Cities / Towns Visited: 7
Countries Visited: 4
Steps Taken Today: 15,838
Steps Taken Around the World: 571,759
It is important to remember the past, to study it, to assess its flaws in the desire to never repeat its mistakes, but also to respect the actions and sacrifices of those who came before us. With this in mind we rose early and after gorging on breakfast, as to not have to interrupt our full day with the trouble of locating lunch, we caught a tram, a train, and a bus, until finally we reached the Passchendaele Memorial Museum in a small town just outside of Ypres (pronounced eeper) in southern Belgium. This area, for those who aren’t well versed in war history, was where some of the fierce and deadliest fighting on the western front occurred 100 years ago this year. The cost of life here was high on both sides, with hundreds of thousands killed or wounded, and an especially high death toll for Australian and New Zealand troops, who at the time were small and young countries who had never been represented in a large scale war before. Today would be our pilgrimage to pay our respects to our countrymen who paid the ultimate price so that we may live safe and free.
The museum, once the large group of assignment wielding, shouting teens moved along, was fascinating. The starts runs you through the war, all the way from the start where they quickly realised that their old methods of fighting were no longer suitable, that bright red coats needed to be replaced by khaki, that the cavalry is no match for machine guns, and that quick advances would need to be made if they were to survive the equally fast advancement of gas based warfare. It then moved into all aspects of the western front, and the battles in and around Passchendaele, including a stirring documentary showing various photos from the battles and explaining how the allies attacked and pushed the German forces back. From huge displays of ammunition; to alcoves dedicated to Australian, New Zealander, Canadian, and South African troops; from story’s of great heroism, to the tragic tales of injured soldiers falling into artillery induced mud holes never to resurface; there is something about it all that touches your soul, as if you lost something you never knew was there, like it is a personal grief despite not having a family connection to the century old assault.
From here you carry on into a more immersive display, with a replica dugout, and a series of replica trenches, so that you may see the cramped, harsh conditions the soldiers endured for months on end. Once those ahead of you rounded the corners, and you stood alone in the trench, in the silence, you can almost hear the yelling of commands, the ceaseless shelling, the calls of the wounded; you can almost smell the smoke, and feel the fear in the air; and as you pop your head up past the sand bags you almost expect your life to be snatched away by the accuracy of a German sniper.
The last part of the museum addresses the part which we most like to forget; the aftermath. The families who would never see their dear ones again, or that had to endeavour to support those who would never recover fully from the traumas of what they witnessed. The slow healing of a world as the smoked cleared, barely long enough before the next war broke out. And a display of those famous names we forget had to face wars and fight in them; Walt Disney, JRR Tolkien, AA Milne, just to name a few. As we left to continue on to our next destination, it was with sombre and thankful hearts.
Tyne Cot Cemetery, the world’s largest collection of Commonwealth war graves, was to be our next stop, and we decided it was best to walk the path which now runs along the old train route which one delivered vital supplies and ammunition to the allied forces on the front. As we meandered along the unnaturally flat landscape it became obvious as to why this terrain would have been nigh on impossible to traverse once churned up into deadly potholes of quicksand-like mud by the power of the artillery, and why so many lost their lives in craters they had created. As we walked passed a farm, the remains of an old trench, now filled with water, peaked up from the corner of a field. This land, which looks so peaceful on its surface, is so scarred below. These farms grow food above, but below it is nothing more than a graveyard. The roots of these trees wrap around bone and gun alike, holding them firmly in their grasps.
Finally we rounded a corner and up above the walls we could see the cross that marks the centre of Tyne Cot. As we skirted the wall to the visitor centre, we were met, as all are, by the sombre and haunting voice of a young girl, reading out the names and ages of those who reside in the cemetery, or are memorialised here. Name after name rings out, as constant as a drum, ages eat at your heart ’18, 19, 20' they were so young; they thought it all an adventure as they signed their names on the other side of the world, and yet they lie here so far from home, never to return, never to live the lives they should have, the lives they deserved. I held back the tears, I wanted to be strong for them, strong for those who had such strength for us. We left the centre, ready to face the cemetery, but as we walked into Tyne Cot I felt wholly unprepared. Grave after grave, a sea of white stones spread out before me, the majority nameless, simply marked ‘A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God’, a lucky few with their country marked. Just when you think there is nothing sadder than seeing thousands of graves filled with bodies of nameless men who sacrificed their lives, you turn around and the wall spreads out around you, panel after panel, tens of thousands of names, of men who’s bodies were never found, men who’s families never had the closure of a burial; and these are only the names of British, Scottish and New Zealander troops. Walking along I found countless men who share my surname, and upon finding my own initials inscribed, I could no longer be strong. I am not ashamed to say I cried, overwhelmed by the thought that, had I been born 100 years earlier these names could have been my family members, my friends. I’m on the other side of the world, but that’s way too close to home. Eventually the heavens opened and the rain pattered down as we took one last aggrieved look behind us, our hearts heavy, but extremely grateful for the sacrifice of the men we left behind.
After catching the bus back to Ypres we scurried through the rain to make one last quick but important stop; the Menin Gate. This has originally been the first memorial built to hold the names of those missing soldiers, but it was quickly discovered that all the names would not fit, thus the other 35,000 names are listed at Tyne Cot. On every wall of the gate are etched the names of Australian and British troops who were never recovered. My countrymen who, even in death, would never return to their homeland. The Last Post is performed everyday at the Menin Gate, at 8pm, but as we had a 2 hour trek back to the hostel we decided to have a quick dinner of traditional Flemish stew at a nearby hotel before heading home. Besides, in just a couple of weeks we would be hearing the bugle play out in the cold dawn air at ANZAC Cove.
As I settled into bed, I took a moment to, once again, be thankful for the price paid by all of those men who marched bravely off to war. To learn about our history is important, and something I feel our education system skimps on. I remember choosing history as an elective in high school and wondering why it wasn’t compulsory. Even with the elected units, I have still learnt more in the last few weeks of travelling about history, across several countries and eras, than I ever did in the thirteen years of my structured learning. I hope that as those younger than me grow, they are instilled with an urge to travel and learn, to fill in the gaps where our formal teaching fails us, and in learning endeavour to prevent the recurrence of the monstrous events which have scarred our world. May we, in our personal education, dedicate ourselves to being better, and strive to leave the world in a better state than whence we found it.