Monday, 15 June 2015

Blood, Sweat, and Tears (or Passendale and Ypres and visiting Granduncle Leopold)

Finally! This post has been a while in the making. And not only because of 3 consecutive 80-90 km cycle days followed by the 110 km ride from hell.

Flanders shell-shocked me (No, there are no more shells flying around, even though there is a lot of hunting going on with the associated few isolated rifle shots, a very odd sound to hear in this area).  Anyone with a bit of history under their belt (now that is an expression that could be read the wrong way) will know of the numerous slaughters of young men that have taken around here.  But it doesn't really sink in until you have passed the 5th or 6th military cemetery and have read the kids' ages on those white stones.

So it felt very much wrong to just slap a post together out of a few pictures and some text that kind-of went along with them.  No. This needed a bit more attention.  I felt that colour pictures of cemeteries would have made them look like simple holiday destinations (a feeling re-enforced by people taking pictures of themselves in front of the monuments, etc).

So, after all this is out of the way, the day starts like this:

Maybe it's the ancient building, the beer with the good dinner (Beer actually tastes good in Europe, could that be because it has a taste other than chilled bitterness?), my complete and utter exhaustion, but I collapse into my bed at 8 pm and don't get up until 6 am. That's 10 hours of sleep ;-)

This is when I have time to look at the details of my room (the building is dated 1566 !!!)

The hotel owners preserved some fabulous furniture:

The next surprise is ready for me when I enter the breakfast area at 8 am.  Are these people for real?  

5 different types of bread, ham, cheeses, jam, Nutella, chocolate wavers, a delicious fluffy scrambled egg to be brought fresh. 
 And look at that coffee pot.  That's NOT a cheap modern imitation ;-)  For the first time in a LONG time, I leave the laptop closed during breakfast and concentrate on the food.  Poor English and their Full English breakies.  And this is only Belgium, France is still to come ;-)

I think I'm also benefiting from being far from the big cities, where all the tourists flood to and making money is being made too easy for hoteliers and restauranteurs.  I remember the bad food I ate in Antwerp last year.

But then it hits me. I'm sitting here in dreamy comfort and the reason that I'm here in the first place is that of utter absence of comfort. I am in Flanders to visit hell.  In a nice time- and trench-insulated capsule naturally.  I can't even bring myself to look up the number of young men who contributed with their blood to make these soils so fertile and to make the ground so muddy, all to satisfy to the whimsy thoughts of glorious warfare of inbred aristocrats.

This is what it looked like in the nearby town of Passendale roughly 100 years ago:

Every Canadian seems to know the names of Passendale and Vimy, unfortunately also as a result of the current government to style this senseless bloodshed as some kind of nation-forming battle (amazing what one can do with words).  How sending 10,000s of your young men to the slaughterhouse for absolutely nothing can form the basis of a nation is beyond me.  Sounds more like a War Crime to me.  

Even my kookum (George's Cree Grandmother) (Oh thank you dimwits who developed the spell checker for Blogger for insisting that Cree is a typo; but then what to expect of people that don't include Blogger in the dictionary ;-) heard of the name. An uncle or Great uncle of hers had been there, was lucky enough to survive, and told his family that he had waded knee-deep through blood.  And Canada was grateful to its aboriginal people and gave them Residential Schools.  (Sometimes DARK cynicism is the only way to express a feeling properly)

 But then every government in the world still spews out propaganda like that. Seems people are STILL stupid enough to fall for that kind of morose bull (Just wait for tomorrow's post from Vimy)
 There is a personal side to the bike ride today though.  Leopold, the brother of my Great-Grandfather, who was engaged to marry the sister of my Great-Grandmother, died in Passendale around 100 years ago, just a few years before Grandma was born.  She never knew her uncle, so I'm hoping to at least visit the area where he died.

Passendale is 26 kilometres from my hotel, so at 10 am I saddle up the bike and head South-East
Enjoy the poppies while you see any.  Modern agriculture has banned them to the very edge of the fields and for some strange reason the war graves will be covered in PLASTIC poppies but not a single real one.

I forgot what the name of the village was where I photographed this memorial to their WWI dead.  And it doesn't really matter, every village around here has one of these.

Nothing much has changed in the last 100 years.  Now they call it civilian casualties or collateral damage, then they just called it dead citizens.  And the soldier/civilian ratio is roughly 1/1

Sending all the car drivers into no-mans-land  ? Why not?

A lovely row of trees along a canal.  Unfortunately these were planted so that soldiers could march in the shade and not get exhausted in the summer sun.
Roadside vanity mirror ;-)
Roads on the side of the road are becoming more and more ominous
Not for the faint of heart: The poison gas cycle route
I'm in the middle of some town, consulting my cell phone on the route, when I see a street sign.  A quick check on my cell phone reveals that it is only 1 km away.  I am no cemetery tourist, but I can’t miss this opportunity.  After all, Great-Uncle Leopold is most likely buried there.

I get there and I'm dumbfounded. Uncle Leopold (presumed) and 44,000 other German soldiers.  They dumped them in layers.  At first some grave stone read “20 unknown German soldiers”. When they needed more room they just dumped another 20 in there and engraved the same sentence into the stone again.
What frightens me is the surprisingly large number of VOLUNTEERS (Freiwilliger) buried here.
I do not find Uncle Leopold mentioned on a stone. I don’t check them all.  All I know is that Uncle Leopold did not come home from Passendale.  Was there anything left to be buried?  Did someone know the name of his corpse if there was?  It doesn't matter any more. 
What does matter (at least for me) is that I am most likely the first and only member of the family that ever visited the place where Great Uncle Leopold died and presumably is buried.  In 1918 people had other worries (like shelter, food, heat) and for at least half of last century money was scarce and Belgium and France were enemy territory.  When I call my mother (Wind Mobile actually roams in Belgium this time, unlike last year) she has to confess that she never even heard of HER mother’s uncle Leopold.

I took some from the breakfast table to eat later: speculaas ;-)

OMG, what does that sign say?

That means I'm cycling on blood-soaked ground

This is where God took a leave of absence and churches shamefully sank into the ground (OK, that's polemics, I admit it, but it works well with the picture)

Right along the road is the New English cemetery in Passendale 

There are lots of maple leafs on these stones but not many names.  They just dug them in as they came, no time to figure out their identities, or maybe no chance.

This one is a comparison photo of what Passendale looked like before and after WWI

So this church and this pub in the very centre of town must be rather new ;-(

Again I go to a 'pub' (but not the one above, that would be tasteless) because I'm hungry and thirsty.  No food of course, but for 3 Euros I get a good glass of wine.

Then I see a van pull up and out hops the German army.

 They continue to spread out everywhere, covering the space like a trained invader.  A quick check reveals that they are mostly 1 and 2 star Generals with their associate non-officer drivers and busy boys (Oh how we would envy these boot lickers) To the nearest group I say in German in a resigned-sarcastic tone:

"Als ich beim Bund war hab' ich mich immer gewundert was die Herren mit dem Lametta auf den Schultern den ganzen Tag lang machen. Jetzt weiss ich's!".

(roughly:  When I was serving my required time in the German army, I was always wondering what the guys with the tinsel on their shoulders were doing all day. Now I know!)

That earns me one of those knowing grins from one of them.

However, another one of them seems to be hard of hearing or just slow in general (PUN !) because he asks me something in a language I don't really understand.  Turns out he's trying to speak Dutch and is looking for a flower shop. I say the German equivalent of "I'm German; you can speak German to me"

Now that the ice is molten (I'm not from an enemy force, not even a foreigner; The German army really is timid at heart) it hails questions in that strange German manner "And where is the journey going?  "And that small amount of luggage is going to last you?"  I set the assist level to TURBO to get away from this sad scene quickly.

Driving a bit further a see a sign for Tye Cot.  I recognize the name. Doing a  tiny bit of internet browsing about the region you're travelling through is a good thing ;-)

Somehow all those chubby Scottish people in their Clan outfits taking pictures of each other seems just wrong. Too much colour. 

I keep cycling towards Ieper and lose track of the number of signs to different soldier's cemeteries of various nations.  Even just cycling along my random route (West), I see some right along the side of the road.

Ieper is evident by two church spires from far away. I'm quite surprised to see that Menin Gate (Menenpoort) is right along one of the thoroughfares. 

Makes sense though, This is where thousands on thousands on thousands of young Brits, French, Belgians, etc, etc would march with smiles to the entrenched front lines only about 10 kms away.  Now you know why they kept the mass graves close to the front lines; cemeteries would probably have put a damper on the war spirit and the influx of new volunteers.

Little did they know ...

Menin Gate is a memorial to those British dead that they couldn't find anymore. They knew that they were missing in action but there was no body to put to the name.  The names don't only cover the inside, but also the outside. There are 54,896 names.

The Ypres Crazy Days (a tad tactless maybe?)
I'm hungry and my battery needs charging, so I go to a restaurant on the market square

While I'm waiting to order, the people at the table next to me take all the time in the world explaining where in Canada they are from and precisely which parts of Canada speak which language.  In one of their brief pauses between words, I say in jest "There you hop on a bicycle in Vancouver to get away from it all, and what do you find?" The cute British waiter thought that was worth a smile and a chuckle, but not the people at the table next to me.
Maybe they want to be the only Canadians around here (Good luck, with Harper campaign harping Vimy 2017.

Staying true to that cyclist-type-food, i order a Spaghetti Carbonara. Actually, that is not entirely true. My choice might have been influenced by that ancient SONG (Hey, it's not my fault that I had to be a teenager in the 80s) that everyone was singling along to when I was in high school. Carbonara et una coca cola ...  Which 15 year old German kid wasn't dreaming of travelling to Italy?

Right next to the restaurant is the Cloth Hall of 1307, an ancient market where cloth was sold. Looks impressive, but the original building was destroyed in WWI, so this one isn't even 100 years old.

Another 11 kms of tired cycling past fields and cemeteries, and I'm in Poperinge.
Poperinge town hall, I assume

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