Before we left France, we spent a couple of days as tourists. There is much to see, and we focussed our time on the northwest part of the country. We started with Ypres, a Belgian town an hour away from Gent. During WWI the Germans never occupied the city; instead, they demolished it. We saw pictures at our B&B of what was left of it. A small piece of the Cloth Hall, a single archway – the rest was rubble. The people of Ypres rebuilt the entire town as it was before the war. Now, the Cloth Hall is the Museum (with shrapnel pockmarks in the original masonry still visible).
When we were there, a huge number of people were in the square to watch a “tatoo” of three marching bands which included a visit from the Scots Guards. Every evening since 1928, a Last Post Ceremony is held at Menin Gate, on the east end of the centre of town. The Menin Gate was built to commemorate the Commonwealth soldiers who were missing in action. There are almost 55,000 names inscribed on its walls.
The Last Post ceremony is hugely moving, and when we were there, the Scots joined the regular pipe band in the memorial. Perhaps it was because of them that so many people attended. We arrived an hour before and got a front row spot. There are tunes played by the pipe band, the Last Post is played by the buglers, 2 minutes of silence, and then family members and military representatives place wreaths (that’s the part that got me – the grandchildren walking slowly towards the memorial, holding a wreath). Then the Reveille is played and the band(s) march away, playing.
While we were in Ypres, we visited the site where Dr. John McRae wrote “In Flanders Fields”. By far the most famous of all the war poetry, it was taught to every Canadian elementary school student when I was growing up.
World War I saw the front lines in Europe stretch from the North Sea to Switzerland, hundreds of kilometers long. The line didn’t move very much for four years – it was a stalemate – but they killed and killed and killed. It was filthy, wet, cold. There were rats and lice and constant danger for the young men. The fortifications were trenches open to the elements and the first year was the worst weather they had had in years. Trenches were laid out in layers as you approached the front line. Closest to No Man’s Land was the observation trench, followed by two or three more. They were dug in wavy lines so as not to afford an enemy a direct line of sight for shooting or bombing. There were elaborate underground structures behind and underneath, sometimes dug by professional miners, with communications and supply centres; they were also a way for soldiers to approach the front lines without being seen. All of the sites we visited were similar – fenced off areas with huge dimples, pock-marks, holes where bombs had gone off. Sometimes they would dig underground and set off blasts there, leaving a large hole with a lip, which would offer them some protection from sight. These areas are extremely dangerous – there are still unexploded shells everywhere. At Vimy Ridge and Beaumont-Hamel, they could only keep the grass cut with sheep.
The Vimy Ridge memorial to Canadian soldiers was extremely moving. This is sacred ground, for Canadians, where they showed their mettle and added a new technique to the making of war. In the taking of the ridge, the soldiers were given thorough instructions about where they had to be when, and why. Before that, soldiers were just told to do something, but had no idea of the bigger picture. Turns out that the more information they were given about the battle, the better they did their jobs!
We took a tour above ground to the trenches, as well as into the subterranian world of the soldiers, tunnels and rooms built by professional miners.
We finished our World War visits at Juno Beach. World War II was very different from the “War to End All Wars” (WWI). Hitler had occupied the entire country of France, and instead of the meandering horrible stagnant line of mud and trenches that was WWI, his fortifications were all on the coast. On D-Day, the Allied forces were each given a different beach to take as part of the larger effort. For Canadians, it was Juno Beach in Normandy. I wrote a song called “Boots and Bayonets” about the Burlington Teen Tour Maching band playing for the 60th anniversary of D-Day there, and it meant a lot for me to go there.
Like Vimy Ridge, Juno Beach is almost Canadian sovereign territory. There is a dedicated area with a museum featuring a very complete description of Canada’s contribution to WWII. They had a 9-km stretch to win from the Germans, and that’s a lot of coastline. The taking of the beach was only the beginning, though – it took another 30 days to cross and win 30 miles to the next town. We toured one of the German observation posts, still extant, with 3 metres of concrete protection, then headed to the beach to learn about what happened on the day, June 6, 1944.
It was enough. Two days of immersion into the World Wars, and we had only one day left in our quick visit to France. We spent the night in Bayeux, where John made his acquaintance with the local security guy, who always seemed to be vigilant in the hallway of our hotel.
The next morning we visited the 1000 year old Bayeux Tapestry, commemorating the Norman Conquest of 1066 – a very different war than the more recent ones, but nonetheless very bloody. The Tapestry is embroidered wool on linen, and, for something so “long-in-the-tooth”, is in REMARKABLE shape! It stretches for almost 70 metres (230 feet) and is now kept under glass and muted lighting – although it once was taken out for display every year and hung around the periphery of the Bayeux Cathedral. There is much to tell you about this, but you can find out for yourself by clicking here. Of course, no photographs were allowed. My thought on seeing the tapestry was this: maybe I should start working in linen and wool embroidery – otherwise, I doubt if any of MY work will last 1000 years!
We finished up back at John’s cousin’s home. Near where she lives is Giverny, and Faith highly recommended a visit there. Of course, this is where Monet’s garden is. At this time of year, the garden is stunning – it’s huge, and the flowers were tall and profuse. The sunflowers towered over us, and there were dahlias and daisies and even an iris (at this time of year?). His house overlooks the garden. This is the view from his bedroom window.
The house inside was painted with vibrant colours, like you would expect in an artist’s house – the dining room was bright yellow, and the kitchen was all blue and white tiles. His studio room had, perhaps, 60 reproductions of his work – amazing to see them all together.
The place was overrun with tourists and locals alike – it was a hot summery day and walking through the garden seemed to be the perfect thing to do. Very popular was the water garden, where we were all snapping away on digital to catch the reflections and peaceful vistas. Trying to see like Monet did…..
What a perfect way to end our French adventures! It has been only 2-1/2 weeks since we left home, and we’ve packed a lot into that time. There is still so much to see in France, and I hope it won’t be too long before we can return. In the meantime, I must continue to improve my French, or at least not lose what I’ve gained. I look forward to returning to the baguettes, the cheese and the wine. À la prochaine!!