Tuesday, 15 July 2014

A Pilgrimage to the World War I Battlefields

Jane and I recently visited Flanders and the Somme where unimaginable carnage took place of the flowering youth of Europe. Remains of rosaries from both sides of the divide were exhibited in the museum in Ypres. The "Culture of Death" then knew no bounds there as it increasingly does today with abortion, embryo research, IVF and assisted suicide. It was a million or two then and now it is billions. 
What was significant to us was the fighting between Christians who did so out of loyalty and obedience. In respect for this, officers and other ranks are buried alongside each other and a few German graves are included among the white headstones; all are equal in death.
Highlights of the visit were the town of Ypres (Ieper) now rebuilt to reflect its former glory and we could have spent many hours there including the WW1 Museum. 
This had cameos of actors from each side of the divide uttering the thoughts and feelings of the combatants, and especially moving was that memorable Christmas Day when, to the extreme annoyance of the generals, they fraternised with one another. This begs the question: the troops were obeying the orders of their generals and politicians but who were the latter obeying?
Ypres was completely destroyed and although the scars of war are largely hidden or buried, bodies and unexploded shells, grenades and gas shells, under an industrial estate - the modern form of madness and greed - the many white headstones in the many cemeteries remind us of the terrible cost.
In contrast, a Germany cemetery, rarely visited by relatives, instead of being light and exhibiting caring and love, was dark, forbidding, sombre and brooding. Black plaques on the ground had eight names with the bodies of soldiers surrounding them and there was a mass grave with almost 25,000 bodies in it. The only relief from this gloom was a row of crosses and poppy wreaths laid by British school children: love one another.
The Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, recording the names of those with no known graves, remains one of the most impressive and memorable monuments to the Fallen and the sorrows of that nation. 
The Ridge once taken, at a terrible cost, it was impossible for the Germans to retake it. Here a line of trenches, separated at the nearest point by a mere 20 metres, is preserved, including the metal plates via which they shot at each other. I have visited it three times over 40 years and have always come away in admiration of those who lived through that campaign.The surrounding woods are barred off by electric fencing because they still contain large number of bodies and unexploded shells. Only the sheep keep the grass well mown today as they have done so well in the past.
We visited the cemeteries at Passchendaele, the memorials to the missing at Theipval and Arras, and finally the Lochnagar Crater which was created when mines were detonated under the German lines; the explosion was heard from London. Forty years ago I walked in the surrounding fields and lanes; then shells and remains of the battle were placed in little piles by the roadside as they were found. I then accidently walked into a wood which was the British Artillery site; I was very lucky as there were unexploded shells there. I also saw in the fields buckles, belt pieces, buttons and other debris which I refused to touch as somebody died wearing these and to my mind they represented a living person gone yet not forgotten. It saddened us to see such items on sale in a memento shop.
A most moving ceremony took place at the Menin Gate in Ypres where those with no known graves are recorded and we found two names for a friend of ours.
Here is a video of the ceremony: 
You will see the names written on one of the many walls and the children in red-orange sweatshirts come from schools in this country: the Government is giving two children from each school the opportunity to visit the battlefields free.
 This is the children's coach.
The piper was one of the coach drivers and his moving lament after the Last Post can be heard on the video. The video starts with noise of the crowd which dies out to silence and then at the end the noise when it came back sounds like a mighty storm in contrast.
It was hard work getting there and back by coach with the M25 road jams and we were late and very tired when we got home. Was it worth the effort? Yes! In the three times I have been there I came back feeling that I was blessed not to have lost any relatives in that carnage and I was glad I paid my respects and prayed for the Fallen and their families. If you can make the effort to go then you will be well rewarded.

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