Wednesday, 22 July 2015

France (and Belgium) World War One Battlefields holiday with Dad

Hi #Treksters, as you may have seen (and heard) I went away on holiday with my Dad a couple of weeks (between the 6th-11th July 2015) back to explore the French and Belgian World War One Battlefields.
This blog is going to explain what we got up to in the six days I was (mostly) away from all things Star Trek, and all things podcasting!
But before I go any further I just want to thank Dad for such a fantastic time, I really enjoyed...and needed it!
Thank you Dad I hope you enjoyed yourself too!!! 
Day 1- Monday 6th July 2015
Our first day begun like any other holiday...travelling to our holiday destination!
For us that was Albert, France.
Which is a grand total of 223 miles away from where I live. A distance I later realised in the day, would have taken the soldiers of the First World War an awfully lot longer to cover than we can today.
The town is oddly situated in the Picardie region of France...which was a bit surreal for a Star Trek fan!
But I've got to disappoint you all, by saying that once we reached our French hotel. I did a bit of checking on the internet (via hotel Wi-Fi), and found out that Captain Picard's surname wasn't inspired by this region of France!
After waking up (and getting ready) we left the house at 9:30am BST (British Summer Time), to make our way down to Folkestone for our Eurotunnel train at 11:50am BST.
After making it down there with time to spare, we got ready to leave British soil.
But this being England it didn't quite go to plan as Eurotunnel were having "Technical Difficulties" delaying our departure to 12:13pm BST.
A little after 12:30pm BST we're aboard, and able to start the 35 minute journey under the English channel.
After stopping for a brief rest bit (and lunch) we arrived in albert at 4:35pm CET (Central European Time).
Even before we 'officially' started our holiday, we were already being undated with reminders that a war was being fought in the very region we were driving through a century ago.
Through the numerous cemeteries (and memorials) which littered the surrounding countryside, that were difficult not to pay attention to.
On top of that there were also signs which showed where the frontlines were at a particular time during the First World War.
Even when we reached out destination, we were again reminded of the regions 'past life'.
As the Albert cathedral is counting everyday (1,562 days) of World War One (4 years, 3 months and 12 days of it) leading up to the Centenary of the end of war on Armistice Day (11th November) 2018.
While we were staying in Albert, the tally was up to 332 (Monday) and 333 (Tuesday).
Day 2- Tuesday 7th July 2015
On the second day, we could 'officially' get our holiday underway!
The first place we decided to visit on the Tuesday, was the Canadian memorial at Beaumont Hamel. Which I've got written in my (not very detailed) notes as "an amazing (and easy) start to the holiday".
I say this because it's got everything you would come to expect with a World War One site including:
  • Trenches
    Beaumont Hamel has got a lot of original trenches, which you can actually walk around. However due to their age (and their outdoor environment), has meant that they have been eroded.
    So they are unfortunately not at they're initial size of 2.5 metres.
    Although it still gives you a good impression of what they were like when they were in use by the Canadian soldiers.
  • Memorials
    Beaumont Hamel, also has a number of memorials around the site. The largest...and most imposing is the Newfoundland Regiment Memorial.
    The memorial is a bronze caribou, the emblem of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, standing on top of a cairn of Newfoundland granite.
    Which faces the former German frontlines with it's head drawn in defiance. At it's highest the Memorial rises approximately 50 feet (15 m) from ground level
  • Cemeteries
    The site also has a total of three different cemeteries, scattered over the 74 acres (or 30 hectares) of parkland.
  • Museum
    If you are unfamiliar with the actions the Newfoundlanders played in the First World War, then you're in luck as the site has it's own museum. Which explains their activities throughout the war. 
The last thing I said in my notes about Beaumont Hamel, was that it is "a fantastic tribute and memorial to all the Canadian troops lost in World War One".
Making it somewhere well worth a visit!

After a short (5 minute) car journey, we then arrived at The Thiepval Anglo-French Cemetery and Memorial to the missing.
Which is currently being restored ready for the centenary of the Battle of the Somme next year. So we were unable to see the Memorial to the missing in full. Built between 1928-1932, the Memorial names a total of 72,195 missing allied soldiers from The Great War.
Along with a cemetery that commemorates both British and French soldiers.

A very imposing place to visit, which has amazing views over the Somme countryside.  Somewhere I would recommend going if you want to remember a large proportion of the missing allied soldiers.
We then went to the Locknagar crater Memorial, which was a mine dug by the Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Engineers.
The Locknagar mine formed part of a series of eight large mines (and eleven small mines) that were planted underneath the German lines on the British section of the Somme front. It lead under a German field fortification known as Schwabenh√∂he, found on the frontlines south of the village of La Boisselle.
The mine was fired at 7:28 am on the 1st of  July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
After the mine was sprung, the crater was captured and held by British troops...but the attack on either flank was defeated by German small-arms and artillery fire. Apart from on the extreme right flank, and just south of La Boisselle  (north of the new crater).
The crater has been preserved as a memorial, where a service is held on the 1st July each year.

An incredible place to visit, that I would recommend visiting if you want to remember all the men who died tunnelling underground during The First World War.

Continuing on, we then went to the Fricourt German Military Cemetery for a short visit. As we (me & Dad) believe that all side should be remembered!
I say this because I believe that politics (and historical politics) gets in the way of what really matters remembrance of the fallen.

Somewhere I found to be a very sombre place, as it's a cemetery not many people visit. Which I find very upsetting and sobering. Considering that 17,000 Burials are being (for the most part) forgotten.

As the cemetery's there for people to remember the fallen...but they're being ignored for the more obvious allied cemeteries.
Which contradicts the mythology of Star Trek that everyone's equal. So if you get the chance make sure you visit a German memorial you owe it to the fallen...whatever country they are from!

The last place we visited on the Tuesday was back in Albert itself, The Somme Museum 1916 based under the Albert cathedral.
Just from that you can tell it's a very unconventional museum, and you'd be right!

The museum is only accessible through a very long stairs passageway leading down to a tunnel which literary takes you under the streets of Albert.

Ending up on the other side of central Albert approximately a 1/10th of a mile away from where you started. Along that distance you learn about a tirade of different things from the First World War period.
A fascinating museum if you want to see the story of war progress through its objects and tools from the time!

Day 3- Wednesday 8th July 2015
After two days in the Somme it was time to Check Out of our Albert hotel, and time to travel up to our Belgian Bed & Breakfast on the outskirts of Ypres (in Belgium), near to Flanders Fields.
Ypres, is of course the home of Menin Gate...and the Last Post ceremony.
Dad organised the holiday so that the ceremony was the centrepiece. As we wanted to go and see the 30,000th Last Post ceremony on Day 4 (Thursday 9th july 2015)...but we had a change of plan as you'll read below!

Instead of going straight to our Belgian Bed & Breakfast, we decided to make a couple of stop offs in Arras for the Wellington Quarry and The Canadian National Vimy Memorial on the Vimy Ridge.

Our first stop was the Wellington Quarry in Arras, a place me (and Dad) knew very little about!
From the outside it is a very unassuming place, but as I've got written down in my notes "A surprise! As I didn't know what to expect...but a fantastic place to visit".
The Quarry was dug by New Zealand tunnellers (reason for the name) so that 24,000 soldiers could sleep in their underground barracks in 'relative' comfort, before going to fight in the Battle of Arras on the morning of 9th April 1917.

An absolutely incredible place to visit, as within the ticket price you get a guided tour by a member of staff (who are highly knowledgeable). Which is supplemented by an amazing audio guide!

The caves are fascinating, as they have graffiti from both the First World War and the Second World War.
The graffiti is split into two groups the 'official' signage used to navigate the tunnels, and the more interesting (and abundant) 'unofficial' graffiti.
Created by the soldiers living in the caves, in order to preoccupy themselves before the attack.

This being an underground cave system, means that (for health & safety reasons) you of course have to wear a hard hat. Which compared with other once I've worn in the past is actually "comfortable", as I've written in my notes!
Trust me #Treksters, this is somewhere you just have to visit! As there aren't many museums like it...well worth a visit!!! #AwesomeMuseum
After being thoroughly surprised by the Wellington Quarry, it was time to move onto our next site The Canadian Memorial Park at Vimy.
Just like the aforementioned Canadian Memorial Park in Beaumont Hamel (from Day 2) it is made up of trenches, memorials, cemeteries and a museum.
  • Trenches
    Vimey, just like it's Beaumont Hamel counterpart has got a lot of original trenches, which you can actually walk around. However both the allied and German trenches are still completely intact...meaning you can have a good exploration of them!
  • Memorials
    This is the main draw for a visit to Vimey, the imposing monument which remembers all Canadians who served their country in battle during the the Great War. It bears the inscribed names of 11,168 missing Canadians. Killed in action in France but whose remains have never been found or identified.
  • Cemeteries
    Vimey, also contains two Canadian cemeteries.
    The first is called Canadian Cemetery No.2, which has 3,000 graves over an area of 10,869 square metres. The other is called the Givenchy Road Canadian Cemetery, which has 109 graves in an area of 849 square metres.
  • Museum
    Another museum centred around actions the Canadian soldiers played during the First World War. 

The last thing I would say about the Canadian Memorial Park at Vimy, is that it is well worth seeing just for the monument. As if I refer back to my notes "it is just as impressive as the monument at Thiepval", something to behold.

I would also say that it is worth spending a bit of time wandering around the trenches in Vimy, as it will give you an better understanding of what it must have been like a century ago.

Like I said earlier the centrepiece of our holiday was to go and see the 30,000th Last Post ceremony on Day 4 (Thursday 9th July 2015) at the Menin Gate in the centre of Ypres.
But our gracious hosts (Herberg Boerenhol) advised us to go to the 29,999th Last Post ceremony, as we would be able to attend that ceremony without any problems.
Compared with the impossibility of seeing the momentous occasion due to its significant, and the fact that the Queen of Belgium would be in attendance.  
With that in mind, we made our way straight into the centre of Ypres...and got the car parked. After a short walk we arrive at the Menin Gate, a memorial which holds the names of 54,397 soldiers lost from all over the Commonwealth.
Being early evening, we could afford to spend a bit of time looking around the memorial. Before getting into prime position ready for the Last Post at 8:00pm CET. As time goes by more, and more people fill the space until every nook and cranny is full.
Then out of the blue, the ceremony beings...and everyone's mood within the memorial changes. From a highly excited (and elated) atmosphere to a very quiet and reflective environment.
Making it an extremely sombre experience, as you know what your about to witness is a privilege to see.
This is then replaced by the overwhelming feeling of sadness as you look around the memorial in the minute silence, as you start thinking about all the lost lives which could have continued...without the First World War.

Above is a video I've uploaded to YouTube, showing the complete last Post ceremony.
It last for around 15 minutes (14:28 to be precise), as I recorded the ceremony from start to finish (reprieve) including the Wraith laying in between. 
I do just want to point out that this is not the entire ceremony...but what I've recorded is the most famous part of it. 
If you are thinking of attending the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres (during the summer months), then I would recommend getting to the memorial at least an hour and half before the ceremony beginnings. In order to get into a prime position for when it starts.
This is something I really recommend doing if you're planning a trip around the World War One battlefields, as it is such an iconic way of remembrance that will always be with you.
To find out more details about attending the daily Last Post ceremony then please go to:
 Day 4- Thursday 9th July 2015
Onto Day 4, a day full of trenches and walking! The first two places (arguably three places) I'm going to merge into one, as they pretty much cover the same ground!
The first place we visited was Bayernward, which was a set of restored German trenches. Whereas the second place we then went onto was Sanctuary Wood which had a set of original British trenches.
This gave us the perfect chance to compare and contrast the different building techniques of both sides in a short space of time.
The differences between them were obvious straight away, as the allied trenches (seen at Sanctuary Wood) used the most update technology of the era...corrugated iron. Which connected up seamlessly, giving the trenches a 'professional' feel.
Whereas the German trenches (at Beyernward) were built solely out of wood...a building technique from the past. Which is a building technique they simply updated for the 20th Century!
Both places had a 'museum' like element to them...but I felt that Bayernward dealt with it a lot better. As the restored trenches have exposition over what you looking at. 
In contract Sanctuary Wood is a great place to walk around original British trenches, but you'll be disappointed if your looking for any kind of exposition. As there is none whatsoever...making it quite a hollow experience.
I think that Sanctuary Wood and Beyernward are great places for a short visit. Like I said earlier about Beaumont Hamel,  I think that they can help give you an idea what they were like in use.
After a short journey we end up at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, which as you'll find out carries on the theme of trenches. This museum covers everything you'd come to expect with a World War One museum including an overview of the war. The museum also discusses the Battle of Passchendaele, where half a million casualties died over one hundred days. Which only lead to an allied gain of only eight km’s of ground.
Although what me and Dad will remember the museum most for is the Dugout Experience they have built.
The experience, has been painstakingly researched to point like you've almost stepped back to 1917 (during the Battle of Passchendaele).
As every minor detail has immaculately been added, making you wonder if an Allied soldier's going to appear asking you 'what are you doing in my dugout!'. 
Continuing on with experiences the museum also has a Trench Experience. Where they have built a network of reconstructed German and British trenches (which even have rebuilt original shelters) in a fenced off portion of the grounds. It's a (visual) way of showing how life in the trenches evolved throughout the war years.
I thought it was an interesting museum, with some definite highlights (Trench and Dugout Experiences). A museum well worth visiting if you have a fascination wit the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.
I found that everything was well displayed, and has a great level of exposition. It also has a very interactive children's displays to compliment the adult ones. Making it a brilliant place to teach your kids about the Great War. 
After a brief discussion, me and Dad then decided to visit our next attraction...the Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing (and Visitor Centre). Which is part of the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, due to the fact that so many soldiers (half a million) died in that particular battle.
The cemetery also has the title of being the largest Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in the world containing 11,954 Burials from all different backgrounds.
Instead of jumping in the car, like we've done every other time we decided to walk from the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 to the Tyne Cot Cemetery, which is a nice walk along an old railway.
But be warned, can take well over 30 minutes to get there (depending on your pace). So I'd recommend thinking hard about whether you'll be able to do, before deciding to go ahead with a walk.
Obviously, there's no comparison between walking there and the 3 minute car ride. Although if you do decide to!
As the route is littered with World War One stories leading to the big reward at the end, the Tyne Cot Cemetery.
I'm now going to refer directly from my notes for the rest of the Tyne Cot Cemetery. Although, I will admit I have given them a 'tidy' so that my thoughts are made clearer.
Whilst also giving you a better understanding of its impact on me, while we were there. 
"The cemetery is overwhelming in size and magnitude. It is quite a staggering visual marker to how destructive a war can be. 
This is then heightened, As you near the Visitor Centre, due to the ominous voice reading out names (and ages) of soldiers. Upon entering, those names are then given faces through a rotation of images on the wall.
Looking around further you find personal objects associated to those same names. Making the whole experience very personal...and sombre".
After that we returned to our Bed & Breakfast for some dinner, we then decided to watch the 30,000th Last Post on Belgium Television in Dad's bedroom.
The event, as we'd suspected was very much a state occasion lead by the Queen of Belgium. Making the event pretty much closed off to everyday members of the public. Which is in total contrast to every other ceremony!
Making us both think that we'd got a the best of both worlds going to the 29,999th Last Post. As we got to see the Last Post in all it's glory, whilst getting a 'front seat' to the significant simply watching it on Television!
Day 5- Friday 10th July 2015
Day five of our holiday, didn't quite follow all the other we had to get the car battery fixed (and by fixed I mean replaced).
As every our fantastic Bed & Breakfast hosts, came to the rescue by giving us the details of a local mechanic who could replace the battery for us!   
The main problem with the battery was that it wasn't generating enough power, meaning that at three separate times throughout the holiday the cars battery would drain completely flat.
The only reason we were saved on each of those occasions, was because Dad had packed the car with a special gadget. Which could restart the cars battery.
But we should have got it fixed a lot sooner then we did, as we were plagued with problems even before we'd left British soil on the Monday. 
After that got resolved, we decided to go to the Langemark German Military Cemetery. The largest German cemetery in Belgium with 44,304 Burials. Making it prone to 100,000 visitors annually.
Which as I said in my notes "is a complete opposite to Fricourt German Military Cemetery" from Day 2 (Tuesday).
"As it is large, easy to get to and imposing. This means that it is constantly being visited. Including (British) school trips, who are leaving lovely memorials. Making the Langemark German Military Cemetery well worth a visit".
I found that the memorial left by the students of the Macmillan Academy (from Middlesbrough, United Kingdom) really quite touching, as it sums up our (mine and Dad's) attitude toward the fallen perfectly.
As they had made three ceramic poppies (similar to the Tower of London poppies) with a message that read:
"In war there are no unwounded soldiers"
This is another cemetery I found a very sombre place, as there were names everywhere. Reminding you that we lost an entire generation from the Great War.

After that we then went into Ypres, for a proper look we weren't able to back on Day 3 (Wednesday) when we went there for the Last Post ceremony.
Once we arrived, went back to the Menin Gate so that we could have a look at the 30,000th Last Post floral tributes from the night before.
We then made our way to the In Flanders Field Museum in Cloth Hall the centre of Ypres.
It is a very interactive museum due to their 'poppy' bracelets given to you on entry.

The bracelet contains a microchip, that automatically sets the language choice and enables you to discover four different personal stories throughout their permanent exhibition.
I think the In Flanders Field Museum is an interesting museum, as it houses some amazing objects over one entire floor. Which is an accolade not many museum's can give!
I found that the 'poppy' bracelet personal tour a good idea...although I found it all a bit to fiddly for my liking!!!

After, we decided to take a short walk from the centre of Ypres to the Lille Gate. Whilst there we looked at the Ramparts Cemetery, which overlooks part of the cities original defensive moat. Before strolling along the cities ramparts until we got back to the Menin Gate.
Before going and having some dinner and dessert...where I obviously had to have a Belgium waffle and (strawberry) ice cream!
Which for you information was yummy!!! #HappySimon
Day 6- Saturday 11th July 2015

Our last day begun like any other holiday...Checking Out of our fantastic Belgium Bed & Breakfast, before meandering the 175 miles back home!
After waking up (and getting ready) we left the Bed & Breakfast at 10:50am CET, to make our way up to Calais for our Eurotunnel train at 4:50pm CET.
Although instead of going straight back to Calais we decided to go via another couple of other places before we caught out Eurotunnel train back to the England.
The first place was a suggestion from our great Bed & Breakfast hosts, in the form of the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.
Whereas the second place was La Coupole in France, which is somewhere Dad's wanted to visit for years due to its significance during the Second World War!
Like I say, the first place we visited was the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery. Which is an absolutely amazing Flanders Field cemetery...and that's no exaggeration!
This is because it is a cemetery like no other, as it was chosen to be the site of Allied casualty clearing stations located next to a series of field hospitals.
Due to those reasons the cemetery has 10,785 graves for every side. Making it a very 'atypical' cemetery, and the second largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in Belgium. After the aforementioned Tyne Cot Cemetery (from Day 4-Thursday).
Unlike every other cemetery I've spoken about, the gravestones at Lijssenthoek don't go in the same direction. Possibly as a direct result of the cemetery's location next to so many medical facilities during the war.
The cemetery is also quite unusual, because since the end of the First World War, a further 41 graves have been added to the cemetery. Which include 24 graves from several isolated positions near Poperinge (nearest town), that were reburied in 1920. 
Another 17 graves were reburied in 1981 from the St. Denijs Churchyard. But most interestingly of the fact that there is also one non World War burial in the cemetery.
Because of it's background, the cemetery also has an interesting way of showing the number of burials at the cemetery even before you've entered the graveyard itself.
As if you walk along the pathway next to road, going towards the main entrance. You'll notice a series of (1,392) metal poles lined up, constructing a metal fence.
The poles are a physical representation of the cemetery's 'life', "guiding you towards a place of remembrance" as they've put on their website.
On the top of each pole is a day (or in some cases a month) in which the cemetery has been in use. 
While at the bottom is a sobering visible marker for how many people lost they're lives.
This is another cemetery, which left me with a very sombre experience. As it reminded how many countries were effected by the war. 
If you get the chance make sure you visit the Lijssenthoek Military it's well worth it.
After a short drive back into France, we arrive at the final place (La Coupole museum) to visit on this holiday. Before getting onto our Eurotunnel train back to normality!
La Coupole, as some of you may already know didn't play any part in the First World it wasn't constructed until 1943-1944.
Making it a Second World War structure (and museum), which (although I knew I was going there) confused me.
As after spending six days looking at everything you could possibly think of to do with the Great War, you get enveloped by it, making 'everything' non World War One look 'alien'.
It's a bit indescribable to explain...but it's something you'll understand after you've done a holiday like this!
Going back to what I said at the beginning of the Day 6 introduction, this is somewhere Dad's wanted to visit for years.
Due to his interest in the Second World War...and the engineering side of La Coupole bunker's construction and use (building and launching Vengeance weapons e.g. V-2 Rockets). 
This is probably due to his job, as a Electronic Engineer. Which we established at the beginning of our NASA/ESAManned Missions to Mars episode where Dad made a guest appearance!
The bunker is constructed into the side of a disused chalk quarry. La Coupole simply translates into English as...The Dome, which is the most prominent feature of the whole complex, now houses the museum. Which tells the stories of the German occupation of France during World War II, the V-weapons and the birth of space exploration.

As I've already established the museum has quite an unusual setting. Which gets quite strange for any Science Fiction (in particular Stargate SG-1) fans, when you start walking toward the underground cave entrance.

As I just kept thinking about the similarities between it and the Cheyenne Mountain Complex  underground cave entrance (seen in Stargate SG-1)!
Because in both cases, you are walking into the unknown...meaning you didn't know what to expect!!!

Walking in further, backed that up even further with a myriad of dark and dingy tunnels finally leading ominously to a lift. Which took you to the centre of the dome...where the majority of the museum is located.

Once there the museum covers everything you would want to know about the Vengeance weapons, through a quite temperamental audio guide...which you can imagine (again) I wasn't that keen on!

What did impress me was the fact that they'd fitted in a complete V-2 rocket and a V-1 Flying Bomb (Doodlebug) into the interior of the dome, along with an awful lot of other fascinating objects.

I think it was a quite interesting museum, but I think me and Dad didn't really give it a we just wanted to get home.
If we were able to have spend a couple of hours there, I think we would have enjoyed it in its entirety. Instead of rushing around it at Warp factor 10, due to our strict time restrains!
Somewhere well worth a visit if you're interesting in the development of the Vengeance weapons, and the part they playing in the birth (and development) of space exploration rockets (like the Saturn V).

Getting back on the road, we head straight for Calais raring to board our 4:50pm CET (Central European Time) Eurotunnel train.
But due to a couple of minor problems, including getting stuck in the Eurotunnel Passport Control queue we ended up on the slightly later 5:07pm CET train.
Resulting in us ending up on british soil at 4:35pm BST (British Summer Time), after another 35 minute journey through the Channel tunnel.
After a quiet 2 hour 10 minute journey, we arrive home at 6:45pm BST.

I hope you've enjoyed reading about my holiday, as much as I enjoyed going on it...and reminiscing about it writing about it in this blog!
Thanks again for an awesome holiday Dad!!!

My Final Thoughts
With so many poignant moments throughout the holiday, it really makes you start to think about how fortunate (and lucky) we are living at this point in time.
I know it's nowhere near perfect by any field of imagination, but it's a darn site more stable than the world was a century ago.
Which is a lesson, I think we forget too much!
So every now and then, just remember the people that sacrificed their that we can live the way we do!!!

Remember the fallen


Never Forget

This is Simon from The Engage Podcast signing out!