Before heading to Ypres for Anzac Day, I had been doing some research to find out more about the Ypres Salient and Australia’s involvement. I discovered that about 20 km south of Ypres, amongst all the other Commonwealth War Cemeteries lay one of the only two Australian only cemeteries on the whole Western Front. Ploegsteert or ‘Plug Street’ as it was known to the Allied soldiers was the sight of some intensive combat and also one of the first places where the Germans deployed the deadly Mustard Gas.
The fact that an all Tasmanian company – with men from the same district as my family came from – had been mentioned by an official historian sealed my decision to visit the site.
Traveling through the Flemish country side, it was hard to reconcile the peaceful farm lands of today with what surely must have been the closest thing to hell on earth back then. Only the stark white headstones of the numerous Commonwealth War Cemeteries scattered over the landscape gave any indication of the bitter struggle that had happened here. it was also sobering to reflect on the fact that the remains of thousands of young men on both sides lay beneath these fields, but had disappeared, perhaps forever.
It was a suitably gloomy day as we found our way down country lanes and a final short walk through the woods to find this peaceful last resting place of some Australian Diggers, ironically in a cemetery called Toronto Avenue.
In this quiet little corner of the woods lay the immaculately kept ( as all Commonwealth War Graves are) resting places of 78 Australian soldiers (mostly from NSW). Wreaths had been laid at the central Memorial and each headstone had a small plywood cross inscribed with a message from schoolchildren back in Australia. Even in this far-flung corner of the world they were remembered by their countrymen.
At the end of one of the rows of headstones was a poignant reminder of family bonds. Private J.S Luff had left behind a young family in 1917, in 2013 his Grandchildren had paid him a visit to leave old photos of that family and to let him know that he had not been forgotten.
April 25th is a very special day in Australia. ANZAC Day is a day that commemorates all the Military personnel who did not make it home from the various theatres of war that Australia & New Zealand have sent troops to since the Boer War at the beginning of the 20th century.
ANZAC actually stands for the Australian & New Zealand Army Corps that was formed in Egypt in 1915 and sent to fight in the ill fated Gallipoli campaign in Turkey in WW1. It was there that the ANZAC legend was born and the Australian Diggers are remembered with a traditional Dawn Service and street parades throughout Australia.
Australian troops were involved in the horrors of the Western Front in Europe, where for four long years the opposing sides waged bloody & futile trench warfare with neither side able to score a decisive victory while whole towns were sometimes wiped off the map in the heavy shelling. ANZAC Day is also commemorated in small towns in Northern France where there are many Australians buried.
This time last year, I was in Belgium and had a loose plan of being in France for Anzac Day. When I mentioned this to some Belgian friends, a town called Ypres in Flanders was mentioned as having ANZAC Day ceremonies and that the Last Post was played every evening. I vaguely remembered reading about Ypres and WW1 so I thought “Why not”?
The Ypres Salient was a part of the Western Front that is not as well known about in Australia as Gallipoli or the battlefields of Northern France, yet there are many Commonwealth War Cemetaries, large & small, scattered throughout the peaceful farming lands of Western Flanders in which Australians are buried
The Menin Gate in Ypres is a huge Memorial to the 55,000 Allied soldiers who fought & died in this part of the Western Front and have no known grave. Each of their names are inscribed on the walls of this Memorial.
Of that number, approximately 6000 are Australian, 7000 Canadian, but the majority are by far from Great Britain. It is indeed a humbling experience to walk around this Memorial and when you think about the numbers of men who lost their lives during this futile ,bloody conflict, the thought inevitably comes that those who glorify war have really missed the point & perhaps the politicians who send young people to war should be sent into the battle themselves!
Winston Churchill , when he first saw the utterly ruined town of Ypres, said that the town should be purchased and left in it’s ruined state as a reminder to future generations never to let a conflict like this happen again. The citizens of Ypres had a different view and so the Menin Gate was built to honour those who had disappeared into the Flanders mud. Sadly, the world did not learn from this madness!
After the town was rebuilt, the citizens of Ypres have honoured the Allied soldiers who were stationed in the area, every evening (apart from during WW2) by playing the Last Post. ANZAC Day draws large crowds to remember the fallen from the ‘War to end all Wars’!