Archive for the ‘Belgium’ Category

Menin Gate

October 14, 2017

We had hoped to stay in Ypres for the Last Post service at the Menin Gate which takes place every evening at 8pm. However, our last bus back to Langemark left 5minutes before the ceremony was due to begin, so we resigned ourselves to miss out on the service this time. But Gary & Jen, who were the other Kiwis on our tour around the battlefields came to our rescue, inviting us to have dinner with them before the service, then watch the ceremony with them and they would drop us off on their way back to their accommodation at Ostend. What legends!

We had dinner in a bistro a bit away from the main centre and Menin Gate and got to know our new friends a bit better over a drink before our meal.

Roy’s choice of dark Belgian beer.

We had been told earlier by our tour guide to be at the gate by 6.30 and she also told us the best best place to stand for the optimum viewing. There was quite a large crowd gathering and by the time the ceremony started it was fairly packed.

From 11 November 1929 the Last Post has been sounded at the Menin Gate Memorial every night and in all weathers. The only exception to this was during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from 20 May 1940 to 6 September 1944. The daily ceremony was instead continued in England at Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey. On the very evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, in spite of the heavy fighting still going on in other parts of the town. Bullet marks can still be seen on the memorial from that time.

We took our place for the ceremony and began our wait.

These are some of the 54,000 Commonwealth soldiers names engraved on the walls of the memorial gate, no New Zealand names though except for those who served with British or Australian Forces, NZ soldiers are listed on the dedicated NZ Memorials. It’s difficult to visualise the numbers killed, however to put it into perspective 54,000 would be a capacity crowd at Eden Park.

There was a visiting regiment of English Army Engineers, we got chatting to the Major who told us that this year the soldiers reciting the poem and laying a wreath had a family connection to the Battles of Passchendaele which made it all the more poignant.

“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.”

there was also a piper who played a lament.

It is amazing to think that this whole ceremony is organised, run and manned by volunteers, including the buglers. They do an amazing job from stopping the traffic going through the gates from 7.30pm to making sure that those who wish to lay a wreath are accommodated. We watched a large number of groups lay wreaths and flowers, including our kiwi friends from yesterday who laid a wreath on behalf of the 28th Maori Battalion.

After the service ended we met up with our friends from yesterday, the wreath layers, who were so impressed with Gary & Jen looking after us that they presented them with both Poi and a badge, kiwis looking after kiwis whilst away from home is what it is all about. We left after lots of hugs and well wishes and it wasn’t long until we were safely delivered back to our Apartment in Langemark. Thanx Gary & Jen from Hamilton, we wish you well on the rest of your travels.

The warmth and friendship shown to us on this trip from both locals and fellow kiwis alike has been humbling and refreshing.

Ypres and the battlefields

October 12, 2017

Having previously been in this region when we visited in 2010 which you can read about here, and after the ceremonies the previous day, we decided that we would again head into Ypres which is just a short distance from Langemark. We arrived in the central square which is dominated by the spectacular Cloth Hall, rebuilt completely after the whole town was demolished during the war.

The Cloth Hall before and after WW1.

And the Cloth Hall today

A amazing piece of restoration that today houses a museum, tourist information centre, cafes and other businesses.

We decided that we would take a small guided tour around the battlefields to gain a good overview of the region, and as we had caught the bus into Ypres, it seemed a great way of getting around. We met our tour guide and fellow travellers, two more kiwis and three aussies, our tour guide said she was changing the route slightly to focus more on the NZ and Australian involvement which suited us all perfectly.

Flanders Battlefields Tours

Our first stop was at Essex Cemetery where we walked down to the canal running along the back of the area to show us where temporary bridges spanned the canal, the two lines of the fronts and the general area of conflict.

It was here at Essex Farm at the nearby Advanced Dressing Station where is Canadian Surgeon John McRae wrote his famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ at the beginning of May 1915.

We had a quick look inside the stark, small, concrete bunkers where thousands of men were attended to before being moved on. And I say a quick look as it was a very small space, dark and not very pleasant. We can only imagine what it must have been like to be either a patient or a medical attendant, with crowded conditions, men in pain and agony and others dying around them. It was all very sobering.

Here is a map of the two front lines to show you what a small area these hundreds of thousands men were fighting for, the fighting area covering an area of only around 5 square miles, and with over 4 million shells deployed over 4 years, it is no wonder that the area was decimated.

It isn’t until you see photographs of the area where not a tree or building survived, and the mud was never ending that we truly realised how lucky Roy’s Dad was to not only survive his wounds but also just to be able to be evacuated. The following picture illustrates the heavy going encountered by those saving the wounded.

It’s all very hard for us to comprehend today how difficult and wearying it must have been.

From Essex Farm we want to Langemark-Poelkapelle, which is in fact the town we are staying in, where there is a German cemetery. This cemetery is where there are over 40,000 men interred, many of them moved from many of the other German cemeteries around the area and are now buried in a mass grave. It is a very different cemetery to the Commonwealth ones, very dark with lots of trees throughout, headstones are laid close to the ground, with most grave markers listing many names as well as even more unknowns.

In the centre of the cemetery is a grassed area where over 20,000 men are buried. Apparently just the previous week, three more men were quietly interred here with no fuss and no ceremony, as bodies are continuously being uncovered in the region.

The grassed mass tomb overlooked by 4 statues.

From here we made our way to Tyne Cot Cemetery, it is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world and left us speechless. I shall let the pictures tell the story

Our next port of call was to Polygon Wood Cemetery, the location of yet another significant battle of the Passchendaele offensives. All the way on our travels we were given a full running commentary illustrated by pictures and significant view points indicated. Polygon Wood Cemetery.

Our last port of call was the museum at Sanctuary Woods Hill 62 where outside there are the remains of tunnels and trenches.

From here we returned to Ypres, where Roy and I had intended on staying for the Last Post at the Menin Gate but the last bus back to Langemark left Ypres at 7.55pm, 5 minutes before the ceremony begins. What were we to do? All will be revealed in the next post.

NZ Memorial

October 9, 2017

We had to find our way from the 9 Elms Cemetery to the NZ Memorial which is located at Gravenstafel very near where Roy Snr was wounded. We hopped into the car and tried to set the GPS to take us there, well, you know what is coming next don’t you? The GPS did not recognise the road at all, we tried various spellings all without success. The road, according to Mr Google and our printed instructions, was called ‘S Gravenstafel but no matter what we did we could not find it.

We were doing all of this whilst parked on the side of the road not far from the 9 Elms cemetery, when in front of us two cars pulled in so Roy went to see them to see if they knew where to go. Sure enough some of them were locals and yes, if we followed them they would take us to the NZ Memorial. But first Roy and I were desperate to find a toilet, there was a petrol station just a few hundred metres along the road, so we said we would go ahead, use the facilities and keep an eye out for them and follow them. But it was even better than that, we had just hopped back into the car at the petrol station when both cars turned up beside us with the driver gesticulating for us to follow.

We arrived in good time at the NZ Memorial after being led through back roads, around more barriers to a parking area not far from the Memorial. It turned out that the men were actually some of the Flag bearers for the ceremonies, I greeted them all with a hug and a kiss on both cheeks with profuse thanx for saving my stress levels from rising to new heights!!! We got talking to one of the men, it turns out that he was a Belgian who had just retired from 38years of service in the Bomb Squad responsible for deactivating the bombs, explosive devices, grenades and gas canisters that are dug up daily in the battlefields around this area. He showed us one badly burnt and scarred hand and a photo of himself in hospital from two years ago wrapped up like a mummy after a device exploded in his hand. He is lucky to not only be alive but not to have much more serious scarring on his face and body. He explained to us the area where Roy Snr would have been injured and gave us lots of background information to what happened. He was also wearing a replica jersey from the Original All Blacks such was his empathy for all things New Zealand and the sacrifices made by men from the other side of the world for his country.

Roy and our new friend.

You will note in the above picture the name of the road on the sign above Roy, complete with local spelling…

There is no “s” before the t, no wonder the GPS could not find it!!!

Program for the service

Again, the ceremony was dignified and moving, with local input being particularly poignant. I managed to find a seat next to some fellow kiwis who were there as members of the Passchendaele society, two of the women were also representing their father who served with the 28th Māori Battalion in the Second World War.

We chatted after the ceremony before walking down the road to the cheese factory where drinks and nibbles were awaiting us. Our new Belgium friends walked down the road with us, again showing us where particular conflicts took place and indicated the location of Abraham Heights, where Roy Snr was wounded.

At the reception we met Willie Apiata again, what a gentle, humble and respectful man he is and always happy to talk to people and have his photo taken or being asked for his autograph.

Willie Apiata and Roy

We sat with the people we had just met at the ceremony, after a long chat they gave us a parting gift each. For me some mini Poi and for Roy a Maori Battalion badge.

We left the reception after a while to return to our accommodation in Langemark-Poelkapelle.

9 Elms Cemetery, Poperinge

October 8, 2017

Firstly, apologies to those who receive an email notification of a blog post, as I had to delete the post almost immediately as I had accidentally posted it out of order!

The first service of the day – Wednesday 4 October 2017 – was to be held at 9 Elms Cemetery in the countryside near Poperinge, Belgium. This is the day that 100 years ago at the Battle of Broodseinde that Roy’s father, Roy Corti Vannini, was severely wounded and it is the main reason that we have made the pilgrimage to Belgium at this time.

We left ourselves plenty of time to find the site by following the instructions of the GPS. However, in true Vannini fashion, it was not going to go completely to plan. We ended up on a very narrow back country road/lane which was definitely only one way with deep ditches either side of the road and with tractors crossing over the roads, it was a rather exciting drive. We meandered through country lanes until we came to a barrier across the road blocking our passage, damn, I guess that means we were supposed to enter the road from the other end. Ok, plan B it is, find a place to turn around and go back to the main road and enter from the other end of the loop. Back along the meandering lane we drove until we came across an intersection, where we saw a car coming approaching from the other road, we pulled off to the side and stopped, hopped out and waved them down to ask if we were on the right track. The very nice lady said yes, turn around and go back around the barrier and continue along about 1km and the cemetery will be on your right, in fact she says, follow me, I will take you there. We followed her back along the road we had just driven, drove around the barrier and down the road to the gates of the cemetery where she stopped, hopped out of her car and wished us well. This would not be the last act of kindness shown to us on this journey.

cover of the programme

There was a large contingent of representatives from all of the NZ Forces present, including youth ambassadors from NZ plus lots of locals as well as visitors from NZ like ourselves. This cemetery is where Dave Gallagher the Captain of the 1905 All Black team is buried along with 116 other New Zealand soldiers. David Gallagher’s grave Willie Apiata VC paying his respects.

Dave Gallagher was the captain of the 1905-6 All Black team, the captain of the “Original All Blacks” the first representative New Zealand side to tour the British Isles. Under Gallagher’s captaincy the Originals won 34 out of 35 matches over the course of the tour, including legs in France and North America. The New Zealanders scored 976 points and conceded only 59. He was killed on 4 October 1917 at age 43.

Willie Apiata is NZ’s only living and the first ever recipient of the NZ Victoria Cross. He was a member of the Special Air Services (SAS) and received his honour in June 2007 for bravery in Afghanistan when he carried a gravely wounded colleague to safety whilst under fire. His citation in part reads as follows:

“In total disregard of his own safety, Lance Corporal Apiata stood up and lifted his comrade bodily. He then carried him across the seventy metres of broken, rocky and fire swept ground, fully exposed in the glare of battle to heavy enemy fire and into the face of returning fire from the main Troop position. That neither he nor his colleague were hit is scarcely possible. Having delivered his wounded companion to relative shelter with the remainder of the patrol, Lance Corporal Apiata re-armed himself and rejoined the fight in counter-attack.”

The ceremony was poignant, dignified and very moving. A combined services choir singing a Maori hymn, speeches were given and a speech given by Karl French particularly resonated, he is the son of Tom French a Maori All Black who was also injured on this day 100 years ago and was a mate of Dave Gallagher. It was a poignant speech as Karl was born when his father was in his 70’s, we had presumed that Roy and his younger sister Karel may be some of the youngest direct descendants around but no, here was someone much younger. We had a good chat to Karl later in the day. the crowds gathering waiting for the ceremony to begin

youth ambassadors lined up waiting for their turn to acknowledge some of the men from many nations buried at this cemetery, including; NZ, Australian, British, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, South African, Indian, German, Chinese, Nepalese to name a few.

We were told by the Alderman of Poperinge that the town of Poperinge has a population of 20,000 and that there are over 21,000 men and women killed during WW1 buried around the town in the numerous cemeteries. A very sobering thought.

The NZ Veterans Band played accompanying music, flag bearers from many regiments were present and soon the ceremony was over. The next ceremony would be held at the NZ Memorial but more of that in the next instalment because you know that it would not be straightforward don’t you?

***t happens

October 5, 2017

It was all going so well, we had the buses and trains all sorted by doing a dummy run on Monday so we knew how long we should allow to catch the Eurostar across to Lille on Tuesday. Tuesday morning, we were all packed and ready to go, Ian kindly dropped us off at the local train station to save us getting the bus and we were soon on our way to St Pancras station.

We had only gone through a couple of stops when we realised that Roy had left his phone on the table at home. Damn. A quick phone call to Ian confirmed that it definitely was on the table. We quickly arranged for Roy to get off at the next stop to return to the station where Ian met him with his phone. Meanwhile I continued on the train to Cannon Street Station where we change from train to tube and I would wait for him to return. It didn’t take him too long to return and we were back on the tube and into St Pancras Station.

View from the train crossing the Thames, with London Bridge in the background.

As alway, mind the gap!

We arrived in plenty of time, in fact we were early but we were allowed though passport control and inside to wait for the train. We had a drink and a bite to eat and soon we were off, whizzing through the English countryside before heading into the Chunnel. I tried taking pictures out of the window but at 296km/hr and with reflections from the window my photography skills were not great.

We arrived in Lille exactly on time and we headed straight for the car rental places. Ouch, they want an arm and two legs to rent a car for a few days but we inhale deeply, and go with it. We could not hire a small car and so had to go with what they had, a Nissan Qashqai, with all the bells and whistles. First problem….we could not work the inbuilt GPS. I managed to change the language preference to a English but it would not register where we were wanting to go, which was Langemark-Poelkapelle in Belgium. Roy went and got one of the staff to help, oh, we just have to change country option for the destination moving from France to Belgium. Sorted.

Take a deep breath Bernice and drive on the right, remembering to change gear occasionally, with Roy keeping an eye on the upcoming GPS instructions. We managed to find our way with only slightly raised blood pressure, sweaty palms, a dry mouth and a complete feeling of nausea!!!! Our Airbnb Host was waiting to let us into the apartment and after a quick guided tour we were on our own.

The apartment.

As we started to unpack and sort our gear, with sickening reality it became clear that Roy did not have his iPad, everything was carefully searched but to no avail…….oh no, where had he last had it? at St Pancras Station? he must have left it behind. We put in the call to the lost property department in the hope that someone may have handed it in, and sent email enquiries. Alex is also going to ring the station in the morning to see if it has been handed in. We tried doing the “find my iPad” thing but we could not work out what the hell we were doing so we gave up.

After a very restless nights lack of sleep, Roy was up at his usual early hour and went off for a walk. He was soon back, oh no, what happened this time? His glasses had broken in half straight across the bridge! By 9.30am he had found a local Optometrist who had a frame that would fit the not so old lenses, and he would have them repaired by the afternoon. Meanwhile he is wandering around wearing his reading glasses.

Just as we were about to head out for a walk around the village to check out the market, I had a sudden brainwave…..”Roy, did you check the car for your iPad as I am sure you used it to find the telephone number for the Airbnb yesterday”…….sure enough, there in the back of the car was the ipad! 🤦🏻‍♂️

As for the title, well sometimes things work out!!!

Yes, we did go and but a lotto ticket, it’s up to €190million!

PS. Yes, we have worked out how to locate our phones and iPads, simple really!!!

PPS. New glasses have been collected and look very swish!