DAY FIFTEEN: SATURDAY DECEMBER 4
Three commemorations today, and all of them would be done by family members, myself included. The weather just gets worse as the snow combines with the wind and it reduces visibility down to zero as well as creating an atmosphere likened to sitting in a deep freezer. The road conditions are a real worry but our beloved Richard always makes us feel safe. He knows his stuff! Good time guy with the kids BUT when it comes to the business of driving he takes no prisoners. The level of concentration is intense as he negotiates the icy road but at no time did we ever feel unsafe or that he was taking unnecessary risks. These guys who drive in European winters earn every cent; deserving of our respect. (even if he is an annoying Pommy cricket tragic!)
Arriving at Aeroplane Cemetery just out of Ieper saw the snow tumble down and dear Tim had to battle through it all and his tears to commemorate his relative John Eckert. This lad was superb. Did not miss a beat. I know it sounds like a cracked record but the level of maturity and dedication these kids have shown is truly inspiring. I was as proud of him as if he was my own son……..sorry Gwenda….you just lost your boy to me…..he’s a keeper! You would have been so impressed as parents to witness Tim in that snow bound place of sadness. And then to Hooge Crater Cemetery where it was the gorgeous Nick…what a lad you have there Michelle…..
Nick had his commemoration with the snow falling in his face. It made me quite teary as he had a poem written by his mum. It was lovely.
Nick and Tim did so well today. The snow was insane but if it phased the boys you couldn’t tell. They were both commemorating relatives and the connection Nick and Tim felt with their soldiers was shown beautifully. The two stories were told so differently but were obviously both really meaningful to the boys and their families. I don’t know if it is weird bit I felt pretty proud of Tim. He stood there so strongly and read so perfectly despite the snow blowing into him at a million miles an hour. Nick had me in tears. He told his great, great uncle’s story so well and when he read Shelly’s poem you could see how much it affected him. I’ve known these boys for eight years now and they mean a lot to me. I’m so grateful I was able to share this experience with them. This group’s learnt so much together, it’s something we will never ever forget.
Today was the day that I was going to commemorate my great, great, great uncle Thomas Anthony Spurr. First thing we did was Tim’s commemoration which was really good but I was dreading mine hoping I wouldn’t stuff it up. I just kept thinking about what I was going to say and how I will be able to say it. In the end I felt a little emotional but thought that my commemoration wasn’t that good because I’m not sure if anyone could understand me. But once I finished everyone told me that it was good. I really want to know what Sarah, Tom’ s mother, wanted to have written on his headstone.
Watching Tim and Nick do their commemorations took me back to 2006 when their big brother Matt and big sister Brent were in the very same spots in the inaugural Connecting Spirits tour. It was such a pleasure to revisit these locales with such wonderful young folk. And to see these families continue to invest in their kids’ emotional and personal development by making the required sacrifices to get their kids overseas is very rewarding from my perspective. Lovely stuff. And then it was soon time to make the journey to Polygon Wood. I have made this with Aussie kids now for nearly 10 years and each time is a different experience for me when I get to commemorate my mother’s favourite uncle Marty. As I have said many times before James Martin Neagle (Marty) is the real reason these commemorative trips have evolved into the huge thing they are now. My connection with my mother and her oral history are the cornerstone for me in all that is this project. Losing Mum in 1995 makes what we do here some- how even more important for me. So each time we drive up to those most famous woods where the gut wrenching fighting of the Third Battle of Ypres took place I reconnect with Mum and her memory of the man she never forgot as a young five year old when the dreaded telegram came to her home telling of the death of her much loved Uncle Marty. This time was again a different feel for me as the Buttes New British Cemetery was shrouded in a white cover that created an eerie and spiritual feel to the place. Walking through the snow I trod those steps I knew so well. And then I had to speak. Hard. Impossible. Just couldn’t get the words out as I felt emotionally crippled. I guess this time it was so hard as I have missed mum so much this year with many things happening in my family that have been difficult and the anchor that a mother provides is no less important when you are in your 50’s ! The other factor that made this one so challenging was the fact that I have become very attached to these kids that I just want to get this one right for them too. I stood behind the headstone and just froze. As I tried to get the words out my head was in a different place. This man had come to represent many things and I struggled to tell his story in a fluent and logical way. I felt I was jumping all over the place with the detail of his wartime experiences plus telling it from mum’s point of view as a small child. I eventually got it all out and then I tried to convey to the group that my only regret was the fact that Mum died before I started doing these commemorative trips for students in 2001. When she was alive I would phone her many times during the week to tell of family and school happenings for that time and she would always want to know what my Year 12 History students would be doing for their research essays. A great lover of all things historical she was in many ways one of the reasons I love the subject so much. An amazing woman Cathy returned to complete her uni degree at the age of 68 in 1974 and majored in History and Anthropology graduating at the age of 73 in the days when uni was free for everyone. What a woman. How she would have loved knowing that her favourite uncle was the catalyst for what is now Connecting Spirits and how this has changed my life totally. The other aspect of this is how Johan and our other Belgian friends have adopted him too and visits to Martin Neagle’s grave have become a regular part of their lives too. He is no longer alone here in the woods of Buttes New British Cemetery.
Julie’s commemoration of her great uncle Marty was touching. I think hearing and seeing how much Marty’s story meant to Jules gave us a bit of an insight into how important this project is for her and how it all began. Jules was so honest and open in her commemoration. I hope she felt as supported and loved as we wanted her to and realizes how much we all appreciate what she has done for us with this trip. We love you Jules.
There were some very special commemorations today as people in our group remembered their relatives. Nick’s commemoration was beautiful and made me teary. Another special moment was when I met Johan Van De Walle whose recovery of the Zonnebeke 5 was the central part of my Yr 12 History Essay.
After Julie’s commemoration, we walked through the woods to Johan van De Walle’s inn called Anzac’s rest. He shared with us the story of his involvement in the recovery of the remains of the Zonnebeke 5. It was great to meet the man we had heard so much about in our Yr 12 History class.
From the cemetery the cathartic walk through the woods was soothing of pent up emotions and as always had the effect of allowing some recovery time with a little bit of personal space by walking on my own. Rang Paul as I made the journey to the inn and he was at Jan and Wayne's celebrating his pending retirement. It was nice to talk briefly with them too. At the inn Johan gave us a warm welcome with hot soup and his famous baguettes that are about a foot lone stuffed with ham, cheese and salad….and Flo….tomatoes! He showed us a new doco about the Zonnebeke 5 and in particular the John Hunter story. It was well done and the kids were engaged with it all. Dear Katie had a bit of a melt down due to listening to some Australian music and she struggled with some homesickness issues. So into the bus we both went and a phone call to home was made and temporarily helped the problem. Back to the inn and then it was time to go and yet again some more goodbyes. Dear Johan has become a dear friend of the project and so this was as expected difficult. However I know we will remain good friends and future kids will benefit from his expertise and knowledge.
The next visits served to confront the kids even more as we made our way to the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world, the famous Tyne Cot burial ground and memorial. The numbers are shocking: 13,000 graves and on the memorial 33,000 names all different names than those on the Menin Gate and other memorials. As I have recounted before this place is the war at its most obscene. Trying to get the full view of the graves on your camera is impossible unless you have a wide angle lens. The cold made it seem even more tragic. From there it was onto the German cemetery at Langemark. I didn’t realize how many men were in this place – over 40,000 dead in mass graves. Unbelievable. It’s a stark place with dark black crosses and those four black sculptures looking over the men’s graves……they have a ghostly appearance with the faces almost featureless. They seem to follow you around the cemetery …spooky. To complete the day it was off to Hill 60 with Johan who always does something special for our group.
Going to Hill 60 was incredible. I have seen the movie and researched it in Yr 12. It was freezing cold in the snow and then it started to rain. When we got to the top everyone was silent as we listened to a song about the war. It was unforgettable.
It was very eerie at Hill 60 as if we were being watched. It felt special . I still can’t get my head around how many men there were here.
And so another end to another extraordinary day. This place gets into your heart big time.