11 December 2007

The Western Front

Whose graves are known only to god

On the weekend of Armistice Day I went with some pals for a quick Eurostar visit to some of the sites associated with the Western Front in the First World War. Travelling with Steve and Fiona and their friend Helen, we took one of the last Eurostar trains out of Waterloo on the Friday morning, buzzing through the southeastern suburbs of London and then skimming across the open fields of Kent. In about an hour and a half we had sped through the Channel Tunnel and arrived at Lille in northern France, where we collected our rental car. We decided to upgrade to a Prius, which only cost a little more and had three things going for it: it was more spacious, it was cheaper to fuel, and it had a whizzy talking satnav console in the dashboard, which would make navigating easier. As soon as we worked it out, that is.

In no time we were driving north from Lille through the broad flat plains of northern France, a collection of wealthy farms punctuated by little old rural towns, each with a town square and a war memorial. Then almost without noticing, we passed from France into Belgium. We entered a roundabout in France and emerged from it in Belgium, with a small roadside sign and a helpful exclamation from the sat-nav voice a minute later: “you have just crossed a border”. Belgium looks the same as France, unsurprisingly.

We found our motel on the outskirts of Ypres (otherwise known as Ieper), dumped our gear, and spun into the town centre for a look. Despite being pummelled to pieces by the massed artillery of both sides of the First World War, the centre of Ypres is a picture of prosperity and stylishly reconstructed architecture. Its sweeping rectangular market square is ringed with grand buildings filled with restaurants, cafes and hotels. The whole scene is presided over by the imperiously ostentatious Cloth Hall, originally constructed in the 13th century, which is Europe’s largest secular medieval building. That’s if you don’t count the fact that it was rebuilt from smithereens after the war. Inside, the wealthy merchants of northern Europe used to gather to barter and haggle, conducting business in the purpose-built double-seated alcoves arrayed along the axis of the hall in a playful counterpoint to the ever-present imposing naves and cloisters of dozens of cathedrals across Europe. Here in Ypres the cathedral was located behind the Cloth Hall, hidden from view from the market square, showing that in this city at least, the pursuit of money was a higher concern than spirituality. Atop the many pinnacles of the Hall stand proud gold statues of burghers bearing cats, in honour of the town’s feline festival (the Kattenstoet), in which locals gather to catch stuffed toy cats flung by a jester from the Cloth Hall’s belfry.

Before sunset we returned to the car and drove a short way north of town to the sloping fields now known as Tyne Cot, which act as a memorial to the many thousands of soldiers who lost their lives at nearby Passchendaele during the war. During the war Tyne Cot was a field of blood – the remains of stern German machinegun bunkers punctuate the cemetery walls. Now the fields perform the solemn deed of commemoration.

Some 35,000 lives are honoured at the memorial, rank upon rank of white stone grave markers surrounding a lone cross bearing the inscription ‘Their names liveth for evermore’. As we approached, the pale sun struggled to breach the rolling walls of thick grey clouds over the memorial, casting firm shafts of light through gaps here and there. There was a hint of hail in the icy breeze whipping amongst the gravestones. But the graves are not why I’m visiting Tyne Cot. Walking past the graves and the solemn cross, the back of the site is marked by two sweeping curved walls, each ten feet high. The surface of the walls is peppered with name after name, neatly engraved and densely packed. These are the names of the men who were never found, the men who died in the mud and fear of the Battle of Passchendaele, in what now is a peaceful rural scene skirted by wheatfields and small cottages.

In the very centre of this wall there is a section devoted to the New Zealand dead. A centrepiece proclaims:

‘Here are recorded the names of officers and men of NEW ZEALAND who fell in the battle of Broodseinde and the first battle of Passchendaele, October 1917, and whose graves are known only to god’

There are many of our names here, because these battles were the most ruinous to ever afflict our country: far worse than the misery of Gallipoli. On a single day, 12 October 1917, the New Zealand Division suffered more than 2800 casualties. This crippling loss was doubly cruel, both in that it had a massive impact on a country with a population of barely one million, but also in that the losses were incurred for no useful military success; at Passchendaele on 12 October 1917 the terrible slaughter achieved nothing other than destroying much of the youth of a faraway island nation.

And that day held a certain importance for me. On the last panel of the New Zealand section, in the area reserved for the unfound casualties of the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade, amidst the Rosses, Pearces, Smiths and Tattersalls, there is one engraved name in particular:


Rifleman Eric Claude Tucker, my grandfather’s uncle, was born in Clive, Hawkes Bay. It’s halfway between Napier and Hastings on the main road; few stop there now except to buy an icecream en route to bigger and better places. One of the few sights in the tiny rundown town is its little war memorial by the bridge. The Tucker clan was plentiful here – there is even a street named after us. But there are many Tucker names on the war memorial too, so perhaps that’s why no-one calls Clive ‘Tuckertown’ like they used to back in the day.

Eric would have grown up in tough times, simply because everyone did in those days. He served with D Company in the Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, until the first day of the futile Passchendaele offensive. Then he met his end, and his body was never found. He was only 28. My grandfather, who had already been named Claude after his uncle, was less than a year old at the time, and had probably never met the man. Such was the impact of the death, the family named a second Tucker boy after Eric Claude: my grandfather’s younger brother Eric, born in 1920.

Now Eric Claude Tucker’s name sits alongside the names of hundreds of other New Zealanders, a testament to the willingness of young men from a callow but brave nation to circle the globe to fight in a war of others’ making. The other New Zealand memorials of the Western Front all bear the same epitaph, as befitting the loss of those who came so far only to perish, the tyranny of distance having afforded them no protection:

From the uttermost ends of the earth

We drove from Tyne Cot a short distance to another cemetery at Polygon Wood, where more New Zealanders were commemorated. A small farm paddock bordered the site, and a solitary donkey patrolled the fence line in the hope of a friendly pat or a stray carrot. (We offered the first, but lacked the second). Across the road was the much larger cemetery of 5 Australian Division – a hilltop obelisk overlooking a field of white gravestones below.

In the early evening we returned to Ypres for the nightly ceremony at the Menin Gate, where buglers have played the Last Post every night since 1928, apart from a few years during the Second World War. Hundreds had turned out for the occasion, and lined the interior of the Gate, which is engraved with thousands of names of casualties. The town’s brass band marched up the main street to the Gate accompanied by a small parade a platoon of British Army cadets, and a brace of skirling bagpipers. After the solemn Last Post and a wreath-laying ceremony in the Gate, the crowd dispersed and we went off for dinner in a nearby café. Soon it was time to return to our motel and crash for the night.

Their name liveth for evermore

The next morning we enjoyed the superb breakfast on offer at the motel and then visited Ypres to look at the Saturday market in the square and visit a museum. While the air was chilly, the market was appealing, with many locals emerging to get their weekly produce shopping. If the number of displays was anything to go buy, the locals purchase an inordinately large number of socks. We bucked the trend, making repeated visits to the stand selling boxes of Belgian chocolates for a mere €1. Then we ventured inside the Cloth Hall, which now hosts the In Flanders Fields Museum dedicated to remembering the hardship and heroism of the First World War. Each visitor to the museum is given a ticket with the details of a real participant in the war, male or female, and as you proceed through the museum you learn a little more of their story. Mine was a 19 year old artilleryman named Lancelot from Tasmania, who lost his life near Messines Ridge in 1917. There were also some interesting stories from the participants:

Captain James Dunn, Medical Officer of 2 Royal Welch Fusiliers, described an encounter between an officer and a member of the Fiji Labour Company, all volunteers without pay and all over 6 feet tall. The officer said ‘good morning’ to a man “with a great mop of hair, clad in a loin cloth, scrubbing a dixie. The savage replied, ‘good morning’, and spoke pure English. Asked to account for it, he said he was a Cambridge graduate, a barrister, and a member of Lincoln’s Inn”

Taking our leave of Ypres, we drove a short distance south to visit the New Zealand memorial at Messines Ridge. Here at 3.10am on 7 June 1917, a German salient was destroyed and 10,000 German soldiers lost their lives in a moment, when 19 mines comprising 600 tons of explosives were detonated beneath their position. The night before, the British commander of the mining action, Gen Herbert Plumer, remarked to his staff officers:

Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.

The mighty explosion was heard as far away as Dublin (680km away). Afterwards, the New Zealand Division was one of the nine divisions in Plumer’s Second Army, that advanced to take its objectives and push back the front line 2000 yards.

Driving further south, we stopped in the centre of busy little Armentieres and enjoyed a fabulous lunch from a small patisserie, including superb baguettes and delicious chocolate cake, washed down with the traditional Orangina (even if Coca Cola does own it now).

We took a detour up to Vimy Ridge to take in the views and admire the solemn Canadian memorial atop it. The summit of Vimy Ridge is still pockmarked with shell craters and collapsed trenches, which are now covered with a dense forest of tall pines that have grown since the Armistice. Large areas of the trenches remain roped off with warning signs, as unexploded ordnance still remains beneath the surface. The monument on Vimy Ridge is visible for many kilometres, a great stone tusk piercing the grey sky, honouring the memory of the 65,000 Canadians who lost their lives in the war.

Next we visited two cemeteries containing New Zealand casualties: Longueval and Caterpillar Valley. Longueval is a tiny patch of immaculate grass fringed by an arc of tall pines, the only distinguishing feature in the middle of vast farm pastures. Caterpillar Valley is larger, and its roll of missing soldiers includes one of the dozen ex-All Blacks who died in the First World War.

As the light faded, we drove to our accommodation for the night in the town of Cambrai. We were staying on the outskirts of town in a Formule 1 budget hotel, a likeable French institution known for its bright primary colours, communal showers and cheap prices (our rooms cost only €29 each). We finished the day with a café meal, and while the service was relatively slow, my ice cream sundae for dessert was absolutely superb.

A town that holds New Zealand dear

In the morning we breakfasted in the bright red hotel lobby, and then drove into Cambrai for a brief wander around the largely deserted town streets. We enjoyed the sturdy medieval gatehouse built in 1390, the 11th-century cathedral with its spire almost invisible beneath a bird’s nest of scaffolding, and an ostentatious Jesuit chapel across the road, dating from the late 17th century. Pausing only to stock up with pastries for later from a busy patisserie, we then pointed the Prius eastwards towards our next stop, Le Quesnoy, pausing en route only twice. First, for a quick bathroom stop in a village tabac – from which Steve and Helen emerged holding their noses to ward off the ever-present tobacco smoke, and Steve was mildly scandalised by his encounter with a genuine French pissoire, which exhibit somewhat lower standards of privacy than we Anglo-Saxons are generally used to. Second, we paused in another small village while a few dozen locals staged their Armistice Day march with band playing and tricoleurs flying.

Our destination for Armistice Day was the lovely little town of Le Quesnoy, which is famed for its immaculately preserved fortifications, and for its strong bond with New Zealand, for it was New Zealand soldiers that liberated the town from German occupation in 1918 and saved its walls from the usual battering reserved for occupied fortifications. But if you want to read all about that and see a few pictures, the best way to do that is in the article I wrote about the day for Scoop.

After our highly enjoyable visit to Le Quesnoy, all that remained was to drive the 68km back to Lille. We parked in a central underground carpark and hit the streets to explore, admiring the spacious town square fringed with elegant buildings, sifting through old French newspapers and maps in a market, and casting an eye at a bustling ski expo in an impressive hall.

Before long it was time to return our trusty rental car. This proved to be harder than we’d expected, because the usually peerless satnav couldn’t direct us through the complicated motorway interchanges near the Lille railway station, and once we did manage to get the car in the right place and pointing in the right direction, we managed to park it in the wrong parking building (which was adjacent to, similarly named and completely identical to the right one).

Eventually we sorted ourselves out and trundled ourselves on foot back into the restaurant district of Lille, where we enjoyed our last meal on French soil and discussed our enjoyable weekend away. The Eurostar awaited, and all that remained was a quick UK customs and security process before we boarded the train. It turned out that the English woman on the desk used the same line on all of us when she saw our passport visas: ‘Highly Skilled, eh? So what are you highly skilled in, then?’ Well, that’s a rather subjective question, I would’ve thought, but she let us all back in, so I guess we must’ve given the right answer somehow.

Trip photos (Facebook)
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