10 October 2018 - All
There was a certain excitement in the air as we began our journey to Belgium on Thursday 27 September. By the time we reached the Tunnel, everyone was wide awake and the chatter had increased significantly; when we emerged and arrived at our first stop, we eagerly hopped off the bus with cameras in hands. The clean white gravestones of the first cemetery, placed in neat arrangement row on row, emphasized the sheer number of soldiers who were buried there. One of the guides, Martin, related to us the story of Nellie Spindler, a nurse who died in service during the Battle of Passchendaele, and the only woman buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery. Afterwards we took our time walking around the area, taking pictures of the beautiful roses planted beside the gravestones.
The first tears came when we took a short stop by a small cemetery. We didn’t even get off the coach. Alain, the gruff but effortlessly likeable guide, asked us if we knew the name George Llewyn Davies. We all replied that we did not. He then asked, ‘Which book begins with the line, “all children, except one, grow up”?”to which there was then a somewhat asynchronous mutter of ‘Peter Pan’ amongst us. He then went on to explain that this George L.D. was actually on whom the character of Peter Pan was based. He was one of five brothers who all had tragic lives and for some even more tragic deaths, but George was the only one who became a soldier. The tale of the young Lost Boys quickly became less whimsical in our minds, after realizing that, being dead at 22, George was in truth the Boy that Wouldn’t Grow Up.
Later on, we visited a few other sites, including a small trench where we were told how the soldiers would stand and wait for nightfall, when they could sneak out through the barbed wire to attack the enemy. It was quite exhilarating to walk through the deep maze and imagine what it was like for the soldiers at the time, though we soon got the picture when we saw the state of one of their “baths”.
We also stopped by a peace monument in Langemark, where there were a field of steel poppies made by blacksmiths worldwide. Adjacent to the Cenotaph is a German Cemetery, which was notably more dire and solemn than the bright, beautiful British cemetery that we saw before. There the story of Hitler’s rise to power, which we were all familiar with, of course, was related to us; at last we left with quiet satisfaction knowing the British cemeteries’ cleanliness and serenity was definitely something to be proud of.
After dinner we all marched off towards the Menin Gate in time for the nightly ritual of bugle-playing in memory of the soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient of World War I and whose graves are unknown. Some of us were even chosen to lay the wreaths, a ceremony which has been carried out every night for the last 90 years. We were all so touched by the beauty of the procession that a few of us were in tears by the end of the night.
However, our last stop was definitely the most memorable one. The Thiepval Memorial in Authville has 72,000 names engraved onto its walls, all belonging to British and South African soldiers who don’t have graves; some girls searched through the record books and found names of their ancestors. Surrounded by thousands of names we were all shocked by the sheer scale of death that was caused, all of whom died between 1916 and 1918. There were few dry eyes in the crowd of Wycombe Abbey girls as we stood in silence, in the centre of the Memorial, until Alain proclaimed that we should do what those brave soldiers could not, and go home.
I don’t think there were any of us who didn’t enjoy every second of our time in Ypres, and we were all so grateful that we had such wonderful guides with insiders’ perspectives and personal stories that made us really begin to see what war is really like. This trip was filled with laughter, tears and borrowed reminiscence – and is undoubtedly one that will stay in our minds.