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Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog about family travel around the world, without leaving the UK.
I love travel adventures, but to save cash and keep my family's carbon footprint lower, I dreamt up a unique stay-at-home travel experience. So far I've visited 110 countries... without leaving the UK. Join me exploring the next 86! Or have a look at the "countries" you can discover within the UK by scrolling the labels (below right). Here's to happy travel from our doorsteps. See www.nicolabaird.com for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare (homemadekids.wordpress.com) or to contact me.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Thinking about WW1 - home from home and Ypres

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. Impossible? No. This post looks at ways to remember the many people who died in WW1 - especially in the area around Ypres, Belgium. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

My mum sent a sweet email recently to her extended family - siblings, half-siblings, children, grandchildren - letting them know how she was joining into the British Legion's Everyman Remembered campaign:
I have sent a poppy via the British Legion to be placed on the gravestone of our grandfather, Captain Mervyn Hamilton, who is buried in the communal civilian cemetery at Poperinge near Ypres. It will have the following text attached: "From his many grandchildren and great grandchildren - so proud of him and so grateful for the good life that his sacrifice made possible."

My great grandfather, Mervyn Hamilton, was 35 years when he was injured in the first battle near Ypres in Belgium. He was taken to the hospital nearby (i'm guessing this was at Poperinge) and his wife was contacted via a handwritten letter from the nurses to come over and help nurse him.  Then just as she and her sister were about to board the boat to go to him a telegram came - he'd died of his wounds on 28 November 1914.

I'm told that only 16 villages in the UK didn't lose a single person during World War One - certainly most have a war memorial. A hundred years on it's easy to forget that people living in the cities were affected too. But that's changing. Just recently this notice commemorating the huge sacrifice of WW1 went up in Islington where I live. It's 100 years late, yes, but a reminder that back in 1914 cities were often much more like villages. The names on this plaque are of people who were family, or knew each other, played together as kids in this street, or were known by other families in the area. Heartbreaking.

Even in the middle of London you can find memorials to the many men who died during WW1. Sometimes they are crosses in churches or outside a place of worship, sometimes just a laminated list.
Although the Western Front stretched from Belgium across to Switzerland - a colossal distance - some of the bloodiest battles were fought at Ypres in Belgium. Poor Belgium, throughout history it's been used as a battleground for other people choosing to clash on relatively flat, dry land (I'm thinking of the 10,000 men who died in just one day a century before that at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo).

Ypres was an impressive Medieval town with a vast, slightly wonky grand square. However during the course of 1914-1918 it was shelled to bits. There's only one really old house left. The rest are perfect copies of a Medieval town, put up after the war ended.

Looking across from the WW1 museum at Ypres to the Menin Gate (the white arch)
To mark the start of WW1 in August 1914 an exceptional interactive museum explaining WW1 - or at any rate detailing the battles and following the impact these battles had on people - is at Ypres. Flanders Field Museum is an international place switching between English, French, Flemish and German with ease. But all languages seem to be catered for. The overall effect is pretty sad - at just one of the battles of the Somme more than 1,000,000 soldiers died. So many soldiers of every side were young men, many were what we now call teenagers. And the dying was rarely instant. Men were injured by shells or fragments thrown up by the shells or they were left wounded in No Man's Land. Some even drowned in the terrible mud between the trenches. One of the underground mine explosions was so loud it was allegedly heard in London - imagine how many people were killed on both sides when that was detonated?

Any flat, muddy, rain drenched area brings out sympathy - for wheelchair and buggy users as well as the wrongly shod. But as for comparing a muddy park, or a flooded Somerset levels, with Ypres that is just wrong. This was an incomparable hell.

The Menin Gate is a huge memorial to all the British & Commonwealth soldiers
who died in WW1 and whose bodies were not found. Every night at 8pm the Last Post
is played as a memory and a thank you for their sacrifice.
Famously the officers who broke down (unable to speak/move or with terrible nightmares and serious shakes) ended up being treated by Dr Rivers at Craiglockhart in Scotland. There he convinced them that they could get better - and go back to fight. That was the fate of two amazing war poets, Siegfried Sasson and the younger Wilfred Owen (who died). This has been fictionally charted in Pat Barker's Booker-winning anti-war triology, Regeneration. The first book is especially good.

If you are thinking of finding a connection with WW1 and the on-line diaries of soldiers, or the war memorial crosses in villages all over the UK isn't enough, do read Resurgence. It'll certainly help crystalise your feelings about war, long past or now. And that may inspire you to do something that Siegfried Sasson or H G Wells would have approved of.

I'm certainly going to look at the Tower of London's field of ceramic poppies - a vast art work springing up in the moat. Eventually there will be 888,246 one for each British and colonial soldier who died in the war. This is a fundraiser, running from August until 11 November. If you want to buy one of the ceramic poppies for £25 see how here.

Over to you
What battlefields have you been to in the UK that helped you connect with the people caught up in past conflicts? And how did that effect you? Did you have a relative who "fell" during WW1 - what has your family done to commemorate that person?

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