Come the morning after the Night of Flanders Marathon, the trip was no longer about running.
Just to let you know, this final chapter in my Flanders blog is – although related to my little running challenge – not about running.
It’s about something far far far tougher that our recent ancestors experienced. I can’t really imagine what it must have been like and wouldn’t dream of trying to compare it. I can only play tribute to those who endured it on our behalf.
With the running completed, today – the 10th day of the journey – was an opportunity to reflect on the reasons behind my challenge. With the centenary of one of the Great War’s most significant battles coming up this summer, I’d wanted to do something in honour of our service men and women; particularly those that fought in this part of Europe. And also to raise money for the Royal British Legion in the process.
It was therefore very fitting that Dave, our trip organiser, had arranged the services of a local guide to show the Shelton Striders group around some of the battlefields and war cemeteries in the area.
So, after a good long sleep and a late breakfast we boarded the coach (yah, no running I thought, ignoring the - probably inevitable - quips of ‘you not running there Brooksie’) to take us to the nearby town of Ypres (pronounced ‘Wipers’ by our British military forefathers, apparently) to pick up our guide, Simon. And what a treasure he turned out to be.
A very knowledgable young man who made the next few hours very special. And I think I speak for the whole group, and not just myself, in saying that. His ability to bring the Great War back to life, with a fantastic mixture of brutal facts and figures, real life stories of individuals who fought in the area and their families back home, together with a little humour and a few historic quotes from Blackadder, was tremendous.
‘So just a bit about how the war started’ said Simon, after walking us out into a field alongside a shallow dip in the ground: the remains of a trench used by the German front line. And not more than 150 yards from what was the British line. Holding up a map of north west Europe he explained ‘it all started because a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry’ (Baldrick, Blackadder IV). I thought, I like this guy already.
The location we were standing in was, Simon went on to explain, the top of a ‘hill’. Although, as he admitted, it wasn’t really a hill as us natives of Derbyshire would know it, but the ground was slightly higher than the ground between us and Ypres town. Something that gave the ‘Hun’ the advantage of better visibility over the Commonwealth soldiers below.
Over the next couple of hours we heard numerous tales of not just the battles that happened in the area, but also some of the devious and atrocious tactics employed. These included the first use of chlorine gas which wiped out every form of life, and the digging of tunnels to blow up the enemy from below. And also of some of the heros, such as a medic who (against orders) left the British trenches to rescue numerous men who lay injured around the battlefield.
Standing literally in the spot where so many were slaughtered, with remnants, such as ammunition metals still scattered amongst the crops – a hundred years later, was really moving.
And one thing that I found particularly sobering were details of the after effects that the local community are still suffering. It seems there are still multiple deaths every year from live shells and gas canisters nestling just below the surface.
Afterwards we moved on to the nearby cemetery at Hooge Crater, where the headstones of over 6000 men from all over the Commonwealth are neatly lined up. While seeing the names and young ages of so many on the headstones was quite emotional, noticing how many stones simply stated ‘A Soldier of the Great War’, or ‘Two Soldiers of the Great War’, or three, or four, or five, or six, was even more so.
Simon’s knowledge enabled him to answer all of our questions. He also told us that every year many more soldiers’s bodies, which have laid lost in the battlefield since the Great War, are unearthed. Often when fields are ploughed.
With lumps in out throats we finished our tour back at Ypres, where the Menim Gate acts as a grand entrance to the town.
For anyone that doesn’t know, the Gate bears the names of 54,896 soldiers whose lives were taken in the area but have no known grave. It was the first memorial to unknown soldiers anywhere in the world and every evening representatives of the local fire brigade play the Last Post on bugles, in honour of the soldiers.
This ritual has happened at 8pm every single day, without fail for the past 88 years (with the exception of WW2 years).
It was a fitting place to end our tour, and I was honoured to be asked to lay a poppy wreath there on behalf of the Striders, together with Stefanie, a club mate from Germany.
Many many thanks to everyone that has helped and supported my journey to Flanders in any way, no matter how big or small.
Even just little things like a message posted on the Internet made a big difference by keeping my moral high and spurring me on. Also huge thanks to everyone that has donated to the Royal British Legion to help them continue with the fantastic work they do.
PS The stats:
Mileage covered: 0