We woke to grey skies which was a bit disappointing after the glorious sunshine back in the UK yesterday. We’re now an hour ahead of UK time so at 9am local time when we headed off into Ypres it was really 8am UK time. It was only a ten minute walk along the side of the moat up to the Menin Gate which leads through the old walls into the city. Unfortunately it started to drizzle which was disappointing.
The Menin Gate memorial is a large arched structure that forms a tunnel & carries stone plaques with the names of more than 54,000 soldiers who died in Belgium & have no known grave. Since 1928 the Last Post has been sounded there every evening at 8pm. Only during the Second World War was the ceremony interrupted. It is also the centre of the annual Armistice parade that marches through the city from the Cathedral.
The Armistice March ends at the Memorial with a ceremony including the Minute’s Silence, wreath laying, the Last Post & prayers. The area inside the big arched monument is reserved for invited guests only. Some were already taking their places nearly two hours before the March was due to arrive. We were allowed to pass through under the arch on our way to the Cathedral via the big city square. We stopped off at a stall beside the city hall run by volunteers from TOC H who were dolling out free cups of tea. The TOC H Christian movement started during the First World War & was known for providing comfort to soldiers of all ranks.
As we made our way around to the Cathedral we could hear bagpipes & drums playing despite the drizzle having turned to rain by now. At the Cathedral there were quite a few groups forming up together with various marching bands. There were many nationalities represented including a group of UK police dressed in ceremonial uniforms, Gurkhas, Sikhs, Scots & others.
Our plan was to join the Poppy Parade which is just ordinary civilians such as us who are encouraged to walk along at the rear of the March. Artificial Poppy petals are given to everyone who joins in the March & then these are later placed into a basket at the Gate. These are then dropped like rain through openings at the top of the monument later in the ceremony.
Somehow at the end of the March when we got to the monument we got mixed in with some of the VIPs & ended up under the arched roof. Unable to see how to get out we discretely slipped under one of the guard ropes & tried to look innocent. We ended up beside the Press area in the centre close to where the wreaths were later laid. Couldn’t have worked it better if I had tried, first class view of everything. A very moving experience.
The most poignant thing for me was at the end of the ceremony as everyone was making their way out. During the ceremony the Poppy petals had been dropped through the three round openings in the roof & had fluttered in their hundreds to the road below. I noticed as I left that these had fallen into the roadside gutters & mixed with the rain water. The red dye had washed out of the petals making it look as if the gutters were running with blood. Very sobering.
We headed back to the motorhome for a hot cuppa & some dry clothes before heading out of the city to meet up with a group of Belgian geocachers who were holding a “meet & greet” commemorative event at a nearby pub/restaurant. A couple of other UK geocachers we know we’re attending so we thought we would pop along & join in as we were so close.
The owner/landlord of the establishment has been raising money to build a memorial near his establishment. It is almost ready and they are waiting for a brass statue that is coming from Australia to finish it off. The story is very emotional & is about two brothers who died in the First World War. I have taken some excerpts from the “Brothers in Arms” web site so I am adding them here:-
This story is that typical “message in a bottle” story. Although it is all but typical. Never before did a message contain that great a story.
During road works to lay a new gas pipe line in the hamlet of Westhoek in 2006, Tom Heyman, operating the machine, suddenly stopped digging and called Johan Vandewalle, an amateur archaeologist. Tom was convinced that he had found human remains just beside the road, and immediately linked them to the battlefield that Westhoek once was. Johan rushed over and could only confirm that these remains had to be those of a World War I soldier. He contacted the police and the Mayor of Zonnebeke, and got green light from Dieter Demey and Archeo 7 to gather a team and start excavating as soon as possible.
It would be an amazing experience for all of them. After clearing the first grave, they noticed another grave just next to the first one. And then another, and another, and another. In total 5 Australian soldiers were exhumed. The last Australian body, however, was to make an everlasting impression on all who were involved. This fifth body was that of Australian private John Hunter.
In all, three of the five soldiers would be identified by DNA research.
The body of John Hunter was not thrown in the grave like the other four bodies. Clearly this man had not been buried like the others, someone had taken great care in laying John Hunter to rest. Research led to the family in Australia, who confirmed that the story in the family was that John – or Jack as he was known in the family – had been buried by his younger brother Jim.
When Johan uncovered John’s head, which was wrapped in his ground sheet, it was as if lightning struck. Johan looked straight in John eyes and with the sunlight in the right angle, Johan could clearly see the colour of John’s eyes. It was an instant moment, but it lasted long enough to be photographed. At the time only Johan experienced this awesome moment, but the photographs will certainly move generations to come.
About the Hunter brothers
John Hunter was the eldest of 7 sons of Henry and Emily Hunter from Nanango, Queensland. Father Henry’s health was deteriorating and the boys needed to help out in the sawmill their father ran. 25-year-old Jim wanted to join the military to fight in Europe. He volunteered on 23rd October 1916. As older brother (and close friend) John thought it his duty to protect his younger brother and volunteered as well two days later. John and Jim left Sydney aboard HMAT Ayrshire on 24th January 1917. They were drafted to the 49th battalion, a unit that consisted of mostly Queenslanders. They sailed to Egypt to complete their training and were taken to France nearly a year later. Jim was quickly promoted to Lance Corporal, but was satisfied with the rank of Private if he could stay with his elder brother John.
49th Battalion was sent up to the front line for the Battle of Polygon Wood. At dawn they would attack, but just before the attack started, John was sent out to investigate a piece of shiny metal in no-man’s land. As John crawled out, he was thrown back by the explosion of an artillery shell and was severely wounded. He managed to crawl back to his own trenches, but died in his brother’s arms. Jim had to go in for the attack, but later brought the body of his elder brother John to a temporary cemetery at Westhoek and buried him with his own hands. He lovingly and carefully covered the body with a standard Army issue ground sheet, so it would preserve the body well. Jim promised to come back after the war and take the human remains of his elder brother John back to Australia. He did indeed return in 1918, only to see that the terrain was so badly destroyed by artillery shelling that he had no idea where the graves were, and he had no idea where to start digging for the body.
Also Jim was wounded later on in the war, one of those wounds sustained in a gas attack. He managed to survive the hell, though, and returned to Australia. Back home he married Esme Margaret Bulter, with whom he had 6 children. When a dementing Jim drew his last breath, he called out the name of his brother who lay buried in a faraway place called Flanders Fields.
The name of John Hunter was listed on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in 1927, but through DNA research the body was identified in 2007. It was Mollie Millis, John’s niece, who provided the matching DNA. 90 years after his death John was reburied with full military honour at Buttes New British Cemetery in Polygon Wood, together with the other 4 soldiers that were exhumed by Johan Vandewalle and his team.
About Johan Vandewalle
Johan Vandewalle (°1961) grew up amid the stories of the Great War and as a child played on the former battlefields, often stumbling upon bunkers, dugouts and remains of trenches. Johan developed a passion for the so-called underground warfare, and did magnificent work as an amateur archaeologist excavating tunnels and dugouts from the First World War. He worked on television documentaries, such as The Underground War / Zero Hour, Vampire Dug Out, Lost In Flanders and several Belgian documentaries. Together with historians Peter Barton and Peter Doyle he wrote the book ‘Beneath Flanders Fields’ and he was involved in excavating the mass graves of Australian soldiers in Fromelles (2008). Johan Vandewalle is passionate about the history of the war and is always trying to learn more…
I believe that Johan is now the proprietor & we had a brief chat with him after visiting the memorial. He is obviously passionate about the project.
In the afternoon we joined others to attend a small ceremony at the Black Watch memorial, one of many such ceremonies being held today at various sites around the area.
We moved on late in the afternoon a few miles West to Kortrijk to spend the night on a car park with a special motorhome area right in the centre of the city. It gets dark early these days so we only had an hour to explore before settling down for the evening.
Mileage today - 25
Total mileage - 260