I wanted to go to Ypres. And to Passchendaele. It looked doable in one day and that meant a while with Euan programming phones and computers to get Google maps to direct us.
I naively thought we just headed north, we did, but it was a heck of a lot more complicated than that.We set off with Euan driving and me with the phone on my knee, directing.
Needless to say, we – or rather I – made a few errors and so we stopped for a coffee and a think about it.
The delight was that we had coffee where a man was minding his baby child and as he served us he made eyes and childish language conversation with this little one all the time. Gorgeous.
Then Ypres, Ieper. A few tricky bits to find free parking but that was resolved and so we walked to the Cloth Hall. I’d been told it was/is magnificent.It’s true.
Completely destroyed during the war, as indeed was the whole city, it and all the rest has been completely restored in the medieval style in which it was originally built. It was the centre of Belgium’s medieval cloth industry and from the size and style it was a very profitable affair.
It houses a great museum. You sign in as yourself and wear a badge the means as you tap on different items, a story of someone like you is told. In one example I heard about an older German woman, a scholar who became a trainer of, I suspect spies. Of course there was all the explanation of what happened and when and how with graphic images. I liked the moments when people appeared on screen and talked of their personal experience.
In particular a Belgian man who became a refugee and went down to France for work in a garage. And also a soldier in the Christmas Truce when opposing soldiers sang Silent Night and then met in No Man’s Land and exchanged gifts and shared photos and experiences.
It was like the Peronne museum – much more than just a gathering of objects but also very expensive to create. It also had objects that showed the way the war was represented in kids’ toys and in domestic things like handkerchiefs and table napkins. When I saw this one I remembered singing it in primary school! Yikes!
What it also had was the tower of the Cloth hall – all 200+ steps and we climbed them. Why? A good question. Half way up I thought of old tourists who die climbing Uluru. But you can’t turn and go back.
It’s Medieval and the steps down are an equally narrow series on the other side. The view was magnificent. Had one known more of the geography it would have meant you could see to France and possible the North Sea.
Then we walked down to the Menin Gate – 54,000 names of soldiers whose graves are not known. What that means is many were blown to smithereens and so could have no grave. Names are there from all over the world because all Britain’s dominions were represented including the Bhopal forces and also France’s soldiers from North Africa and Arab regions. There are loads of Australians but no New Zealanders – they are all buried or named at Tyne Cot, not far from Passchendaele.
Then we went to the museum at Passchendaele. It’s a name that means so much of that war to me. The privation of mud and trenches and suffering and constant death. It’s set in grassland in an outer region of Ypres. It looks like a country house, and probably was. The surrounding land all through there is so flat and marshy that it’s not hard to believe that soldiers did drown in mud or it took a hundred men to pull artillery guns through the mud to their sites. General Haig insisted the attack go ahead even though all the other senior men argued it shouldn’t. The rain and the mud were horrendous.
The museum has, as a special feature dugouts. These are areas underground that you move through, seeing men at their work cooking, writing at a desk, sleeping or sitting on the dunny. Strongly constructed, these areas are still claustrophobic. After that you move through trenches – but I’d had enough and it was time to leave.
Little did we know there were traffic jams through much of the first 20 kms of the road home.
Although the ‘battle’ of Passchendaele was eventually won, the German offensive in early 1918 took back in a few days all they’d lost to the British forces.
So glad we spent the day there.