Travels with a Rucksack.
I’m beginning to understand the attraction of holidays spent lolling about on a beach somewhat better. The truth is that racing around the Western Front, led by an enthusiastic ex-Army Officer on a forced march, is not for the faint – hearted. I take great pride in the fact that I was able to “keep up”, in spite of a smoking habit and the bl**dy rucksack that I decided (in a fit of inspired lunacy) to take with me, instead of a handbag. I know that is the reason why my right shoulder still aches days later.
But for all the clobber stuffed in the rucksack – spare shoes and wet weather gear etc- I still had to borrow a hankie later at the Menin Gate Ceremony. Runny nose is never a good look, especially if you have been lucky enough to bag a prime position at the front of the crowd, right next to the buglers giving The Last Post.
I went out to Belgium firmly believing that the 1st World War was a futile exercise in competing male egos – and I returned feeling the same, only much sadder. Although war will never happen in the same way again because strategy has changed – I wish that all aspiring politicians and leaders could spend a compulsory week in Belgium before seeking office – or in the case of Tony Blair and his henchmen, a month (preferably in the rain).
The cemeteries are beautifully cared for and immaculate. The British and Commonwealth graves are planted with many of the flowers we grow in our gardens – and I was aware of that familiar old impulse to “just take a little cutting” more than once (resisted).
Gardens in that part of Belgium are different from ours, so that it truly feels as though our soldiers are “at home”. Belgian gardens appear to be architectural in nature, and rely on closely clipped hedges and pleached shrubs. The reason for this must lie in the intractible grey clay which is slow to drain, and must be murderous to garden on. So much easier to plant a few shrubs, than struggle to render it hospitable for perennials. Many of the fields were holding surface water in potato furrows during our visit, which would have horrified me, if I had planted them. And confirmation (if it were needed) of the dreadful conditions endured by the hapless soldiers of all nationalities in their trenches, as they fought backwards and forwards over a very narrow strip of land.
As an act of Remembrance, my daughter placed a cross on the grave of a nineteen year old boy from a Lothian regiment. Further research on our return, reveals that he lived two miles as the crow flies from our old family home, and attended the same High School as I did many years later. As we live on the west coast, and most regiments recruit from geographical areas, we have found this to be an eerie and unexpected coincidence on what has been a memorable visit.