Our summer holiday this year took us to Belgium. As with the previous three years, we swapped houses with a family and it was their suggestion that led to this swap, we took this as a sure sign we needed to do the things we had planned. We stayed about 25 km to the east of Bruges and this of course was the opportunity to tick off two items on the list.
Firstly I will explain why I wanted to re-visit Belgium. For four and a half years, from being nearly 6 years old to 10 years old, I lived on the outskirts of Brussels. I have fond memories of living there and have been back once before but that now is also many years ago. This time I could take my daughter and show her where I used to live. My husband, his two children and I spent a full two weeks in the house, Lauren joined us from her home in Denmark for 5 days. The four of us headed to Brussels Airport at Zaventem to pick her up. We were subject to security checks and x-rays on our way into the airport, but with the bombing of the airport so recent that is hardly surprising. Lauren duly arrived and our first meal was dry bread and cheese on the benches at the airport – we know how to show a girl a good time!
The weather wasn’t good on the day, but we didn’t let that put us off, well not too much anyway. Stomachs filled we headed off to my old stomping ground, only a short drive from the airport. Driving down my old road was odd, familiar yet unfamiliar at the same time, and it certainly seemed much shorter. The one solidly familiar landmark was the garage across the road from our house. I remember how the light of the sign used to shine through my curtains. And there was my house…almost exactly as I remembered it but with a new front door. Well, I suppose the other one wasn’t new when we moved in and that was over 40 years ago so some change is inevitable. Our house was a three storey town house, with one more before the end of the terrace. However, now there are a further two houses on the end, very different in style but joined onto what was our neighbour’s house all the same.
From there we drove into the centre of Brussels, going past the park where we used to go, particular memories of sledging down its slopes. We drove under the Cinquantenaire a landmark I remember well and past the European Parliament buildings. These are all new now and very different from the curved faced ones from when I was there. In Brussels the rain came down quite heavily but we still braved it to see the Manneken Pis, pictured, and the Grand Place. Wet and weary we then headed back to our holiday home.
This break also enabled us to go to Ypres. Linked of course to the Poppies in the moat (number 2) but also to the work my husband has been doing on Tommy’s Footprints. This is about the training camp at our local park, set up by the Duke of Bedford between 1914 and 1916. Over 2300 men trained there, over 700 never returned. For this visit, we focused on those lost on the night of 19-20 April 1916 defending the canal leading into Ypres itself.
We went to the Flanders Fields museum first which gave a history of the war in the Flanders region and where our local men were sent to fight. From there we headed to the Essex Farm Cemetery. Located alongside the canal where they fought, this cemetery served to bury those killed just a few feet away. We knew six of the men who had trained at the camp were buried here and set about locating their graves and leaving a small cross on which we had added their name and the name of the camp in remembrance. Others from the Bedfordshire Regiment were buried alongside our six. The cemetery is host to 1097 known casualties and standing there among the graves of these fallen men was a truly humbling experience. To know that this was just a fraction of those killed in Flanders, let alone across the whole war, was heartbreaking and to see that the youngest in the cemetery was but 15 years old, brought home the waste of so many young and vibrant men and boys. For more information on Tommy’s Footprints, please go to the Facebook page.
This is where the Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae served as surgeon, the dugouts where he tended the wounded still there. It must have been a very grim experience, noted by the poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, written my McCrae after the funeral of a fellow soldier and friend. McCrae himself did not survive the war.
From here we headed back into Ypres and to the Menin Gate. Another gut wrenching moment when the enormity of the loss is illustrated by the names on the inside of the gate. Soldiers, of all ranks, from Great Britain and the Commonwealth are remembered here, 54 389 men whose bodies were never identified or indeed so torn apart that nothing remained. We found a further 13 of the men who trained locally here and had perished that same night. Every evening at 8pm, the Last Post is sounded at the Menin Gate and we stayed for this moving ceremony. Every night since 1928 (excepting the 6 years of WWII) this act of remembrance has filled the early evening. On the day we were there, air cadets from Swadlincote were taking part in the ceremony. The Last Post was sounded, wreaths were laid, the poem for the fallen recited and finally the Reveille sounded to end the ceremony. It was all very dignified and, while on the one hand nothing anyone can do could alleviate the hell of the time, it felt a fitting tribute that has lasted and will continue to last for years to come.
On this holiday, we also went to the site of the Battle of Waterloo. One hundred years before WWI, it also painfully highlighted the destructive nature of war. This is a site I had visited as a child, but much has changed, not least because of the bicentenary in 2015. The 3D film showing key points in the battle and our visit to Hougoumont Farm, the British and allied headquarters and site of much blood shed depicted the horror that all sides endured. The original crucifix in the chapel at the farm, charred and with one leg burnt away, looks down on the now peaceful site with sorrow.