MARK GARDINER (with help from Neil Mackenzie)
So, what did we gain from our odyssey around The Salient?
An increased appreciation for the work of those battlefield guides. Neil and I (but mostly Neil) put in an awful lot of time into research and planning in advance, the latter undoubtedly proving of great import. In fact I found this part almost, but not quite, as enjoyable as the nine days we spent in and around Ypres. Yet we really only scratched the surface of the histories of battles, units and members of the Empire's armed services in that area. A good guide is worth his weight in gold.
I had feared that at some stage during the journey our appetite for cemeteries would be sated, and it would become a chore. It never did. Neil's idea of having at least one individual in each burial place or on each memorial on whom we had some information - even if it was only scanty on many occasions - gave us a greater affinity with both the casualties and their final resting places. You always looked forward to the next man's (or, in the case of Sister Kemp, woman's) story. My appetite for visiting The Salient has not been sated either; instead I want to know more about the men and their history, returning as often as possible to the sites.
Then there was the element of proving our planning had been pretty much spot on; having traced our routes purely on maps, we rarely got lost (only closed roads caused us problems). Proof that planning is vital for a "military" expedition; General Plumer's dictum is correct. And that for most of our stay the weather was kind to us, so unlike the luck of Haig and Gough.
And there were the cemeteries themselves. With only a handful of exceptions, they were immaculately maintained. Most have their own individual characteristics, although by design some bear great similarities to others. Some, through a combination of layout, weather or location, appeared drab or gloomy, but the vast majority were immaculately maintained and movingly beautiful, monuments not just to the men who lay within but also to the work of the CWGC staff, whom we often met during our journey. We were also lucky that we discovered some gems off the beaten track, such as Grootebeek and Minty Farm, which appear to be seldom visited. In a strange way you felt honoured to come and pay your respects in these out-of-the-way cemeteries, to show that we have not forgotten them.
We used this trip as the starting point for work on a Roll of Honour for our old school and then have obtained a lot of extra information on the 100+ men and boys commemorated on its memorial. This work will take a lot more time to complete and possibly means another trip around the battlefields - this time in France!
Finally, both Neil and myself appreciated the friendliness and hospitality of all the Belgians we met and their continuing respect for our men 90 years or more after they died. The Ypres Salient is a special place to visit for many reasons and long may it remain so.
Only a few of the locals were a bit "gruff".
Copyright © Mark Gardiner, March, 2008
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