Thursday, 12 April 2012

Random Belgian Adventures!

This post was a while coming but I had to wait till this weekend till I found out the ending which I would put to it.

A couple of months back my brother approached us all in the family with an idea . After doing some research, my brother discovered we had a great uncle whom had fought in the Somme . From what we could gather he could not find work at the time and enlisted in the British Army in search of adventure, justice, work or whatever, we simply do not know, all that we were aware of was that in November 1914 he was shot and died on the battle field in the Somme having seen just 19 years of his young life come to a very sudden end . Nothing much was known about this till my brother discovered it.

Cue the weekend just gone by. A couple of weeks back my ma had asked if I fancied going on the trip to see his grave and take in some of the sights in general (all expenses paid and money being tight I was not going to turn it down) . Once booked she then mentioned other people were going too but I was a bit worried this might cause some tension as being a gregarious sort , this lad here has been known to rub people up the wrong way.!

Come Friday morning we took a 7am flight to Charleroi in Belgium and drove the hour and a bit it was to Lille to check in and this was where the fun began. The hotel didnt let us check in till four so we decided to check out the graveyards to see if we could locate where our great uncle (we'll call him by his initials JR) was buried in Belgium. We drove for hours through lovely little towns and villages with red brick houses and stopped at all sorts of graveyards where we encountered local Flemish speakers who were only too willing to help and we had hit a snag. My brother had a grave reference and some idea as to where he may be but we were unsure about the graveyard as to its location. Having my grandmother with us who is quite frail and other family in tow we were limited to what we could do in terms of researching and exploring. Back at the hotel that night we all sank a few Belgian beers ( fuckin Leffe is like rocket fuel and Chimay, dont get me started!) but Saturday started off with a bang. We were lucky we had two hire cars with relations in one and my immediate family and grandmother/cousin/aunt in with us . Come midday I was cracking open a few beers looking for any sort of inspiration that could come to hand. I was totally indifferent to this quest before hand but now I was hooked. Most of my time was spent translating (I speak French and a crash course in Flemish before hand proved useful),with my father driving at the helm and my brother with his information to hand we started off the day in good spirits. We went to a small village called Poelkapelle to see the graveyard where he apparently died however there was no mention of him in the register. A Canadian tour guide suggested we check with the tourist office in Ypres but time was working against us pretty much and weather.

At a random suggestion my mam suggested we pulled into a town called Langenmark which could have had no more than a population of a few thousand and myself and her decided to look at a church that was interesting enough (because there was an outside pissoir as they call them in French) and to kill some time while we had a toilet break. Being in close proximity to some people for the length of time we had had caused a little strain but this search had brought us back togther as a family and pushed us closer. (Im rambling but I will continue!!). In the church my ma insisted on saying a prayer to her father to find the grave. At that very moment a pastor in the church came over to talk to us . He was heavy set and came straight over after my ma had said her prayer and spoke to us in a soft voice , making us take note as we had been quite loud before hand! We ended up chatting to him and we told him about our quest to find the grave of JR. He informed us that there was two graveyards and not one in the village of Poelkapelle and gave us excellent directions to the graveyard. We ran right out to get my brother to talk to the vicar as my brother was the one with all the information.

With a biting wind to my back and after about three cans of Juplier beer to withstand the wind we came upon the graveyard the pastor had mentioned. It was tucked away on the road to Brugges on a little road . There was rows of white crosses each one as white as the next which traversed the graveyard for a few acres and detailing those who had fallen.

The reason that the graves are perfectly straight is that all the bodies are lying on a concrete plinth.

I checked the register of the names and let a shout out to my brother once we located the name. A mixture of excitement and sadness over came me, we found the grave and all I could do was stare and cry a small bit. Being extremely butch was not something I could ever do well . My dad had a bottle of calvados and at that moment poured a drop to our fallen relative and we stood there in the biting wind trying to absorb all of what we had found. A drop of Calvados later we took some pictures still wondering what life had been like for JR, a young man in the prime of his life as some cliches would put it.

On deeper reflection afterwards and discussion some solid conclusions came out of it. Some soldiers joined an army then as there was no other opportunities available, a situation that is still the case these days. For me though the biggest part was not finding the grave, that was a bonus but it was the sense of togetherness that is instilled in me that I have not forgotten and have not shaken off since I got home this morning. The trip made me feel so connected to my extended family in a way that I have not experienced in years, its like an epiphany of sorts.

I apologise that unfortunately I lack the eloquence of prose that others have here but this has been on my mind all day and I have been itching to share it with you all here! I have been forumlating it in my head for a while how I would do it but it just spilled out ....