Wednesday 20 and Thursday 21 May
The journey upstream down (south) to Ieper (only Ypres if you are French or Wipers if you are a Pom) was uneventful and once we turned off the River IJzer and onto the IJzer Ieper canal we were between avenues of Linden trees and deep into countryside marred only by the sounds of paintball guns going off in order to frighten the birds from the fruit and seed – considering the area we were travelling through, it was a trifle jarring. But a charming, slow motion cruise on a mild and sunny day it was.
Ieper marina has what one needs by way of mooring, showers (€2 for 8 minutes)and toilets but it is not in a very salubrious part of town and the havenmeester, with his toothless smile and habit of always positioning himself where he could see down the hatch into the boat or, if that was closed, through our back saloon window, we found to be a bit odd…
Every year since 1928, with an interruption from 1940 to 1944 during the German occupation, buglers have played the Last Post at the Menin Gate in remembrance of the fallen Empire soldiers of the Great War – the names of 54,896 soldiers are inscribed on the walls including those of South Africans who served in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Regiments, South African Infantry as well as a few from the South African Heavy Artillery Regiment.
So after a visit to the rather moving Essex Farm Cemetery and field hospital where John McCrae was supposed to have composed his poem “In Flanders Field”
|The grave of one of the youngest soldiers to have died on the Allies side - 15 year old Rfn Valentine Strudwick|
|A field hospital ward.|
we set off to watch the ceremony at Menin Gate
– and very moving it was, with four buglers playing the Last Post in perfect time and the Colour being drooped despite the efforts of the abjectly rude 'picture whore' (professional photographer) who, despite being politely requested and then almost warned by officials to back off, continued to block others’ view including almost interrupting the solemn dedication with his crass behaviour.
|Colour Sergeant representing the British Legion|
|Even the UN peacekeepers were there.|
But there were many a tearful eye...
The next day we took bikes to Hill 62/The Sanctuary Wood Museum
and the Crater Museum; the collection of old 3D photographs at Sanctuary Wood graphically depicting battlefield conditions moved us more than words can describe and after this we were emotionally ‘warred out’.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Wilfred Owen - Thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March 1918
Coffee at the Crater Museum was the only highlight of tht institution being in the mood we were.
From here on we will put WWI behind us and move on to ‘joie de vie’.