Day 8 - Monday 14th May
The plan today was to bike to the three sites North of Arras but the weather made us think again. It threatened rain & a very cold wind was blowing from the North. Discretion, or being wimps, we changed our plans & gave the biking a miss especially as it would involve a number of steep hills.
So after packing up we headed out of Arras & headed to the large French National cemetery at Norte Dame de Lorette about 8 miles away. This is the largest French war cemetery. 40,000 soldiers are buried here of which 22,000 are unknown. Apart from the hundreds of rows of grave stones there is a large white basilica & just next to it is a tall tower. At the base of the tower is a small chapel that houses the tombs of several unknown soldiers. Going up the stairs to the next floor of the tower above the chapel is a small museum. All this is watched over by retired veteran soldiers.
Just away from the tower are two large square areas in which the bones of about ten thousand soldiers are buried together. Just outside next to the cemetery is a massive circular wall with panels on which are inscribed the names of about half a million who were killed in the war on both sides.
Going back downhill from there we stopped at the German cemetery a couple of miles away. A huge plot of land with thousands upon thousands of black crosses plus a few plain black headstones. Each cross carried the names of two soldiers & the stones were for Jewish soldiers. On one side of the site were a number of large black crosses where unknown soldiers were buried. The cold wind added to the depressing feel of the place.
After leaving there it was only a few miles drive to the Canadian Memorial Centre at Vimy Ridge. The Canadians have a very large area of the land here & have opened a very modern information centre to tell the story of the Canadian part in capturing the Ridge. Again it is manned by Canadian students & we were lucky enough to be included in with a group of Canadians to go on an escorted tour with one of them.
We were escorted through a small section of the miles of tunnels that were dug under the area. We also wandered through the line of reconstructed trenches that made up the Allied Front Line. At the end of the tour we also had a walk through the nearby German trenches. Then we spent some time wandering through the displays in the centre itself before walking about a quarter mile along the road to the monument at the top of the ridge itself. This time wearing a heavier coat because of the cold.
Pushed on North after stopping briefly in Lens where we found a Lidl’s where we got a few bits & pieces of food. Carried on up to Ypres next. We were going to stop on the camp site in the city but when we arrived it was full. We found a spot on the car park of a nearby sports centre, an unofficial night stop. One of the main objectives of the trip for both of us was to witness the sunset ceremony at the Menin Gate which is held every evening as a tribute to the soldiers killed in WW1.
Fortunately our car park site was not too far away so we walked along to it, arriving at 7.30pm. There were already a lot of people standing behind the barriers at the side of the road inside the great stone structure. The names of all the missing soldiers whose bodies have never been found are all recorded on the walls.
By 8pm the pavements were packed. Several coach loads of people plus a number of school groups joined us. On the hour four men from the local fire brigade raised their bugles & played the last post to a hushed crowd. When they had finished a tall man stood & read the piece that ends “We shall remember them” & the crowd all repeated it. Then a group of male choristers softly sang a couple of hymns while a series of individuals & small groups came forward with wreaths & laid them on the steps. The last hymn was “Abide With Me”. The buglers then sounded a final ........ to signal the end of a very moving ceremony.
Then it was back to the Motorhome after a short walk to look at the nearby main square. Too cold to stay long.
Miles today - 72
Total miles - 839