World War I Family Hero-Roy Hamilton Mitchell

Roy Hamilton Mitchell the second son of Reginald and Leticia Kate Mitchell (nee Bell), was born in the Hunter Valley about June 1893.

His father had been a builder at Gloucester for many years before the family moved to Mosman in Sydney.

His mother had been born at Picton and was the seventh child of James and Elizabeth Bell (nee Crockett). James Bell had worked his way to Sydney as a sailor on a convict ship in 1837. His brother George Bell had come with him.

As a young man, Roy Mitchell was very keen on engines and was apprenticed as an electrical engineer to Brian Bros and Stanton Cook.

He was in his early twenties when World War I broke out. He enlisted on 1 September 1915 some three weeks after his elder brother, Leonard.

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After several weeks training, Roy embarked on 30 November 1915 on the troop ship, Suffolk, as part of the 4th Field Company of Engineers, bound for Egypt. These soldiers were to be deployed on the Gallipoli Peninsular. However, on arrival, they found that the Australian and New Zealand troops had been evacuated, and returned to Egypt.  (During the Gallipoli landings and the Sinai and Palestine Campaign of the First World War, Tel-el-Kebir was a training centre for the First Australian Imperial Force reinforcements).

On disembarking Roy Mitchell was transferred to the 14th Field Company as a Sapper.

(A sapper, also called pioneer or combat engineer, is a combatant or soldier who performs a variety of military engineering duties such as breaching fortifications, demolitions, bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, preparing field defences- such as laying razor wire trench fortifications, as well as working on road and airfield construction and repair.)

The 8th,14th, and 15th Field Companies were part of the Australian 5th Division.

Roy Mitchell displayed leadership and was promoted to a Lance Corporal before his unit embarked for the Western Front. This unit was originally deployed around Rouen in France. (In the First World War the city was safely behind the lines and became a major logistics centre with numerous base hospitals. Commonwealth camps and hospitals were stationed on the southern outskirts of Rouen.)

Campaigns for the 14th Field Company includes Fromelles, Bullecourt, Polygon Wood, Villers-Bretonneux, Morlancourt, Amiens, Peronne and the Hindenburg Line.

Polygon Wood- 2014

Above: Polygon Wood (Copyright Nola Mackey 2014)
Below: The Australian 5th Division Memorial (copyright Nola Mackey -2014)

5th Division Memorial

Much of the day to day life in the trenches for Roy Mitchell can be found in the Unit War Diaries at AWM4 14/33/1 March 1916 to AWM4 14/33/25 March 1918.

 

14th Field Company-29 Sept 1917

Page for 29 September 1917, from the Australian Imperial Forces Unit Diaries 1914-18 War, 14th Field Company September 1917, AWM 4(Australian War Memorial), 14/33/19.

As can be seen from the above extract this unit was working in the Butte area at Polygon Wood on 29 September 1917, when Roy Mitchell’s older brother Leonard, was seriously wounded in the shoulder. It is interesting to speculate if they met or knew each other was in the area. I believe although not impossible, highly unlikely, given their different jobs on the front line. (In the 8th Brigade Infantry War Diary, mention is made that the 30th Battalion and the 15th Field Company having had contact on 28 September 1917).

From Spring 1917 the whole war became more mobile, with grand offensives at the Battles of Arras, Messines, and Passchendaele, there was no longer a place for a tactic that depended upon total immobility for its employment. It was about this time the Australian Tunnelling and Mining Companies came under direct control of the British Engineers who changed tactic when the men were employed

Underground work continued, with the tunnellers concentrating on deep dugouts for troop accommodation. To assist the attack, the Royal Engineers constructed 20 kilometres (12 mi) of tunnels, graded as subways (foot traffic only); tramways (with rails for hand-drawn trollies for taking ammunition to the line and bringing casualties back); and railways (a light railway system). Just before the assault, the tunnel system had grown big enough to conceal 24,000 men, with electric lighting provided by its own small powerhouse, as well as kitchens, latrines and a medical centre with a fully equipped operating theatre.

To improve the logistical movement of artillery and supplies an extensive programme of road building was started. Ten field companies, seven tunneling companies, four army troop companies, and nine battalions were put to work repairing or extending existing plank roads. From the middle of October until the end of the offensive, a total of 2 miles (3.2 km) of double plank road and more than 4,000 yards (3,700 m) of heavy tram line was constructed.

 Except for a couple of bouts of sickness including Mumps, Roy Mitchell spent more than two years on the front line. He was on leave in Paris when the Armistice was declared.

He re-joined his unit and was transferred to the Australian Engineers, Mining and Boring Company.

This company was attached to the British Royal Engineers and was tasked with the rebuilding of roads and bridges in France to begin the mammoth task of moving of troops and equipment from the front lines back to Britain. From early December 1918 to March 1919 Roy Mitchell was involved in these activities.

On 7 March 1919, he finally transferred back to the 14th Engineers and was sent to England, where he boarded the Devonha for return to Australia.  The ship arrived on 8 May 1919 and an interesting incident occurred when it reached Adelaide. Details can be found here.

Roy Mitchell was finally discharged a few weeks later.

Roy Hamilton Mitchell had a brother and number of first and second cousins who served in World War I.  I have written blogs on the following:-  Leonard Ingram Mitchell, Phillip John Vincent, James Joseph Thomas Bell, Louis Augustus Bell, Arthur Campbell Bell, William George Blanchard.

Although Roy Mitchell showed courage and leadership during his years of service on the Western Front during World War I, it was his daring and courage after the war that made him famous.

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The Last Post Ceremony, Menin Gate, Ieper – Postscript

In my last blog, I wrote about our very emotional attendance at the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ieper.

Menin Gate - West

After viewing the Last Post Ceremony, many of our tour group went to explore Ieper, but Vern and I returned to our hotel to have dinner in the restaurant there. We were ‘seated’ at a small table for two. An elderly couple sat at an equally small adjoining table. We were the only ones sitting in this section of the restaurant.

I had noticed this couple at the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate earlier in the evening. They had been standing in the crowd opposite me. Just as the ceremony ended the woman collapsed. A number of bystanders rushed to her aid and the couple was assisted to a seating area and taken care of by paramedics.

While we were waiting for our meal to be served I plucked up the courage to speak to the couple. I admitted I had seen them at the ceremony and enquired if the woman was feeling better.  The elderly woman couldn’t speak English well, but the gentleman did and spoke on her behalf. He thanked us for our concern and said she had recovered, but needed rest.

Hearing our accent they asked where we from and what had brought us to Ieper. We told him we had come to pay our respects to family members who had died on the battlefields of Europe many years before we were born. During the course of things, my passion for Family History was mentioned once or twice.

 

Over the next hour, we heard much about this couple. They had been born near Ieper between  World Wars I and II and had grown up in the area, but now lived in the south of France.

Their ancestors were from Ieper through several generations, and they loved to return to the city whenever an occasion presented itself.

They told us the Menin Gate and the Last Post Ceremony had been an important part of their lives growing up. Friends and family members always attended the ceremony, whenever they visited the city, in grateful thanks for the great sacrifice made by so many.

We learned that this couple were special guests at an International Dinner at the Great Cloth Hall that evening and the gentleman was to receive an award. Neither were in good health and the lady had become quite frail, but both were determined to return to Ieper for this special dinner.

Iepers - Cloth Hall

They both wanted to attend the Last Post Ceremony, as they had always done when returning to the city.  When the lady’s health deteriorated at the ceremony, the attending doctor suggested she should return to the hotel to rest and not overly stress herself by attending the gala event with her husband. Of course, the gentleman would not leave his wife’s side and so they planned to dine quietly at the hotel restaurant.

We asked if there was anything we could do to assist them in any way. They thanked us for our offer but said the wonderful city officials had taken care of everything for them.

Then the gentleman reached into his evening jacket and retrieved the official guilt edged programme of the  Cloth Hall Dinner and asked us to accept it as a special memento of our meeting and dining together that evening. What a beautiful and generous gift. Although I cannot read it, (I believe it is in Dutch), there is no doubt receiving this is one of my most treasured memories of our Western Front Tour.

Remembrance Day – Menin Gate

One hundred years ago on the 11th hour of the 11 day of the 11th month, hostilities in Europe came to a close. Today we know the anniversary of this day as Remembrance Day.

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Throughout the world, people pause and remember all those brave soldiers who were involved in World War I, particularly those who died.

Today there will be many special Remembrance services to mark the centenary of this occasion.

However, there is a place where these soldiers are remembered not only once a year, but every day- The Menin Gate.

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is one of four British and Commonwealth memorials to the missing in the battlefields around Ieper in Belgium. Here the names of more than 50,000 soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth countries who died in the area around Ieper, but who have no known grave, are inscribed in the massive Portland Stone wall panels.

Menin Gate - Western

For more than ninety years every night at 8 pm, the Last Post Ceremony is held in the Menin Gate, by the citizens and visitors in grateful acknowledgment of the sacrifice of so many. Traditionally this ceremony consists of a parade, (with traffic halted), a call to attention, the sounding of the Last Post, the Exhortation, one-minute silence, the Lament, then the laying of wreaths, flags, banners and Standards, and the Reveille. More information about the ceremony can be found at here.

It is very special to witness this daily event and an even greater privilege to take part and lay a wreath.

When we were on our Western Front Tour, Vern and two women in our tour group were asked to lay a wreath in memory of all the Australians who had died in World War I. We all had family members who had lost their lives near Iepers. See my blogs on James Joseph Stapleton and William Sherwood

Most of the wreaths were of red paper poppies, but we had a huge green and gold floral wreath which seem to glow in the half-light of the Memorial on that Summer’s evening.

DSC02996Menin Gate

We arrived at the Menin Gate about six thirty as the crowds began to pour into the memorial arch. We wanted to get into a good position to see the ceremony and to take photographs. By the time the ceremony began at 8 pm we estimated there would have been a crowd of about three thousand people in the memorial and along the streets and roadway outside.

I had positioned myself so I could see Vern and our Aussie companions as they marched forward to place the wreath at the appropriate time. I had read much about the ceremony and what was to take place, but nothing could have prepared me for the rush of emotion when that first bugle note echoed throughout the Memorial. Tears streamed down my face and my hands trembled so much there was no hope of taking any decent photographs. Vern said later he had shivers down his spine too.

For several minutes time seem to stand still. Not a sound could be heard from the huge crowd. Just the bugle and orders shouted by the officers at the appropriate time and then the footsteps of those who marched forward to lay wreaths and finally the stomping of the soldier’s feet as they marched out in formation towards the Town Square.

Several of our tour companions also admitted that the ceremony had had a big emotional impact on them too, as we all walked back to our hotel.

Next morning we rose early and set off in the bright sunshine to visit the Menin Gate again. This time there were no crowds and we were able to visit all the side steps and galleries where the names of the missing are displayed in row after row in hundreds of panels of Portland Stone imported from Britain. The stairways and galleries were covered in hundreds of wreaths of red poppies for the fallen.

Menin Gate - Gallery Stairs

Menin Gate - Memorial Panels

Menin Gate - North side from Ramparts

Our tour guide also explained other features of this incredible memorial.

Lest we forget.

World War I Family Hero, James Joseph Stapleton – Postscript

At this time of year with Anzac Day upon us, my thoughts turn to the many family members and ancestors who have been involved in the Defence Services, particularly World War I.

It is now 100 years since all this took place, but those people are still remembered for their great service and sacrifice.

James Joseph Stapleton has always been a part of our family history. He was killed near St Quentin on 1 September 1918, a few weeks before the war ended. More about this soldier here.

In 2014 we took a tour of the World War I Australian Battlefields of the Western Front and visited his grave in the Peronne Communal Extension a Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.  Blogs about our experience can be found here.

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J J Stapleton, Peronne,11 July 2014-Copyright

A few weeks ago a family member connected to one of James Joseph Stapleton’s mates who died with him, got in touch and told us about the coincidence of her visiting the cemetery the same day as we had done, although we didn’t meet. She wrote:

Hi Nola, I’m so pleasantly surprised and grateful to have discovered your wonderful post about your visit to the Peronne Communal Extension Cemetery dated 13 Oct 2014 tonight. I’m a niece of Leiton Roy Johnston who died with Corporal James Joseph Stapleton, Sergeant Thomas James Stewart McDonald and Lieutenant John Gardiner on 1 September 2018. Thank you for your kind, respectful tribute to my uncle Leiton Johnston and Thomas McDonald and for including the wonderful photo of yourself holding the Australian Flag behind the three graves (Plot I, Row C, Grave Nos. 59, 60, 61). After receiving advice from the War Office that her son’s remains had been reinterred in the Peronne Communal Extension Cemetery, my late grandmother Ann Johnston wrote to Base Records on 16 January 1921 to ask if her son had been buried alongside Lieutenant Gardiner, Sergeant McDonald, and Corporal Stapleton as she was aware they ‘fell with him’. Lieutenant Gardiner is buried just behind the three graves in Plot 1, Row C Grave No. 31. I’ve visited the Peronne Communal Extension Cemetery twice – on 23 July 2007 and 11 July 2014. During my visit in the afternoon of 11 July 2014 I noted entries in the visitor’s book/folder at the cemetery by relatives of James Stapleton who had visited the cemetery earlier in the day and entries by relatives of Thomas McDonald who visited the cemetery just a couple of days earlier – such a coincidence! I took a photo of the page with my iPad with the intention of contacting the relatives of both men on my return to Australia however, unfortunately, I lost my iPad on a train at the end of my trip and with it the photo of the cemetery visitor’s book page containing the relatives’ contact details. Like you, I too was very grateful to find that our family members ‘were resting in peace with their mates’. [Judy Zappacosta]

Then one of our tour companions recently made a comment about a photograph I mentioned as having seen at the 2nd Division Memorial. She reminded me that I should follow up and try to identify the photograph.

I have visited the Australian War Memorial website this morning, and have located the photograph in their Online Photographic Gallery.

I had taken a photograph of the photograph at the 2nd Division Memorial Site, and can now confirm it is the same photograph, which can be found at https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C55028

WWI Stretcher Bearers

It was taken on 1 September 1918, possibly near St Quentin by an unknown Australian Official War Photographer

Here is the description with the photograph:-

Stretcher bearers of the 6th Australian Infantry Brigade bringing in an injured soldier. This was at a time when the German forces still held the hill and the soldier on the right is holding up the Red Cross flag to minimize the risk of being fired on. While the Germans frequently used the Red Cross flag when collecting wounded, it was rather unusual for our bearers to use it as German snipers generally disregarded it. Note also the use of four stretcher bearers. Earlier in the campaign two stretcher bearers only were allowed for each stretcher and they used to wear slings around their necks to take some of the weight. In the last stages of the war the ‘carries’ were usually longer and consequently, four men were allowed to carry each stretcher.

So although I believe I can now say, the photograph was not James Joseph Stapleton being transferred to the first-aid station by his mates, it certainly is a photograph of the kind of situation on the battlefield that day.

 

Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Hero, Phillip John Vincent – Bullecourt

In a previous blog I mentioned Lance-Corporal Frank Leslie Bell, who was killed in the disastrous First Battle of Bullecourt in April 1917.

Another family hero, who had been involved and survived the First Battle of Bullecourt was Private Phillip John Vincent. He was the youngest son of Alfred and Elizabeth Vincent (nee Bell). His father had died in 1910, leaving Elizabeth a widow, and  “Jack’ as he was known, a young fellow not yet sixteen years of age.

In February 1916, a week after his twenty-first birthday, he followed two of his older brothers into the Australian Imperial Forces, and went into training. A newspaper article gave some details:-

“ Private Jack Vincent, who is now in camp at Cootamundra, was prior to enlisting in the employ of Dwyer Bros at Moppity for four years. When leaving for camp, Messrs Dwyer Bros wished to show their esteem of a good employee, and one whom they were very sorry to lose, although proud of his determination to go forth to battle. They presented Private Vincent with a luminous dial wristlet watch as a memento of his associations with the Dwyer Bros, who also expressed best wishes for a safe return after the war to home and friends.”

He embarked on the troopship Wiltshire in August, and went straight to England, for further training until the end of the year. He was sent to the Western Front as part of the reinforcements to the 1st battalion in January 1917. His two older brothers were already there.

A few weeks later Jack sent a letter to his mother at home in Young.

“ We have been here about three months. I have not seen much of it yet. Les Jennings, Harold Wales and Dick Short are over here. I have also met others I knew before the war.” Jack goes on to relate a humorous scene he witnessed. “ In one place where we were, the Germans used to get up on top of the trenches and light fires and run about all over the place in broad daylight. Our chaps were the same. They wouldn’t shoot at us and we didn’t shoot at them. They wanted to meet us half way with a bottle of whiskey. They used to wave bottles at us. It was funny one day. One old Fritz (a man with a grey beard) who wanted to meet our captain half way with a bottle. He was only about 30 yards from us. Anyway, he got out of the trench, and the captain got out of our trench with a rifle and bayonet. Fritz held his hands up jumped about and laughed like mad. But he would not come over. He said he was afraid of the bayonet.”

About the same time as his mother received this chatty letter, Jack Vincent was in the thick of fighting in the First Battle of Bullecourt.

On the 11th April the Australians had been ordered to take the German trenches near Bullecourt.

Further details of the battle can be found at-

http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/bullecourt/what-happened-here.php

Bullecourt, a village in northern France, was one of several villages to be heavily fortified and incorporated into the defences of the Hindenburg Line in 1917.

In March 1917, the German army had withdrawn to the Hindenburg Line in order to shorten their front-line and thus make their positions easier to defend. This move was rapidly followed up by the British and empire forces, and they launched an offensive around Arras in early April 1917.

An attack was launched at Bullecourt on 11 April 1917.This was hastily planned and mounted and resulted in total disaster.

Nevertheless, the infantry managed to break into the German defences. Due to uncertainty as to how far they had advanced, supporting artillery fire was withheld, and eventually the Australians were hemmed in and forced to retreat.

The two Australian brigades that carried out the attack, suffered over 3,300 casualties; 1,170 Australians were taken prisoner – the largest number captured in a single engagement during the whole war.

After several hours of fierce fighting, sometimes hand to hand, the Germans received reinforcements, and were able to drive the Australians from the trenches, they had captured early in the day, and forced them to retreat back to their original front line.

Jack Vincent had been in the thick of the fighting, and had survived that terrible carnage. We have no words from him giving us an idea of how he felt about it all.

Three weeks later in early May, The British and Australian Lines were approximately where they had been on the 11th April. On the 5th May, the British and Australians attacked the German Line again. After many hours of relentless fighting, the allies were able to make some progress, and over the next few days were to successfully recapture the ground lost in the previous battle. This battle continued for two weeks until the Australian and British were finally able to drive the Germans back.

Of the estimated 150,000 men from both sides who fought at the Second Battle of Bullecourt some 18,000 British and Australians, and 11,000 Germans, had been killed or wounded.

Jack Vincent went into battle, at daylight on the 5th May, clambering towards the German trenches. It was difficult to know from hour to hour the progress of the battle, and how many had been killed, and where.

Jack Vincent had been killed, but there was confusion over the actual date and place.

When finally a roll call was made, and he was found missing, inquiries were made of this mates, to ascertain what had happened to him. This was carried out by the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau of the Australian Red Cross, whose records are at the Australian War Memorial and now available on-line at http://www.awm.gov.au/

Private W Huckle of D Company, 14th Platoon recalled-” I saw him killed at Bullecourt. He was hit with shell fragments about the body and was killed instantly. I knew him very well, he was the only man of that name in the Company. We held the ground, but I do not know the place of burial, and I cannot refer to anyone for particulars. He was sure to have been buried near place of casualty.”

When the Imperial War Graves Commission began their work a couple of years later, Phillip John (Jack) Vincent’s burial place at Bullecourt could not be determined.

Nearly one hundred years later the Bullecourt Digger gazes silently over the fields, where Jack rests peacefully amongst his fallen comrades.

He and all his ‘missing’ companions are not forgotten, but are memorialised at the Australian National Memorial at Villers – Bretonneux, which we visited on the fourth day of our tour.

Here below Vern and I, with the Australian flag, stand in front of the Australian National Memorial, honouring Private P J Vincent, whose name is etched forever into the grey stone wall of the memorial.

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Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Polygon Wood

Polygon Wood – Now there is a name that brings an emotional lump to the throat.

This area is about eight kilometres east of Iepers, and is approached from a small road off the main Menin Road.

We could see the 5th Australian Divisional Memorial through the trees, as we got off the bus, but we visited the Polygon Wood Cemetery first.

The Polygon Wood Cemetery was irregularly used as a front line cemetery between August 1917 and April 1918, and then again towards the end of the war. It is now a Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery. Many of the identified burials were for those who served with the New Zealand Infantry Forces. There was also a lone German grave in this cemetery, which we thought was rather unusual. The Battle of Polygon Wood took place on 26 September 1917.

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There was a walled avenue, which led from this cemetery to the Buttes New British Cemetery, which is located below the Australian 5th Division Memorial.

This cemetery was made after the war when a large number of graves, mostly from 1917, were brought from the battlefields around Zonnebeke.

Also standing here is the Butte New British Cemetery (New Zealand) Memorial, which commemorates nearly 400 New Zealand soldiers, who lost their lives around Polygon Wood in 1917 and 1918, and who have no known grave.

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Overlooking this quiet sanctuary was the Australian 5th Division Memorial.

The Memorial was a grey stone obelisk, which stood upon a long elevated bank known as a ‘butte’, and is approached by a steep flight of stairs, which were extended some years after the Memorial was erected, in 1919. This is ‘Australian’ land acquired by the Division after the war.

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There were several story-boards located here, which we spent some time reading.

More information can be found at –

http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/zonnebeke/fifth-australian-division-memorial/battle-of-polygon-wood.php

The 5th Australian Division was formed in Egypt in February 1916 after the withdrawal of Australian troops from Gallipoli. When the first Australian troops were sent to France to serve in trenches along the Western Front, some battalions were left in Egypt for further extensive training.

However, by July 1916 all the Australian Infantry Forces had arrived in France, the 5th Division being the last to arrive, took their place as re-inforcements at Armentieres.

It was from here the 5th Division, the most inexperienced as far as battlefield action goes, found themselves at the Battle of Fromelles on 19 July 1916. This attack was poorly planned and was not fully executed, or supported as it should have been, by the British forces, which resulted in the greatest loss of life of Australian soldiers, in one day, for the whole war . There were over 5,500 causalities, including 400 prisoners. The 5th Division was totally incapacitated for several months and were not ready for combat again until October 1916. We were to hear more about this horrendous battle from our Tour Guide, Pete Smith the following day, when we visited the new cemetery at Fromelles.

We then boarded the bus and took the short drive to the Hooge Crater cafe and museum, for a late lunch.

Australian World War I Battlefields Tour- Iepers

The second day of our tour began with a walking tour of this beautiful medieval city. Perhaps I need to fill you in on a bit of history of this place first.

Ieper is an ancient town located in the Flemish province of West-Flanders (or Vlaanderen). When World War I was declared in August 1914, it was known by its French name, Ypres.

Soon after the declaration of war and the German mobilization, more than 8,000 German soldiers passed through Ypres on the 7 and 8 October 1914, on their ‘push to the coast’.

Within a few days, French and British soldiers arrived in the town to set up a blockade to stop the full-on German offensive, as they realized the strategic importance of the town.

It was the British soldiers who first called it ‘Wipers’, which was a much easier name to pronounce. They were there for four long years from October 1914 to November 1918.

This town was the focus of German operations in the north-west, as they tried to recapture it. However, despite major offensives and severe artillery shelling, which reduced the town to rubble, the town never fell into German hands during the war.

This town was also the main staging post for allied forces before they went out to fight in the surrounding area, known as ‘ the Salient,’ which is a battlefield feature that projects into enemy territory.

Every allied soldier fighting in Belgium most likely would have passed through this town, at some time.

I can imagine several of our family heroes marching out at night, to their positions in the trenches, batteries and observation posts. Most of the troop movements were at night, because there was some advantage to traveling under the cover of darkness, in such an open and flat country. The enemy was not easily able to observe the size and position of troops, and then bombard the area with artillery and bombs.

With the centenary of World War I, there is so much material on-line that literally ‘puts you there’, such as this film.

The film deals with the participation of the Australian troops in the Third Battle of Ypres during the autumn of 1917. The scenes include Australians preparing for the attack; being reviewed by Sir Douglas Haig before going into action; shells falling amongst the ruins of Ypres and then shows the battlefields over which Australians fought and incidents connected with the fighting.

http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/ieper/a-walk-around-ieper/ruins-of-Ypres-1917-movie.php

Today it is difficult to image there was so much destruction here, and how everything was painstakingly restored after the war, right down to the cobblestoned streets. In fact, the whole city is a memorial to World War I

From the moment we got off our bus at our hotel, we could feel a special atmosphere about the place. It took me a while to work it out. There was a busyness, but not the loud brashness of many tourist places. The people we met were welcoming, but not patronizing. In many places on our travels throughout Europe, the people smiled and rushed out to greet us, but we knew they were looking for our ‘tourist dollar’.

At Iepers it was different. There was a quite respectfulness as if they knew why we were there, especially as our Australian accents soon announced us. Everyone we met wanted to help us understand and to know, what had happened there all those years ago.

However, I must point out the place was not silent and morbid. In fact, when we arrived in the hotel restaurant for our dinner, there were obviously several celebratory parties in progress, including a large school group.

Perhaps you could say there was a certain ‘joyfulness’ about the place too. I don’t really know why, but maybe it is an appreciation of the sacrifice of all those thousands of soldiers, from all over the world, all those many years ago, so that their city could remain in existence, and be reclaimed and rebuilt.

After a wonderful dinner and a good nights sleep, we were ready to begin our walking tour of the city.

We started our tour not far from the hotel at St Jacobs Church. (below).

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If you look carefully you can see the original doorway and footings of this medieval church which survived the war, but everything above the door was rebuilt.

We then proceeded to a section of the city wall ramparts, where actual shops had been built into the earthen bank. This area was also used as allied headquarters during the war.

We then visited the Menin Gate. Nothing I can write can do it justice, but I will try, with a separate blog or two soon.

After a very emotional visit to the Menin Gate, we proceeded along the main street until we arrived at the Great Market Square. It was a huge cobblestoned area, surrounded by beautiful Gothic buildings faithfully and painstakingly restored after World War I. The Gemeentehuis, or Town Hall is one such building. (Below).

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The weekly markets were taking place in the Square and it was interesting to wander through the stalls. We found them similar to what we could expect to find at city markets back home, and it gave us a comfortable familiar feeling, as the grey over-caste sky gave way to warm summer sunshine.

We headed for the huge inspiring Gothic building, which took up nearly half the square itself. It was the Lakenhalle or Cloth Hall.

So much about the history of this building can be found at-

http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/ieper/a-walk-around-ieper/cloth-hall-lakenhalle.php#

This beautiful restored and refurbished building is the ‘Jewel in the Crown’, for the city for the World War I Anniversary celebrations. Lots of information can be found here.

http://www.greatwar.co.uk/ypres-salient/museum-in-Flanders-fields.htm

Within this building is the In Flanders Fields Museum. This museum is spread over two floors and is an incredible place. It uses all the modern technical equipment to tell the story of the war, not only from the city’s perspective but all those who endured those terrible times. Although the history was well told and illustrated, I found it crowded, gloomy and very oppressive, as it is painted all black inside with little light, except for a cold reflected light from the display cabinets and strategically place down-lights..

A large shop can be found on the ground-floor, where I was able to purchase many gifts and books, which will add to my knowledge and understanding of this very special city, and its surrounding villages.

I was pleased to get outside and have a quick morning tea at one of the many pavement cafes, on the edge of the Square, before we returned to the hotel to join our group to begin our bus tour of the Ypres Salient.

As we boarded the bus the sunshine had deserted us again. Our next stop would be the 5th Australian Division Memorial at Polygon Wood.