Having experienced a 40 hour journey from when we left Sydney to going to bed in Amsterdam, AND then a 5 train traverse across Netherlands, Belgium and into France, we finally met up with Michael, Shoshanna and Amaya at Dunkerque. It was amazing to see the long stretch of flat beach that formed the backdrop to Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the 340,000 British and French forces over a 9 day period in May 1940.
As we rode from Dunkerque the next day, on our first day of riding, the presence of war experiences, whether World War 1or 2 was very close. The senselessness of war is brought home so acutely when you ride through the Western Front of World War 1.
After 2 nights in the beautiful medieval village of Veurne, with its towering church tower and cobbled central square; a taste of the world’s best beer, brewed by monks at St Sixtus Abbey; and battling some cold winds we finally bumped our way into Ypres (Ieper). Amaya really does not like the cobblestone streets that are a feature of so many European villages, and calls out to Papa to stop the bumps!!
We were so confronted with the horrors of World War 1 when we visited the IN THE FLANDERS FIELDS MUSEUM at Ypres. One has to wonder why in Australia, so much emphasis is placed on the 8 month campaign in Gallipoli, where eight and a half thousand ANZACs lost their lives, yet here on the Western Front 8,020 Australians were killed in one day! Personal stories were related in moving accounts. The one that particularly impacted on me was the story told by a Scottish, Belgium, French and German soldiers of Christmas Eve when they were all singing Silent Night in their separate muddy, rat infested hell holes. The Scottish soldier told how, when he met up with the Germans, he had a photo taken of the two ‘enemies’ arm in arm. The photo was in the glass cabinet. The stories of a doctor and 2 nurses were just beyond comprehension…death, amputation, blood and gore, and the overwhelming stupidity of the conflict.
We rode out to Hill 60. This was a German outpost that had been tunnelled under by Australian coal miners from the Hunter Valley. The blast was so loud that the explosion was heard in London. We walked around the crater and bunkers and had a delightful picnic lunch on soil that had 17,000 bodies of German and Allied soldiers lying beneath – Bizarre!
As we returned to Ypres, we stopped at another deceptively peaceful site – 4 interlinking pools with a quaint little bridge. Again these were a remnant of past horrors. In the grounds of a mock Tudor style B&B there are genuine WW1 trenches, spent artillery, canisters used in chemical warfare and the craters from WW1 explosions now forming the serene pools of our distant time.
On two of the evenings we were in Ypres, I went down to the Menin Gate. At 8pm and every night since the end of WW1 (except for the years of WW2) the Last Post is played and wreaths laid to honour the 54,896 soldiers who were killed in WW1 and whose bodies were never found.
The enormity of the carnage was really brought home when we stopped at the Tyne Cot cemetery at Passchendale. 11,965 graves are located here, making it the biggest Commonwealth cemetery in the world. A further 34,857 names that could not fit on the Menin Gate are inscribed on huge semi circular walls.
‘The thought that Jock died for his country is no comfort to me, his memory is all I have left to love’, Lieutenant John Low’s fiancée wrote on 18 January, 1918.
The next two days of riding have been along back lanes through Belgium farms until again arriving at another typical medieval town of Gent.
We are gradually getting stronger although it is hard to keep up with Michael and Shoshanna’s pace. They are carrying heavier loads than us and we are amazed at their tenacity in all kinds of weather. Fortunately Sumer has arrived and the Belgium’s are embracing the warm weather with a vengeance….and sunburn!