It has been awhile since I last updated my blog but I wanted to get the trip to Belgium and Passchendaele concluded as I have a new trip to share with you from the summer of 2018 so here goes.
Woke to a lovely morning in Münster. Time to prepare and depart for the final 640 km/8 hour trip back home to Sweden. I was amused to find while showering that the Mövenpick Hotel caters to all your needs, even in supplying a little rubber ducky for company 😀
Today would be a simple driving day with a couple of minor stops however it would not quite be as simple as I thought. The 280 km run to Hamburg was quite uneventful with plenty of time to reflect on the past week, however upon arriving on the outskirts of Hamburg that was about to change drastically to one of frustration. Traffic Jams! It was Saturday afternoon, just after lunch, I would have expect to miss the chaos of commuter traffic as experienced during the week but apparently not. To navigate the 10 km interchange merging the Autobahns 1 & 7 took 1 hour 15 mins. Do the math for yourself. Something like an average of 7 km per hour. Grrrrr! What do Germans do on Saturday afternoon that causes traffic jams equivalent to mid week traffic?
Having finally wrestled myself free of the Hamburg chaos and the blood pressure having returned to normal, I tootled on the 150 km to the little village of Burg on the island of Fehrman. Now you may wonder what is so special about this little hamlet. It is not so much the hamlet itself but its location and what is sells. Basically it is the last stop before the German/Danish border and its economy exists purely on selling cheap alcohol to thirsty Danes and Swedes who wish to avoid exorbitant excise taxes. Who am I not to take advantage of this? (For those of you in New Zealand you will understand this as the difference of having to buy in licensing trust areas or not). The allowed amount of alcohol is 110 litres of beer, 50 litres of wine and 20 litres of spirits. Now my poor little car Arwén could not cope with that amount so I restrained myself to a few litres of each ;). Net savings made would be something like 50 % compared to buying in Sweden. It is also amusing to watch who is buying, what they are buying and their accent. A sort Walmart comedy. To some it seems taste is of no importance rather the highest alcohol content for the lowest litre price possible (???). I have a preference for taste! The volumes passing the border each day is colossal, take for example the car beside me in the pic is just one of thousands.
Having cleverly per-ordered all my supplies, I just had to back in, load up and away again. All inside 10 minutes. This meant I had caught up the time lost outside Hamburg and was able to make my ferry to Denmark on time. Not that it mattered as I was to learn. Apparently, taking the ferry between German and Denmark at 6 pm on a Saturday is not a problem. It appears most people are elsewhere as it was almost deserted with the exception of the long-haul truck drivers. Even when I left the ferry an hour later I found the motorway in southern Denmark deserted for the first 100 km. Very eerie! No one on the ferry and no one on the roads. Two hours later I was home and my journey of Remembrance and 2 100 km was over.
In closing out this trip, it seems appropriate to share my reflections on what I experienced and the residing effects of what I have learnt. When the idea first came up to attend the commemorations I did not know I would be leaving with new perspectives on what humans are capable of inflicting upon one another and the emotions they would elicit.
As you begin to explore Flanders, the overriding visual shock is of the sheer scale of the carnage in such a small area. No matter on what point I stood or in which direction I looked, near or far, my eyes could always see the sand coloured headstones of the fallen. Thousands upon thousands spread between hundreds and hundreds of small cemeteries usually bearing the name of the site of a particular battle. Buried where they had fallen. Look at these statistics for the allies in just Flanders Fields alone: 588 003 – Identified and buried; 187 865 – Buried but unidentified; and, 527 074 – never found but commemorated on memorials. Staggering! I imagine it was similar if not worst for the Germans. Still today 100 years on, the remains of the ones never found come to the surface each time the fields are tilled in Flanders.
As I wandered the cemeteries the overwhelming shock was the ages on the headstones…27, 23, 30, 18, 21, 21 20 and so on. The majority being between the ages of 18 and 30. It forced me to look at what I did in that period of my life and the fact that they never got to do any of it. Humbling. The nativity of them. They were sold an adventure, for King & country, and what did it bring them and in the end who gained the advantage. Not them, nor their families.
The distinction of class seemed to determine your fate rather than your skills. It was determined that only those of the upper class were fit for command whether competent or otherwise. All others including the colonial commanders were to be used in a tactic of a war of attrition. Kitchner, Haig, Allenby, Jellicoe & Hamilton and the German commanders Hindenburg & Ludendoff used the millions of men as simple canon foder in the hope that the other side would run out of men first. Just send in more even if it was suicide. The heroics of the battles came not from the commanders but from the field officers and the individual men who seized the initiative when their commanders could not. In the face of the war tactics being used it makes these acts of heroism even greater. Had these commanders been alive today they would almost certainly be subjects of war crimes investigations.
WWI was the war to stop all wars, something we know differently 100 years on. The old tactics of war meeting the untried weapons of industrialization. The old tactic of phlanx attack meeting canon, mines, mortars, machine guns, flame throwers and the horrific gas for the first time. These would represent some of the most abominable moments of the war. The fields today are still littered with the decaying remnants of these industrial weapons and in certain places unexploded munitions and mines can still be found including those great mines tunneled in under the earth. Thank god this was the end of phlanx war tactics and they would never again be used against these types of weapons.
The sheer scale of this madness still haunts me 10 months on. It awoke feelings of great sadness but at the same time pride that I got to learn so much more about these men and what they went through and the chance to commemorate their sacrifice especially those of my family.
Someone once said, that our collective memory lasts only 3 generations. I believe this maybe true as experienced via my cousin’s children. They are the 4th generation in our family since the war and they commented on that they knew nothing of WWI and its history, but that they were extremely grateful that they could participate in these commemorations and learn something they could share with their contemporaries.
Lest we forget!
They shall grow not 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…we will remember them!
“For the Fallen” by Robert Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)