After six months of cold winter in the South of England, Blue Heeler departed the UK for Continental Europe. Making good use of the favourable tides and weather we traveled 100nm in 15 hours to arrive at Dover Marina’s tidal basin before dark.
Although we are into our eighth year living aboard as ‘world travelers’, I must confess we have only been to Europe on two prior visits – France for two weeks in 1994 and Amsterdam for an even briefer stay in 1998. Both times, of course, without the boat.
But unlike remote places like Chagos, St Helena or Madagascar, Europe is no real mystery. Let’s face it – most people have a general knowledge of the variety of cultures and could probably recognise key landmarks of any major city in Europe. The great thing about travelling by boat is that we often travel away from the masses and see places from a different perspective.
Crossing the 20nm Strait of Dover on Sunday 1st April was a good day to travel. As we left we had a good view of the famous white cliffs.
I was surprised by the lack of ships. Yes, we saw a few but none were close enough to cause angst. I thought the narrow Singapore strait was far busier.
The day was calm and the sky hazy as we motored directly across the shipping lanes before heading east until we reached Dunkerque, France. Here we took a berth at the Port du Grand Large on the eastern bank of the Port of Dunkerque. Our last trip to France was in 1994. Now, that is a whole other story (ask me about it one day) but that two weeks we spent with friends Cecilia and Charlie was incredible and we saw much of Paris and south to Bourges.
Dunkerque is a great place to stop by boat – the marina has all the mod-cons, plus we could walk into the town (15 minutes), or catch the pink town bus from the marina and take a journey farther afield.
Dunkerque is known for the biggest evacuation in military history. In 1940 allied soldiers retreated to Dunkerque from the German advance. Over 338,000 allied soldiers were evacuated to England by land, air and sea during 26th May to 4th June 1940 during World War II.
This amazing event was known as Operation Dynamo – all types of vessels from the UK – military, fishing, pleasure – whether by order or volunteered, came to the shallow waters of the beaches of Dunkerque to transport soldiers to the relative safety of the UK.
All around Dunkerque are informative signs with photos of the destruction around the harbour during World War II. Along the shoreline nowadays are restaurants, cafes and shops, and workers busy constructing paved roads in preparation for the influx of summer crowds to the beachfront.
Wayne was particularly interested in visiting the Australian memorial at Fromelles and Ypres in Belgium so we hired a car for a few days and drove around the north of France.
From Dunkerque, Ypres is 55kms to the east in Belgium, while Fromelles is 75kms to the south. Heading east it’s not long until you cross the border into Belgium. The highways are good and the terrain is very flat. Today the ploughed fields are sodden from recent rains.
The two photos below show the horror and destruction of this region during the Great War.
The “In Flanders Fields” museum in Ypres is located on the first floor of the old Cloth Hall, originally built in the early 1300s. During the Great War this building (and everything around it) was decimated. During the period between 1933 and 1967 the hall, astoundingly, was rebuilt to it’s pre-war condition. Compare the photos below – one I took of Cloth Hall today with that of an old photo taken after the war. Driving out of Ypres, the huge Menin Gate Memorial honours over 55,000 missing.
The Cloth Hall of Ypres at the end of the Great War; today the renovated hall houses the “In Flanders Museum”.
In Flanders Fields
By John McCrae – a Canadian doctor
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
In the fields between Ypres and Fromelles there are many, many cemeteries dedicated to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in that terrible war. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission manages and cares for the memorials and cemeteries in this region and around the world.
Each museum we visited displayed the horror of trench warfare and chemical warfare through ghastly images and photographs of broken bodies, mud and destruction.
At the nearby town of Zonnebeke is the Passchendaele Memorial Museum dedicated to those who fell at the Battle of Passchendaele. This museum also has many artefacts of both wars and a walk-through replica of the types of trenches constructed by both sides. Grisly gas masks and deadly weapons engineered to shoot from the trenches are on display.
At the exit of the Passchaendale memorial museum a haunting sculpture of outstretched arms “Falls the Shadow” interprets the ghastly horror of Flanders Fields.
Close to Zonnebeke is the remarkable Tyne Cot Cemetery. Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery on mainland Europe – home for 11,956 soldiers and a memorial to a further 35,000 missing soldiers. Inscribed at the base of the simple headstones of unidentified soldiers are the words “Known Only Unto God”.
The Australian Memorial Park Fromelles is located about 35kms south of Ypres. A dedication at the park recognises all British nations, not just Aussies, who were called to arms to die for ‘King and Country’.The Battle of Fromelles on 19/20 July 1916 is described below:
“The Battle of Fromelles was the first action on the Western Front and proved disastrous. It is regarded as the worst 24 hours in Australian military history. Of these over 5,500 Australian casualties, there were 500 prisoners of war and almost 2,000 dead. In one night at Fromelles the Australian casualties were equivalent to those in the Boer, Korean and Vietnam Wars, combined”.
Perched in an ordinary field is an ordinary sign which indicates the German front line of July 1916. Nearby is the V.C. Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial where over 400 bodies are buried – bodies found in the battle fields after the armistice – two years after they died. The ‘Cobbers’ statue at this place is by Peter Corlett of Melbourne and dedicated to the men who fought and fell at the Battle of Fromelles. I believe there is now a duplicate statue located at The Shrine in Melbourne, Australia.
“In the days following the battle rescuers recovered some 300 wounded from no-man’s land. As one soldier carried a wounded companion from the field he heard a call for help.
Don’t forget me, cobber”
Looking out across the ploughed fields as we drive back, we can only imagine the hell that took place in a war that ended 100 years ago.
They are not forgotten.
For the Fallen
This moving tribute was written in 1914 English poet Laurence Binyon, overwhelmed by the carnage and loss of life by British and Allied forces in World War 1.
The highlighted verse is recited at ANZAC Day dawn services and known as the Ode of Remembrance.
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal,
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation,
And a glory that shines upon her tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables at home;
They have no lot in our labour of the daytime;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known,
As the stars are known to the night.
As the stars will be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.