then play Reveille. Then town resumes it's business as usual. This has happened every night since 1928 apart from during the Second World War for obvious reasons.

When I witnessed this there was a large crowd, coach loads of European school children arrived and stood watching in silence as the ceremony was played out.


The UK was never invaded during the World Wars and I know some people in my country that have never even heard of these wars. But Europe suffered terribly during both and they have not forgotten.



I once visited a town in Northern France called Oradour. During the Second World War a high ranking German officer was killed near there by the French Resistance and the Germans suspected they had assistance from the people of Oradour.


They sent a squad of SS soldiers, fresh from the brutal conflict of the Russian Eastern Front to make an example.

They wiped out everyone in the town they came across and set fire to the whole place.

The French have left the town as it was after the carnage, bodies removed obviously. There are rusting hulks of cars and trucks in the cobbled streets, the remains of sewing machines and cooking pans in the kitchens. the personal effects of the townspeople are in a small museum nearby.

The Europeans have not forgotten what happened and they are right to do so , the cost of these conflicts is brought sharply into focus when you are faced with the physical reality of the aftermath. The lessons of history are there to be learned and have not being bulldozed to make way for profit.



Seeing these things was a humbling and emotional experience that I will never forget and also unexpected as I had only gone to Belgium to watch the Graspop Heavy Metal Festival.




41 comments:

Padded Cell Princess said...

I am so blessed that the men in my family have always come back from their wars. Even my great uncle who was in the Bataan Death March came home, but my dad said he was never the same. How also blessed are we who haven't seen fighting in our own countries and yet it seems to make some less aware of the tragedies that have happened and are happening all around them. Great post and what a great experience Tony.

Jordan said...

Even though there was so much carnage and death, I think it's beautiful that those townspeople pay tribute and reflect on what was lost. I think that here in America, so many people don't really have any idea of what war really is. It's something fought in a far off land and I know my generation really takes that for granted. Unless we have personally had someone go to Iraq/Afghanistan, we don't really even think about it because its so far away which is tragic really. People don't understand the incredible sacrifices made not only by soldiers but by all of their loved ones. I'm glad you had the opportunity to visit those places, I can imagine how emotional it was after having visited war memorials in D.C.

Belle said...

My uncle Jack lies buried in France. My other uncle came back, he was a commander in the Canadian Navy. This was during WWII. My sister was in the Gulf war, so I know what it is like to wait and worry. I appreciate all the people in the military have done for us. It is wonderful they don't forget in Europe. But I am angry about the useless wars we have been in lately.

Dylanthulhu said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huRwBFmAx78

Thought of this the whole time.

Sub-Radar-Mike said...

Wow, that was really sad, but inspiring in a way. Hopefully we can end bloodshed entirely and never return to the nightmares of the World Wars.

Elle Strauss said...

That picture is very sobering. I understand many Canadians died in that battle as well. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Reilly said...

Welcome to Belgium

MRanthrope said...

a very humbling post. I'm afraid it's going to take a Chinese invasion of America before people in the USA get off our high horse and realize how unglamorous war is =/

Tony Van Helsing said...

Princess: I can't imagine what it must be like to living in a country at war.

Jordan: I was glad that the museum was dimly lit because I teared up counting the kisses at the end of that letter.

Belle: Sometimes it seems like war for the sake of it, we've got all the kit so we might as well use it.

Dylan: I'll click on the link later mate. My wife's watching telly next to me at the minute.

Sub-Radar: It is in our nature ot destroy ourselves, as the big cyborg said.

Elle: It was difficult to choose from all the photos I took while I was in Belgium. I saw too many Canadian graves there. I went to Essesx Farm graveyard, a small one filled with lads from my hometown of Halifax and nearby Huddersfield, all from the West Riding of Yorkshire Regiment.

Reilly: It's a sombre post but Belgium was a brilliant country, I'll put on a post about some of the locals I met there soon.

MRanthrope: War's great in the movies but only there.

TexaGermaNadian said...

Wow, I can only imagine how moving these places are. Literally take your breath away. You did a great job describing them, so thank you for the mini insight into the historical places!

Diego Sousa said...

man, what a sad story...

must have been awlful to live these times =/

mark fellows said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mark fellows said...

This is an excellent post, and one of the most worth while I have seen. Thank you for helping preserve an important part of history, and perhaps making people inquisitive about what was at stake, for those who don't know about WWII

Vapid Vixen said...

Holy cow this post gave me goosebumps. I was shocked to read there are people that don't even know about these wars. The world should never forget the sacrifices so many people made so that we can enjoy the freedoms we do today.

Bart said...

look at all those warriors, and hanks for the compliment, ive been working on my tan

Tony Van Helsing said...

Texa: Thank you.

Diego: We are so pampered in our part of the world.

Mark: We should learn from history, not forget it.

Vapid: How many of us would be prepared to sacrifice so much?

Bart: Anytime.

Craziness abounds said...

I lived in France until I was almost 18. The things you described are so accurate it gave me chills. It was through many of these same scenes that I found a love for history. I also got to visit Dachau? Hope the spelling is close. It's been years. I'm always amazed at what humans can do to each other in the name of war and religion. Not that I am anti war. I know it is nec sometimes and am married to a military man. I enjoyed your post and will be following.

Sarah said...

It's strange to think that some people are oblivious to the wars, and don't know any of the history behind it. I really liked this post, although it makes me feel a little sad. You're privledged, in a sense, to experience this :)

nowaysj said...

Pretty deep bro. I'm glad the euro are not forgetting, especially as it seems we're heading towards something similar araing?

Hannah {Culture Connoisseur} said...

Wow. What an emotional experience. It's always troubling to get face to face with the terrible things the human race is capable of. I remember going to Dachau concentration camp...I'll never forget it.

I guess there's hope in the not forgetting though. If we refuse to forget, we're unlikely to repeat it. I hope...

ketch1714 said...

Wow. This is beautifully written. I felt as if I was standing there myself, reading the letters and listening to the names in the background. It makes one think about our past and what our future holds. It's a reminder to never forget.

altadenahiker said...

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row ...

nowaysj said...

Okay, don't know how I wasn't following. Any blog that hates on Sting, gets my approval.

Followed!

Tony Van Helsing said...

Craziness: Thanks for joining.

Sarah: The museum was overwhelming, I was glad it was dark 'cos I teared up.

Nowaysj: Shit like that is always happening somewhere in the world.

Hannah: I haven't seen the concentration camps and don't know if I could hack it.

Ketch: Thank you, glad you enjoyed it.

Alta: I visited the trench where that poem was written. It is inscibed on the bunker wall in bronze.

Nowaysj: Come in, I've been expecting you.

Stephanie D said...

Great post! Very powerful.

Devour said...

Wow very informative post! Your grandpa must have been a brave man "]. Thanks for sharing!

Heather said...

I was never taught about either of these events at any of my schools. They are so sad, its hard to believe that man can do this to man.

T Papar said...

the letter was very moving. hard times such as those can bring up the best and the worst in people

lunatic said...

:(

cheshire said...

SS were pretty brutal, but I think they were doing what they thought was necessary to win the war; and if the Axis had won, it would have been commemorated as much as we now condemn it.

Tony Van Helsing said...

Stephanie: It was a powerful place.

Devour: I only wish I could have met him.

Heather: Sadly we keep on doing it.

T Papar: It certainly moved me.

Lunatic: Eloquently put.

Cheshier: I know what you are saying, atrocities are committed by all armies at some time.

Margaret said...

This is very moving. I didn't know the particular of the battle you mention or the French town. Very sad. Very important to be aware of.

Rob said...

Sad but moving. Impressive post, keep up the good work.

Electric Addict said...

war a terrible thing

Cheeseboy said...

Belgium sounds like a very impressive place and one that has quite the history. Moving indeed.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I'm glad all these things have been done to preserve the memories of those who gave their lifes in the first two world wars. It's especially important that the younger generations get to see them.

Ixy said...

Wow - you've had some amazing travels. Sometimes I wonder if everything will fade from memory as the last of the veterans pass away. I hope we're not doomed to repeat the same mistakes (although in many ways, we already have).

Tony Van Helsing said...

Margaret: Oradour was a massacre more than a battle, soldiers killing civilians.

Rob: Thanks mate, keep reading.

Electric: Looks great in films but the real thing is nightmarish.

Cheeseboy: I'd recommend Belgium to anyone.

Stina: We definitely owe them at least our memory.

Ixy: When I saw the incredible standards kept of the cemeteries in Europe I knew they wouldn't be forgotten.

coneforce said...

touching stuff man ...nice blog btw ...followed..

Jilda said...

Tony, I hope this finds you well....this post touched me so deeply.....but then war and its trappings should do that to us all. I spend much of my time with soldiers who have PTSD, many days after being with them....well, I am not always a fun person to be around. love and hugs to you Tony

Elisabeth Hirsch said...

This is a very powerful post! Thank you for sharing it.