It’s almost 2017 and that has got me looking back on the places I have visited in the past year. Living in Europe affords lots of opportunities to easily travel, and in the Summer holidays we took advantage of that fact and had a road-trip through Belgium and France. I have already shared some posts about our stays in Bruges, Antwerp, Troyes and the area around Avignon (this post about a lovely nature garden and this one about the monastery-turned-asylum where Vincent Van Gogh lived for a year) and there are still more to come! But today I want to share a story about a very personal side-trip we took while staying in Belgium, across the border to France to a military cemetery.
People travel for lots of different reasons. Sometimes it’s for work, other times for pleasure and fun, perhaps to experience new cultures or to see specific places or animals that you can’t back home. Today I want to talk about a type of travel I think of as “Remembrance Travel”; when someone travels somewhere in order to pay their respects, and remember, their ancestors who fought and perhaps died, away from home. A lot of Australians and New Zealanders travel to the beaches of Gallipoli in order to remember the ANZAC soldiers who gave their lives there in WWI. When I worked in Thailand for three months over the (Southern Hemisphere) summer of 2007/2008 I visited the town of Kanchanaburi, where the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum is located. I was unable to visit the museum itself as it was closed for a public holiday, but I did see part of the infamous ‘Death Railway’ which Allied Prisoners of War were forced to work on during WWII. My great-grandfather was a POW that worked on the Death Railway, so I had wanted to return there as a sort of pilgrimage for him. He had survived the war and gone home and I knew quite a lot of stories about him from my grandmother (who raised me), as he was her father.
When I first made plans to move to London back in 2012 (I moved to London in January 2013) my Grandmother asked me, if I ever found myself in France, if perhaps I could visit the war grave of her grandfather. William Calbraith Livesey was the father of my great-grandfather that had worked on the Death Railway, and he never returned from WWI, being killed in action in France. Since I had visited the Death Railway where my great-grandfather had worked I also wanted to visit the war cemetery where my great-great-grandfather was buried. My great-grandfather who ended up fighting in WWII was only a baby when his father went to Europe in WWI, and his younger sister wasn’t even born yet so neither of them ever knew their father. While my great-grandfather died years before I was born I did know my great-aunt Aunty Muriel, who was an amazing woman who lived well into her nineties. My grandmother and I even travelled to Sydney for her 90th birthday. Unfortunately she didn’t live long enough for me to show her photos of her father’s grave in France, but I’m sure she would have liked the fact that I went there.
So, earlier this year Dennis and I set out from Bruges to a little town in France right on the Belgian border called Caestre. My Gran had given me the information about finding the cemetery before I ever left Australia, but as it’s very small and nowhere near any big tourist spots it’s rather difficult to get to unless you have a car and GPS. In fact, as it turned out, the information she had found online (which I had also looked up myself to double-check everything) wasn’t even for the correct cemetery! We found ourselves at the little graveyard in the middle of a field exactly as had been described on the website we checked, but I couldn’t find the grave of my great-great-grandfather. It seemed like perhaps the gravestone itself was just missing as there seemed to be gaps, but we checked the ledger that’s kept in a little letterbox and he wasn’t recorded there either. It was all very puzzling. The graveyard itself was very pretty though, and I noticed as we were travelling through France and Belgium that all the war graveyards are absolutely immaculately tended, which is lovely to see. This tiny one seemed even prettier than most, with lovely red roses throughout.
It turns out that this one wasn’t the official Caestre Military Cemetery, but the Le Peuplier Military Cemetery. However, I had noticed as we drove through Caestre itself, a sign which said ‘Caestre Military Cemetery’ and pointed further into the town, so we returned that way and quite quickly found another small cemetery in a residential part of the town. This time I checked the ledger before we even went inside, and lo and behold, we found him!
It just goes to show, you can’t trust everything you read on the internet! While this cemetery wasn’t in such a pretty spot as the other one, it was just as immaculately tended, in accordance with the little spiel you can find on any military cemetery you visit in the area:
We found the grave of my great-great-grandfather in the row as marked, the stone a little faded, but maintained well. His is the one on the far right, front row of the photo below.
It’s always so sad visiting these sorts of graveyards, seeing how many young men died fighting, and how young most of them were. Hopefully they will continue to serve as a reminder of the futility and heartbreak of war and prevent any more on such a scale coming again. Of course, with some of the things still happening in the world today it seems perhaps a doomed hope but maybe as more people take the time to remember these events things might change in the future. But this post was just to show the final resting place of my great-great-grandfather so no more moralising.
It was also lovely to see that in the letterbox where the records of the graves are kept there is also a visitor’s book that has been signed by other people from around the world who have come to pay their respects to the fallen. There were lots of signatures from people who had visited, even as recently as that same day, and of course I signed it as well.
Has anyone else ever taken part in Remembrance Travel? I’d love to hear other people’s experiences so please let me know in the comments. Otherwise, stay tuned for more posts in 2017 about France, Belgium and Australia. Happy New Year everybody!