The canals of Bruges Belgium
I recently had the opportunity to cover two life-long wishes with one compact trip to Europe. I don’t use the word “opportunity” lightly because I never take the good fortune of resources and health for travel for granted. I am blessed and I get it.
Readers of this blog know of my Welsh heritage and my joy in rediscovery of Celtic family roots and the traditions, stories, and people of Wales. The little land of poets and bards had a lot to do with the founding of this Country. As I have joyfully pointed out, of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 17 were of Welsh descent including the man credited as its author, Thomas Jefferson.
On a personal note, as a guy with a decent baritone voice, a love of music, a knack for storytelling, and a lifelong interest in the labor movement, my 30% Welsh DNA result was not a great surprise.
If you have the time and interest to read all my Wales-related blogs, I have recently created a subject tab for Wales and added the six previous entries.
One such blog, Ich Dien, from November 8, 2021, was written on the 104th anniversary of the death of its subject, Henry Ivor Constance, a 25-year-old private in the 2nd Battalion of the Welsh Regiment. Ivor fell in an assault on the German trenches just below the heights of Passchendaele, Belgium on the Western Front in World War I. Ivor was my grandfather’s brother, so my great uncle, and was laid to rest in Flanders Fields on November 10, 1917, the very day the battle ended.
While my dad’s mother was a Skillman whose American roots are deep with at least one veteran of the War for Independence, as far as I know, Ivor was my only relative who died in war. His name was always mentioned with reverence. He was our family hero.
My first connection to his grave was a piece of ivy that was carefully wrapped in wax paper and placed in our family Bible. It carried with it a small piece of paper with the alliterative words, “Ivy from Ivor’s Grave”.
This little memento came to my dad from Eleanor Davies Tydings, the wife of dad’s one-time boss, Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland. She had lovingly picked it from the ground beneath Ivor’s tombstone in White House Cemetery, Ypres. Mrs. Tydings was close to my dad, but also loved her own deep Welsh roots. Her grandmother, Rachel Davies was a Welsh-born evangelist and the first woman minister to be ordained in Wisconsin. Eleanor's father, Joseph E. Davies, political ally of Woodrow Wilson and FDR’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, named his country house and estate in Washington, DC, Tregaron after the village in Wales where his father was born.
That little piece of greenery was my only connection to Flanders Fields and my Uncle Ivor. My young second cousin, Matthew William Alford, visited the grave on a school trip to Belgium, and is as far as I know the only family member who had ever gone to the gravesite.
I have been determined for some years to add to that number.
When Hayden had secured an opportunity for us to see Wales play Australia in the Rugby World Cup in Lyon, France (more on that in my next blog), we decided that this would be the opportunity to visit Belgium for a few days before hopping the train to France. We chose Bruges, the capital of West Flanders with its canals, cobbled streets, and medieval buildings as our base of operations.
I used Trip Advisor to find my way to a firm with the unusual, but unforgettable name of Quasimodo Tours. While it was a small group tour, I reached out to the owner, Philippe, to ask if a small detour to White House Cemetery was possible, and he immediately responded that a 10-minute visit was doable. I felt that was all that we needed to pay our respects and offer a prayer.
Philippe picked us up at a hotel near ours at 8:50am on a beautiful crisp morning in Bruges. I would describe his demeanor as cool, but he had trouble on his mind. There had been a mix up with a taxi company assigned to transport some folks to the train station for pickup and Philippe's wife Sharon was in a tizzy. It all eventually worked out and we were on our way into Flanders Fields.
I will not give you the tick tock of the day, but some highlights are worthy of note.
First, you cannot spend a day on a World War I battlefield without arriving at the conclusion that war is not only brutal and barbaric, but singularly senseless in the realm of human activity. Countless lives lost. No territory gained. A generation of young men eliminated. As we sit in the midst of the Israel/Hamas conflict, this is reinforced every day.
Second, the impact of a war fought over 100 years ago on the lives and communities of West Flanders today. Farmers and construction workers are still unearthing over 6,600 kilos (14,550 pounds) of shrapnel and unexploded munitions each year. There is an active bomb demolition site in Ypres and civilians are still being killed on their own land by accidental detonations.
Third, the high ground of Passchendaele was not that high. The objective for which my great uncle and so many more gave their lives was the German position whose artillery commanded the Flanders fields. Our guide drove us to that high ground to show that when you are on a flat coastal plain (40 km to the coast), even the slightest of hills gives a strategic advantage.
Finally, we were introduced to the tunnel warfare of Flanders. An intricate network of tunnels, constructed by miners pressed into service by both sides of the conflict, were used to detonate deadly explosives under trenches and artillery positions. Decoy tunnels were started to throw off the enemy and when tunnels intentionally or unintentionally intersected, some of the fighting was underground. Like everything else in his dense clay of Flanders, progress on tunnels was glacial with progress measured as barely three meters a day.
After our morning tours of battlefields, memorials, and cemeteries, we went to the Brothers in Arms Memorial in Westhoek, just outside of Ypres. Here is the story of the memorial in the words of their website.
During road works to lay a new gas pipeline in the hamlet of Westhoek in 2006, Tom Heyman, operating the machine, suddenly stopped digging and called Johan Vandewalle, an amateur archaeologist. Tom was convinced that he had found human remains just beside the road, and immediately linked them to the battlefield that Westhoek once was. Johan rushed over and could only confirm that these remains had to be those of a World War I soldier. He contacted the police and the Mayor of Zonnebeke and got the green light to gather a team and start excavating as soon as possible.
After clearing the first grave, they noticed another grave just next to the first one. And then another, and another, and another. In total 5 Australian soldiers were exhumed. The last Australian body, however, was to make an everlasting impression on all who were involved. Identified by DNA research, this fifth body was that of Australian private named John Hunter.
This body was not thrown into the grave like the other four bodies. Lovingly wrapped and shrouded, someone had taken great care in laying John Hunter to rest. Research led to the family in Australia, who confirmed that the story in the family was that John – or Jack as he was known in the family – had been buried by his younger brother Jim.
Thus, the Brothers in Arms Memorial features a sculpture of Jim Hunter holding his dying brother Jack and is dedicated to the memory of these brothers, and all families that lost multiple sons in Flanders Fields.
After lunch, as we approached Ypres, Philippe let Hayden and me know that we would stop at White House Cemetery on the way. I was tired from a morning of touring and a large lunch but was immediately awake and alert at this prompting.
The cemetery was begun in March 1915 and used until April 1918 by units holding this part of the line. From September through November 1917, here were buried 17 soldiers from the UK, four from Canada, four from Australia, three from New Zealand, and one from the West Indies. Henry Ivor Constance was buried on Saturday, November 10, 1917.
As the van glided to a stop at the brick gates of White House Cemetery, Philippe announced to our group that we were making a brief stop for a relative remembrance and anyone who wished to get out was welcome to do so. I had the location information, but true to form, Philippe had researched it as well and was quite familiar with what the letter and two numbers meant. I had seen them in Dad’s Bible for years, but had never known that they stood for section, row, and plot.
As we walked through the cemetery, I could feel my pulse quicken as my anticipation rose. I had thought about this moment for years. I was about to do something that my dad, his dad, his Welsh aunts, and uncles, had never had the opportunity to do. I felt a weight of responsibility and gratitude with each step.
We reached the row and turned left, now noticing the plot numbers on the top of each headstone. We finally reached headstone 31.
8th November 1917
A prayer. Some photographs. Such a brief moment of my life in tribute to a sacrifice that has impacted generations.
That evening, Hayden and I gathered with a small crowd on Bollingstraat in Ypres to attend a ceremony that has taken place each day since 1928. At The Menin Gate, a triumphal archway at the eastern end of the town inscribed with the names of the 54,395 Commonwealth soldiers who died in Flanders but whose bodies have never been identified or found, local buglers sound the Last Post. This is a bugle call played in the British Army to mark the end of the day’s labors and onset of the night’s rest. It has come to represent a final farewell to the fallen at the end of their earthly labors and at the onset of their eternal rest.
Like our visit to White House Cemetery, it was simple, brief, and moving.