Twenty years ago I took my father on a trip to the Normandy beaches, along with several other family and friends. It was a couple of weeks before the 50th anniversary of D-Day was commemorated. I am not exaggerating when I say it was one of the most memorable and enjoyable weeks of my life. You see my father was born in 1929 and his formative early teenage years were spent during the war. Even now, he is at his happiest when he’s recounting stories from the war. He rebuilds wartime jeeps and military vehicles. He loves going to air shows. He’s not interested in Channel 4. His Channel of choice is the History Channel. He would drive my mother to distraction by watching a war film with the volume turned right up. Back in 2010 I took him on a Battlefields Tour to Arnhem. Again, it was a really memorable trip and it was he who made all the friends, while I looked on and just felt contented that I had given something back to the Dad who has given me so much.
A few weeks ago I decided to research a member of my family who was killed in the First World War. He was my grandmother’s brother, so therefore my Great Uncle, and my father’s uncle. His name was Clifford Norden. And that’s all I knew. The internet is a wonderful thing and within minutes I had found out that he was killed in action in Belgium on October 31 1918, only 11 days before the end of the war. He was only 19 years old. Before too long I had found out where he was buried and had even found a picture of his grave. I then went onto the National Archives website. It’s amazing the detail you can find if you look hard enough. I was hooked. I couldn’t understand why none of us had done this before. I spoke to my Dad about him and then one of my sisters told me we actually had his WW1 medals at home. OK, I said, let’s take Dad and go and pay our respects to him – something we should have frankly done decades ago.
And so it was that on Monday morning, nine of us set out in two cars headed for Dover. Me, my father, my sister Sheena and my goddaughter Zoe in one car, and Tracey and her partner Peter, her two daughters Issy and Ophelia together with Issy’s boyfriend Matt in the other. The advantage of having an 85 year old father who can’t walk very far is that you can be on the ferry first, and drive off first too. And a mere hour and a quarter later we arrived in Kortrijk. And then it all went wrong. I had booked five rooms in the D-Hotel in Kortrijk through Expedia. The rather snotty receptionist informed me they had no booking and they were full. Not my problem, I said. It’s yours. Here are the confirmation numbers. She was having none of it. Eventually she said they did have four rooms but they were suites so we’d have to pay extra. Not a chance, I said. She displayed not an ounce of humility or apology. She just shrugged her shoulders. I told her I’d like to see the manager. She’s on holiday she said. Well who’s in charge then, I asked, slowly becoming very exasperated. Another shrug of the shoulders. Meanwhile Sheena went in search of someone else who might actually be able to help. Believe it or not, it was the barman. To cut a long story short he said, absolutely fine, clearly we’ve made a mistake, you will have five rooms at the price you originally booked them at. Later I learned they had a glitsch in their systems. All the receptionist had to do was be slightly apologetic and try to make amends, but it was beyond her. And to cap it all, when we left she tried to overcharge us (while chewing gum) by around 150 Euros. Despite all that it was a very good hotel, even if they did try too hard to be quirky. All the rooms were different. One of them didn’t even have a separate bathroom. There was a massive bath in the middle of the room, along with the toilet. Not for the faint-hearted.
Anyway, by this time it was almost 4pm, so we headed off to Harlebeke, about ten miles away, to find the British cemetery. And there it was. The grave we had travelled many hours to find. Like all graves in cemeteries run by the Comonwealth War Graves Commission, it was beautifully kept. However, I was strangely unmoved. I’m usually quite emotional on these occasions, but this failed to move me at all. I half jokingly said to Tracey that she should do a service – after all she is qualified funeral celebrant! We signed the visitors book and left, all feeling slightly underwhelmed. We came to the conclusion that after the hotel checking in experience perhaps we weren’t in the right frame of mind, so we decided to come back the next morning with some flowers and Tracey would do a reading.
Our next stop was Ypres, where we wanted to see the Last Post performed at the Menin Gate. We wandered around Ypres for a bit beforehand, with my Dad on his scooter. We had a quick meal in the square and then headed back to the Menin Gate, which for those who don’t know is a memorial to the thousands of troops who had marched past the spot on their way to the front. Each evening at 8pm the Last Post is played.
There were hundreds of people there and at 8pm everyone went silent as the ceremony begun. I was a bit annoyed we hadn’t got there earlier as my Dad couldn’t see a lot. My niece Issy became very emotional when the trumpeters started playing the Last Post. When it had all finished my sister Sheena, never one to hold back, asked the four old boys carrying the flags if they would have their picture taken with my Dad. They formed a guard of honour around him and we all clicked away. My Dad isn’t one to get very emotional, but I could see that he was quite overwhelmed. Sheena then asked the trumpeters to do the same and he had a good old chat with them too. Totally in his element. I said afterwards to Tracey (I think) that if we never did anything for the rest of the trip, it was worth it just to experience that. As we got in the car Dad clasped my hand and said “I don’t know how much this whole thing has cost, but that was fantastic.” And with that we went back to the hotel for a drink in the bar, and so ended Day 1.
The next morning proved to be very disappointing weatherwise. Lots of drizzle. So we went back to Harlebeke where Sheena placed a flower on Clifford Norden’s grave and Tracey read Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier.
IF I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
We then went to Paschendaele where one of the most bloody battles of WW1 was fought. Looking at the countryside it was almost impossible to imagine what had happened there. We stopped at the Canadian war memorial, when I spotted some Belgian soldiers approaching. Sheena being Sheena went up to them and asked if they would have their photo taken with my Dad. One of them asked what we were doing there. My Dad explained about his Uncle Clifford and the soldier replied “Great respect, sir”. More moist eyes. My nieces were revelling in trying the soldiers helmets on!
From there we headed to Tyne Cot, which is the largest British cemetery anywhere in the world. Again, it was beautifully kept. However, I have to say it was a disgrace that there were few facilities for the disabled. My Dad couldn’t get to part of the memorial where all the names were written on the wall because there were steps and no ramp. Indeed the entrance was a very long walk and when you get to it, again there was no ramp, merely a series of steps. Bearing in mind the majority of visitors are likely to be relatively elderly, it does seem something the Commonwealth War Graves Commission ought to look at.
It was only a short drive to Langemark which is home to the biggest German cemetery in Belgium. 35,000 soldiers were buried there in a series of mass graves. It was a strange place with some very dark statues, and stones in the earth to mark the mass graves. Huge oak trees covered them. I remember studying the significance of the ‘deutsche Eiche’ in my German literature classes. Apparently Hitler visited this cemetery in 1942.
We finished our trip by going back to Ypres for lunch, at the need of which my father grabbed the waitress and gave her a kiss. You can’t keep an old dog down.So after filling Dad’s scooter basket with Belgian chocolates we headed back to Calais to get the ferry back. Shame my SatNav let us down and the journey took half an hour longer than it should have. But if it hadn’t gone wrong we wouldn’t have driven through Wormhout, which has to be the most English looking town in the whole of France.
It may have been a very short hop over the channel but it was worth every minute, just to see the look on our father’s face. I think another trip to Normandy might be in order before too long. Or maybe you have an alternative suggestion as to where we should take him next!