Several weeks ago, on the weekend of the 17 and 18 March, I was given the amazing opportunity to visit the region of Flanders in Belgium with a Rotarian from my Host Rotary Club and his family.
Before I left for exchange, my Grandmother gave me with some information about a relative, Walter James South, my Great Great Great Uncle who was an Australian soldier in the First World War.
My Grandmother had researched a little of his life and knew that he was shot and killed in 1917 on the battlefields of Belgium. She has a copy of a letter claiming he was found and buried. However, he has no known grave in the official war records, and so his name has been included with the almost 55,000 names inscribed upon the Menin Gate.
We left on a snowy Saturday morning, and our first stop was the Battlefield of Sanctuary Wood, an area of forest which has been preserved as it stood during the war, with the original trench system being reinforced.
Our next stop was Polygon Wood, which is home to a large Australian memorial and cemetery. It was a pretty beautiful place, it was a cold day and the whole thing had a sobering atmosphere.
We then made our way into the town of Ypres, where we got lunch and wandered the streets. Eventually, we made our way to the Menin Gate.
The memorial is dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who fought and died in the area around the city during the First World War and who have no known grave.
The inscription on the inside of the Gate reads: “Here are recorded the names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient, but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death”
The memorial actually has an app, which makes it easy to search for a soldier and find them on the wall. We typed in the name and found the right panel and, after a little bit of searching, found it inscribed upon the wall.
After finding my relative’s name, we left and got drinks before coming back a little before 8 pm in the evening to watch the Last Post ceremony. The Gate was now crowded with people. Each day since 1928 the road into the city is closed and a crowd gathers to hear the Last Post and lay wreaths.
We spent most of Sunday inside the In Flanders Fields Museum, in the centre of Ypres, which is dedicated to the history of the First World War. In particular, it focuses on Belgium and the area around the city. Visitors are given a wristband when entering, which is then used to log in and provide some details about themselves, like age and nationality. The museum includes information screens which visitors scan their wristbands at to read stories from the war curated for their own background and language.
The museum has been built inside the medieval Cloth Hall of Ypres. The Hall has been rebuilt exactly as it stood before the war and, as well as housing the museum, you can also climb its tower, which has an amazing view.
Before heading home we visited Hill 60. The area around it has been fenced off and fitted with a boardwalk, in an attempt to preserve the area as it was left after the First World War as well as possible due to the knowledge that many soldiers remain buried in the collapsed tunnels under the site.
A short walk from Hill 60 is the caterpillar, a massive crater that was created by one of the 19 mines simultaneously set off by the 1st Australian Mining Company preceding the battle of Messines, resulting in what was at the time the largest planned explosion in history, and the deaths of around 10,000 soldiers.
After our visit to the Hill, we stopped at a nearby cafe for drinks and made our way home.
It was a really special weekend, both fun and interesting and incredibly humbling. It’s amazing to be living somewhere where I can see the sorts of things we talk about in school History classes for myself, and humbling to find a connection between my family and one of the names amongst the tens of thousands of names inscribed on a memorial on the other side of the world.
In 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.
John McCrae, May 1915