We'd raced through 700km of Germany, to grab an opportunity to see Holland, Belgium whilst hoping we'd have time for the girls to experience a hugely important historical visit to the WW1 battlefields.
Thankfully the wonderfully efficient Salient Tours had a space for us, so we leapt at the the chance to join them on their morning visit to a variety of battlefields, cemeteries - a general tour that was intended to cover a real breadth of experiences. Having met us personally in their new minibus, we headed into the hub of Ypres and the hustle, bustle of the owner's (Steve Douglas) shop - The British Grenadier Shop
Joining a party including a great chap, Alex we headed out under the guidance of Lucas, a truly inspiring chap, who made each and every place come alive with his enthusiastic but balanced views on the futility of war. Yet sensibly reminded us of the need to ensure it is remembered for future generations in a positive and respectful fashion.
A fact reinforced by the chance to see both the Commonwealth Graves and also the German Graves. The different between both was stark and a clear reminder of how different the cultures are. The Commonwealth Graves at both Essex Farm and Tyne Cot were full of both war burials (not geometrically aligned and often side by side (due to an inability place certain body parts to individuals) and also ceremonial graves full of geometric symmetry .
Whilst the German Graves were full of group burials (not to be confused with the word 'mass'). German tradition dictated the use of surrounding oak trees (symbolising courage) and the planting of trees linking this site to the mythological river Styx. A lovely touch was the notion that each nation will adhere to a respectful burial for all (we'll look after yours, if you look after ours)
Both the Commonwealth Essex Farm (with its stark symbols of remembrance - Cross of Sacrifice & Stone of Remembrance) and the German Langemark ( with its inner sanctum depicting the horror of the 'Studentenshaft' massacre of 1914) were wonderfully preserved and protected, serving as clear reminders of the extent of the sacrifices made by both nations.
We journeyed further to see the amazing Canadian monument (the Brooding Soldier) standing proudly amongst the landscaped gardens that surround it. The scope of the planting serving as a graphic reminder of the chlorine gas that stuck close to the surface of the ground (due to its density) - the low growing shrubs (chlorine) reaching up to the Canadian cedar trees (17 Canadian Battalions).. (see slideshow pictures)
Journeying further into Flanders field, (the actual poem superbly delivered by Lucas earlier on the tour at the makeshift field hospital used by McCrae) we reached the site of yet more German bunkers and the Tyne Cot ceremony.. (named after the similarity with both the river at 'Newcastle upon Tyne and the soldiers cottages). This huge cemetery shows both the devastation of war (enormous number of graves), the futility of the Battle of Passchendaele 1917 (only some 500m of ground were given or taken) and the sheer number of 'unknown soldiers' who gave their lives (some 8000 at Tyne Cot). Sadly the British arm were given cardboard tags making subsequent discoveries almost impossible compared to other nation's aluminium tags...
It was equally amazing to hear the amount of battles around the Salient area of Ypres, an area of lower land surrounded by higher ground held by German forces or that the Spanish flu killed more people after the war than those killed during the war!
Moving on from battlefields/cemeteries we visited a typical scene in this area, a farmers barn with numerous 'stone finds' - full of unexploded shells, motors, hand grenades and rifle shafts.
Then onto a reconstructed area that surrounded a 'mark 2' German bunker completed with a trench system that allowed both girls to experience the difficulties of life for a WW1 soldier - even learning about pig tail barbed wire system as we ventured deeper into the trenches...
It really was a quiet journey back, full of reflection of what we had all seen... both girls were hanging on Lucas' every word... it really was 'history being brought to life'. An amazing opportunity which both girls will remember for many years to come! (nb we also managed to find a distant relative which will be a great history project to take onwards after this fantastic tour, homeschooling at it's best!)
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