Last days – for now

Apologies for yesterday’s silence. I was on my chinstrap by the time we finished our awards last night.  I’m very nearly as tired tonight after a lot of driving and a lot more walking in Gay Paris.  But back to yesterday. 

In the morning we marched.  Down the Menin Road to Hooge Crater Cemetery – a deceptively large cemetery anchored by the eponymous crater – and then on the Sanctuary Wood museum, where we saw the grave of Lt. Talbot (who will return to our story later in the day).  After the cemetery came Hill 62/Sanctuary Wood Museum.   The museum houses a large collection of artifacts in varying states of preservation, including some rather harrowing stereoscopic images, but the real ‘highlight’ is the preserved trenches in the back garden.  It’s a bit of a tetanus outbreak waiting to happen these days, with a shocking amount of rusting iron lining the trenches, but it’s still very evocative and offers a marked contrast with the cultivated fields all around.  We all managed to make our way through the preserved/restored tunnel system with the aid of our cell phone lights, which inspired more than one comment about what the soldiers might have given for such devices.

From the museum we proceeded to the Canadian HIll 62 memorial, which offered wonderful views back toward Ypres and out along Observatory Ridge.  We enjoyed some local chocolate bread under a couple of trees before carrying on back toward the Menin Road via Stirling Castle, stopping for a group picture in front of what would have been Inverness Copse during the war.   (Significance:  it was the subject of Nash’s painting We are Making a New World which inspired the course.  Shameless rip-off on my part).    Returning to the hotel, socks and shoes were changed (casualties of the trip through the muddy tunnel system) and we piled in our Zafiras to visit HIll 60, the site of intense fighting and mining during the war.  The site has been left as it was – ‘as far as nature will allow’ and there is a great deal to see in terms of the war’s impact on the landscape: craters, bunkers, collapsed bunkers, shell-holes, trench lines, etc. 

We changed gears entirely for the afternoon, traveling to Poperinge, where we ate lunch in the famous La Poupé cafe and visited the Talbot House Museum. Talbot House or TocH was founded by the Rev. Tubby Clayton and named after the Lt. Talbot mentioned above.  It was an everyman’s club of sorts, where soldiers and officers could mix and relax in relative safety and comfort.  It was an oasis of sorts really, offering lodging, company, food, tea, music, reading, games, and religious services for those so inclined.   It reverted to its original owner after the war, but he soon tired of receiving streams of curious visitors and since 1929 it has been operated as a sort of living museum.  There’s a great interpretive centre focused on life behind the lines and the house itself is magnificently preserved and decorated with some fascinating ephemera  (loved the ‘Old Bill’ plates) documents (Friendship corner was a highlight for me) and art (including some of Kennington’s sketches for The Conquerors).   Verdict: highest recommendation.  It’s a really touching place where you can feel the same sense of peace and welcome that made it so popular with so many thousands of men who passed through the Salient.

From Poperinge we returned to Ypres, where the Other Ranks had free time and @mshagerman and I went shopping for awards.  We did well, finding little curious of WWI vintage for Our Battalion Adjutant, our Battalion Farrier, our Signals Officer (Iddy-umpty), our Mess Officer, our American exchange officer, our Medical officer (Croaker) and our Quartermaster.  Presentations were made back at the hotel, but not until we’d had some really wonderful discussions about what the trip had added to students’ understanding of the themes discussed in the course – and of course their personal highlights of the trip so far. 

This morning we made a brief stop at the Island of Ireland Peace Tower at Messen (Messines), which seemed a fitting last stop on our battlefield Tour.  The tower is a gorgeous stone structure worth seeing in its own right, but all the more interesting for providing an example of how the destruction caused by the Great War has been appropriated for very specific political aims in the present. Even so, it’s hard to deny the power of its call for reconciliation and the abnegation of violence.  

As we left Messines bound for Paris and all its blandishments, I’ll admit to feeling a mixture of sadness and relief.   Relief that the trip has been such a success (in my own mind anyway) and sadness that it was coming to an end.   Good thing the City of Lights was waiting at the end of that drive.

About cahagerman

Dad, husband, writer, historian, recovering academic, and the Consulting Professor.
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