At peace in a Bel­gian wood­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Us Holidays - Denise Black­more

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.’’

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