Canadians on the battlefields
I had hardly returned home after Debbie’s birthday party than I was getting ready for some Canadian visitors whom I was going to be guiding around the battlefields.
Kevin and his mate Andy had been put in contact with me by my friend Vern Thiessen, playwright and all round Canadian theatre person. When Kevin mentioned that he was coming over and thinking of spending a few days on the battlefields he was immediately sent my way.
The weather did not look promising and I left for Arras in pouring rain. An hour and a bit later the sun was trying to breakthrough and the possibility of the temperature reaching the thirties suddenly seemed plausible. Neither of them had any particular schedule so the day was just a general ‘what can I fit in’ sort of tour.
Being Canadians, a visit to the Vimy area was going to be essential so we took in the monuments at Notre Dame de Lorette which gave the haze time to clear. The Canadian Monument at Vimy in sunshine needs sun glasses. Kevin was saying that the last time he was here was just before the 90th anniversary when the monument was under wraps and being cleaned. They could now see that the frightening sum paid for the work was worth it.
Our only set item on the agenda was that they wanted to attend the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ieper, so that meant getting there for at the very latest 1900.
We headed north and on reaching Poperinge I set off out onto the back roads. Despite knowing the junction was coming up I still managed to miss it because it is one of these Belgian car and a bike wide roads. Didn’t matter as I knew that we had a cemetery just down the road and I turned around there. Ten minutes later we were at the Abdij Sint-Sixtus at Westvleteren. They have a café called ‘In de vrede’ where you can sample the abbey’s Trappist Beers.
By far the smallest and least commercial of the Trappist brewing monasteries the only place that you can try the beer is in their café. There is a very complicated system of buying the beer from the brewery and the shop only sells what it has. Demand is always greater than supply.
As we approached the abbey I remarked the number of cyclists with their double saddlebags and said that there must be beer on sale. One of the reasons that I had wanted to get there early was to ensure that it was still open but another was also to give us a chance of actually being able to buy some.
There was a sizeable queue waiting patiently for the right to buy a dozen bottles each from the one palette on sale. First things first, we got settled at a table and I organised some beers. They got the Westvleteren 12 whilst I stuck to the 8 as I was driving. Both are brown beers, the 12 being exceptional and rightly considered one of the world’s best beers (but only if you happen to like the stuff).
I joined the line and picked up our twelve bottles. There were some French people behind me from Hazebrouck returning their empties. As they were saying, it is very much pot luck for the shop and often enough there is nothing on sale. Today we had the Blond beer on sale. It is drinkable but not in the same class as the browns. Beggars can’t be choosers and we divided our spoils up between us. We stopped long enough for them to have a second beer so that they could test what they had just bought but I limited myself to coffee.
Off we went to Ieper (eventually) where the ceremony involved a group of Dutch soldiers and a flute band from Northern Ireland. Having then driven them back to Arras it was midnight by the time I was getting to bed. Morning came very early and once more I set off in the rain.
But and in defiance of the weather forecast it turned out to be a sunny and very hot day. We pottered out the road towards Cambrai visiting some of my plaques on the way and having our picnic lunch on the banks of the canal at Marquion watching the barges go past.
They had to be at Brussels Airport by early evening so we turned back visiting the Australian museum at Bullecourt. Small and personal it gave Andy, in particular, a chance to see some of the weaponry and uniforms.
As we were saying good-bye in the hotel car park the rain began. Then the hail came on. By the time I was half way home it was impossible to see where I was going and once I realised that great branches of trees were being hurled across the road in the wind I got off the road.
A group of us were parked in a transport restaurant’s car park and the wind was so violent that for a moment I thought the car was going to be blown over. After about fifteen minutes it calmed and I could see lorries passing on the main road. I set off again and we all crawled along avoiding the debris on the roads. I met a police car coming the other way and the two Gendarmes were drenched from having to stop and drag trees into the field. As I approached home the rain cleared and on pulling up at the house I noticed that Jason was out feeding the ducks and watering the plants. Hadn’t seen a drop of rain all day.
A few days later I was back on the road again, this time to Lille where I was meeting a group of eleven Canadians whose ancestor had served with the 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders of Canada), the regiment for which I work.
To save a lot of motoring the family had offered to have me stay at their hotel and it certainly allowed me to get to know them better. Quite a bunch they were, providing three generations of the family.
Lieutenant Frank Gibson wrote a number of letters home during his time with the battalion and these have all been faithfully typed up and bound as a book. With the aid of the Regimental History and War Diary it was possible to pretty much follow Frank’s movements from the time he arrived in France to the moment he was killed on 19th August 1915 at Ploegsteert in Belgium.
Our first day was spent covering quite a lot of territory. Amusingly we started at Fromelles which is considered very much Australian territory for their action in 1916. Before then the British had held the line and for a moment the Canadians — who were in the process of learning the trade of trench warfare and thus being employed in quieter areas.
The last time I had been there had been in order to research the trenches for an Australian novelist writing about two British soldiers, one of whom died in late 1915, quite possibly in the same trenches that Frank had sat in earlier in the year.
We met up with some Aussies and I think they were a bit bemused by the fact that I was talking about the Canadian front. In fact, over three years of battle the front line changed very little until the Germans over ran us in the Spring of 1918.
To compliment that we visited the Indian Memorial and Portuguese Cemetery before continuing down the Rue du Bois towards Richebourg.
One of the stories in Frank’s letters was of him getting lost on the Rue du Bois. He enquired of his whereabouts and for directions from some anonymous officer type whom he encountered and was in mid conversation when a fellow ‘Highlander’ arrived in a vehicle and drove him back to base. The unknown subaltern was better known to the driver as the Prince of Wales !
Whilst in the area we made a quick pit-stop at Richebourg allowing us to get watered and also visit St-Vaast Post cemetery where you will find Oscar Wilde’s son, killed whilst serving with the Royal Artillery.
We then moved down to Festubert where I inaugurated my first regimental plaque back in 2011. I think that this was the first time that I had been back with people related to combatants. The planning had been to have lunch in the car park alongside the monument but that meant getting bread. We arrived at the bakers and it was Shut ! Whilst trying to think on my feet of an alternative somebody noticed movement in the shop and bingo, the doors were opened. Can’t let a dozen hungry people walk off. So sandwiches were consumed.
Our next major goal was Ieper where our two senior members were going to lay a wreath at the Last Post ceremony. I had organised that with the association and knew we needed to be in place quite early. The week before, with Kevin, there had been a sizeable crowd and if you want to have a chance of seeing anything you need to know where to stand.
The ceremony went well and laying a wreath I know from experience is not a trivial affair. You have the sense that everybody is looking at you and you go through all the horrors of making sure you don’t trip on the steps, making sure you are all coordinated — and ultimately nobody notices or cares anyway.
The family met the buglers afterwards and thanked them for their work explaining their presence for the centenary of Frank’s death on the morrow. Back to Lille, oh look the hotel has a bar. More to the point it actually had some decent beers on tap. We gathered around drank a beer or two then the remains of a bottle of Glenfidich was produced. Morning arrived somewhat abruptly.
The anniversary of Frank’s death was intended as a following in his footsteps but our two youngest members had expressed an interest in seeing some real battlefield as opposed to street corners and narratives in the style of : “Frank would have come down this road and crossed that field”.
First stop was the Canadian gas attack scenes of April 1915. Frank had in fact been injured and was languishing in a bed whilst the battalion was suffering very heavy casualties during the second gas attack at Sint-Juliaan. Apart from the Canadian monument the battalion has its own right on the ‘gas-field’. Whilst inspecting it we spotted a tiny owl sitting on a pole across the field. The new camera did a good job in getting him on film.
If you want to see holes in the ground then some of the best are at Hill 60 (Aussie film — go watch). It was also the place where the battalion lost its commander Lt Col Marshall so there was a connection. The Caterpillar crater is not necessarily the largest but it is certainly one of the easiest accessed and not overgrown with bushes. You get an idea of its size, the tunnel which created it had to come under the railway line, so that adds a touch of drama.
Back on track, we headed for Ploegsteert. This was where Frank was killed and we were now going over the letters and War Diaries of the 15th and 16th Battalions. It seems that Frank was out with Captain Markham, the signals officer from the 16th Battalion, during a routine hand-over of the trenches. They were testing signalling equipment and either got themselves noticed or were just unfortunate — either way, both got killed.
The question being : where ? We knew that the headquarters had been at la Plus Douve Farm, and we knew where the front line went and which sector they were taking over. After that it becomes speculation. An executive decision was made and it was decided — in that field there.
That left us with just enough time to reach Armentières for 1500 hours in order to meet up with two pipers from Field Marshal Haig’s Own Pipes and Drums, a Belgian band who have played for the Highlanders on a number of occasions.
We were piped to the graveside or rather, I should say gravesides because Ralph Markham is buried next to Frank Gibson. Every member of the family had their part to play in reading either letters or poems. The pipers played a lament followed by a couple of melodies whilst the family gathered their thoughts on what we had achieved over the two days.
The one thing that we had not managed to do all day was, eat. The family invited me to dinner with them but rather than fight our way through Lille again I suggested that we continue on a bit, visit the Mont des Cats where Frank had been laid up in the Abbey during the gas attack. It also provides a splendid view over the countryside as far as Ieper.
From there we recrossed the border into Poperinge and ended up in the same Irish bar that Florian and I had used after the gas attack commemorations in April. Back then it had been the only place open, this time it was because I had thought the meal had been pretty good.
Fed and watered we drove back to Lille. I paused a moment at the hotel so we could say our farewells and set out on my two hour drive. The following day the family also parted in different directions. I believe that their coming together for this memorable moment will stay with them and certainly the two youngest members appear to have ‘picked up the torch’ and will continue the memory of Frank Gibson in future years.
Still not sure why I ended up with so many photos of cows, horses, shop signs, blurred thumbs and other sundry items. Some cub was getting full use of my camera from time to time.
Posted : 27 August 2015