At peace in a Belgian woodland
SNIP and it is gone. The horrid skin lesion on my back has flared up just before departure for Europe. My surgeon tells me that in 10 days the stitches will need to be removed. Loaded with dressings, sticking plaster and saline solution, I fly off on a mission to locate my maternal grandfather’s World War I grave in Belgium.
When my grandmother died we discovered a trove of memorabilia that included a pencilled notebook diary account of her husband’s voyage to England on SS Benalla A24 in 1916. Reading it made me feel close to the grandfather I never knew, creating a strong desire to visit his grave.
Private Will Foxford, a runner in the 35th Battalion AIF, was killed in action in October 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele. He was 25 years old. From the Australian War Memorial website, amid the eight eyewitness reports in Will’s Australian Red Cross Enquiry Bureau files, I discover he was out with a message, took cover in a shell hole and was there when the shrapnel hit him about the head; death was instantaneous.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website directs me to Buttes New British Cemetery, Polygon Wood, just outside Ypres. It takes less than two hours speeding on Eurostar from London to Lille in France, where I collect a little Renault Scenic hire car. Crossing a nonexistent border between France and Belgium, I continue to my base in Ypres, the family-run Ariane Hotel. There is much to see in this faithfully reconstructed walled and moated medieval Belgian town. I start with the experiential In Flanders Fields Museum (opened in 1998) with its innovative underglass displays, shells screaming overhead (and even exploding), and the Medieval Cloth Hall, centre of Ypres’s weaving trade of years past, and finish at the Grote Markt, full of bars, hotels and cafes.
At 8pm I make my way to Menin Gate, the saddest reminder of the town’s past, inscribed with the names of 54,896 British and Commonwealth troops lost in the quagmire of the trenches who, unlike grandfather Will, have no graves. Tears flow as the buglers (volunteers from the local fire brigade) sound the Last Post. Except during the years of World War II, this moving ceremony has occurred every evening since 1928.
The next morning I amsqueezed on a small minibus on an extended battlefield tour (booked through the Ariane Hotel) between two young Australian army men of about the age Will was when he died. The tour gives us an overall view of the tragic events of 1917.
But then to find Will’s grave, navigating my little Renault through a maze of country lanes and villages. Polygon Wood is a large forest 1.6km south of Zonnebeke. Row on row of manicured gardens surround the 2103 ordered white tombstones, 1675 of which hold unidentified remains. One of the Red Cross eyewitness reports reveals that Will was buried in plot five, row B, by a brave Canadian Anglican chaplain, Captain Osborne, while under heavy fire. The captain was given a military cross.
As we leave the woodland cemetery, the conclusion of Will’s diary, written on disembarkation at Plymouth in May 1916, rushes back to me: ‘‘ So we are very lucky soldiers, seeing all these places before we go to the front.’’
Fast forward one week to Manoir de Maffrecourt, a gite (farmhouse) in the Champagne district of northern France. It’s time to say goodbye to my stitches with the help of Xavier David, gentle surgeon in the village of Sainte-Menehould. Handing back my euro notes he says: ‘‘ No payment. Your grandfather gave his life for my country.’’