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As an old solider, I’m fundraising for Alabare’s ‘Homes for Veterans’ chartable work https://www.alabare.co.uk/veterans by walking the WW1 battlefields of the Ypres salient in Belgium 08-14 May 2019 in a personal pilgrimage of remembrance. I slept rough under my old Army poncho in sympathy with our homeless veterans.
The walking part of my pilgrimage is over however the fundraising for #homesforveterans continues - more on this in a moment. The experience was everything I hoped it would be and more - see photos below. I met some amazing people and visited key WW1 sites such as: Passchendaele; Tyne Cot, Hooge, Hill 62, Hill 60 and Mesen. As I walked into Ypres towards the end of my route, the bells of St Peters rang out and I truly felt like a pilgrim arriving at his destination. The 'Last Post' ceremony at the Menin Gate was unforgettable. I'd like to generate more donations through speaking about my pilgrimage so if you know of organisations or companies that might be interested, I would be grateful for an introduction.
My pilgrimage itinerary:
- Day 1, 08 May. Travelled to Lille on the Eurostar then local train to Ypres and took a bus to Langemark. Visited the Cement House British cemetery where I shed a few tears. I then visited the German cemetery, which is the only one in the Ypres salient and was deeply moved by the carved inscription, "Ich habe dich bei deinen namen geruffen du bist mein" ("I have called you by your name and you are mine") - see photo. I laid a wooden cross of Remembrance here. Chatting to some Brit teachers in a bar that evening, they shared their experience of taking their pupils to the Ypres Menin Gate ceremony earlier that evening. It gradually dawned on us that it was so busy because it was VE Day, a fact that had passed us by as we were all so focused on WW1. An unexpected bonus was watching Spurs beat Ajax with almost the last kick of the match to go through to the Champions League final! With no obvious alternative site, I bivouaced in a ditch beside the German cemetery. I was a little apprehensive about spending the night with the spirits of over 44,00 dead German soldiers however it was a peaceful night.
- Day 2, 09 May. Breakfast in the excellent Bistro de Koornbloem in Langemark with its colourful WW1 mural in the courtyard - see photo. I had hoped to catch a bus to Passchendaele however on the advice of the Patronne, I decided to walk and I'm glad I did. There were memorials along the way (mourning Canadian soldier; Herts Regt - battle of Steenbeke; family memorial to Pte Henshaw where I left another wooden cross and a few more tears) and I could appreciate the ground over which both sides fought. Lunch at the museum cafe in Zonnebeke as the heavens opened! In all the cemeteries and memorials where there was a visitors book, it was an honour to sign and pay my respects. I walked on to Passchendaele via Tyne Cot cemetery, the largest cemetery in the Ypres salient, placed another wooden cross and wept some more. Alongside Crest Farm Canadian memorial, I found another bivouac site. Footsore and hungry, I found a cheap bistro in Passchendaele for supper. Spent a less peaceful night with the rain drumming on my poncho.
- Day 3, 10 May. Woke up hungry and headed into Passchendaele for a cafe breakfast. Visited the New British Cemetery with lots of headstones for ANZAC (Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian) soldiers. I was particularly moved by this recurring inscription in many of the cemeteries, "A soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God." Walked back to Zonnebeke to the sound of a cuckoo, which became a recurring feature of the soundscape. Had a hot lunch and visited the excellent museum at Zonnebeke with reconstructions of dugouts and trenches. Feeling tired and a little footsore, I set off for Polygon Wood and visited the cemetery and memorials to 5th Australian Division at Buttes New British Cemetery and the Polygon Wood Cemetery nearby. Supper in the wonderful bistro at the southwest corner of Polygon Wood where I met the owner, Johan Vandewalle, a keen amateur archaeologist of the underground war. Johan told me the extraordinary story of 2 Australian brothers and the memorial he is creating to them - see photo below and this link: http://brothersinarmsmemorial.org/wp/home/ I gave Johan my #homesforveterans wrist band and he gave me 2 lapel badges for his 'Brothers In Arms' memorial, which I fastened to my hat. I moved on after supper past the impressive sculpture of a kilted soldier at Black Watch corner and bivouaced in a wild wood at Stirling Castle as dusk fell. This was the first piece of rough ground I'd seen in Belgium and I slept well.
- Day 4, 11 May. On to Hooge crater and breakfast in a cafe. Walked around Sanctuary Wood and Bellewaerde Ridge, and paid my respects at the cemetery and memorial to the Royal Engineers tunnellers, where I laid another wooden cross in tribute. This was particularly poignant for me as I served 26 years in the Army as a Royal Engineer. On to the Sanctuary Wood cemetery, where Gilbert Talbot of 'Toc H' fame (a welfare organisation for soldiers set up in his honour) is buried. Then on to Hill 62 (62 ft above sea level in an otherwise very flat region) and another Canadian memorial, then to Hill 60 and the craters left after a deep mine was exploded by the tunnellers. On to Battle Wood and the search for somewhere to eat ended in failure - the restaurant closed as I got there. I pressed on to St Elooi where there was not even a bar so I hitched 3 km to Wijtschate only to find that the bar-restaurant I'd been dropped at was now only a bar. Feeling ever more hungry, I upped the pace and pressed on another 5 km to Mesen where, after a 20 km long day and a sore right knee, I managed to get a hot meal before last orders. I bivouaced by a WW1 bunker near the Irish Peace Park in Mesen. This was a starry night so rather chilly and I was glad of my 3 season sleeping bag. Hungry overnight.
- Day 5, 12 May. Awoke to sunshine and the familiar calling of a cuckoo. A hot day with some cloud cover for relief. Noted this moving poem in the Irish Peace Park: "It is too late now to retrieve/A fallen dream, too late to grieve/A name unmade, but not too late/To thank the Gods for what is great/A keen-edged sword, a soldier's heart/Is greater than a poet's art/And greater than a poet's fame/A little grave that has no name" by Francis Ledwidge, 5th Iniskilling Fusiliers - see photo below. Ate a hearty breakfast in a cafe surrounded by professional-looking cyclists! Decided to have an easy day so after a visit to the WW1 information centre in Mesen and a few coffees and pastries, I cached my bergan (Army slang for rucksac) and walked towards Ploegsteert via the NZ memorial. A pleasant sunny afternoon walk marred only by being ambushed by 2 local farm dogs, one of which unexpectedly bit my leg! Visited the NZ cemeteries at Ration Farm and La Plus Douve.
- Day 6, 13 May. An uncomfortable night due to my inflatable sleeping mat developing a slow puncture. I felt groggy and my bergan felt heavy but I soon got going and visited the Spanbroekmollen crater, some 27m across and now known as the Peace Pool. It is staggering to learn that 19 deep underground mines were detonated around Mesen simultaneously as part of the successful attack on the Mesen ridge on 07 June 1917. An enormous quantity of explosives was used: the Spanbroekmollen mine alone used 47,000 tonnes! The explosion was heard in Paris and London and the craters left behind 100 years later are huge. Visiting numerous smaller cemeteries and memorials along the way, I spent some time at the moving and spectacular Bedford Street cemetery where I left a wooden cross and a few more tears. I marched into Ypres via the Lille Gate around 17.20 to the peal of bells from St Peters Church, feeling every bit like a pilgrim arriving at his destination. Coffee and pastries by the magnificent Cloth Hall in Ypres was a real treat, so I had supper there too. With a mounting sense of excitement, I moved on to the Menin Gate well before 20.00 for the Last Post ceremony - see photos below. There were hundreds of people in attendance and wreaths were laid by veterans and school children in an unforgettable ceremony. This ceremony has taken place every single day at 20.00 since the memorial was opened in 1928. On behalf of a friend, I located her great grandfather's name on one of the panels and left my final wooden cross there. After the ceremony, I walked the ramparts to the Ramparts Cemetery, where numerous Royal Engineers are buried alongside engineers from other armies. I hiked on to Zillebeke lake and found a spot to bivouac. This was a disturbed night due to the noisy and rather large fish leaping and feeding all night - plus my sleeping mat puncture now being far from slow.
- Day 7, 14 May. The last day. After a refreshing dip in the lake and a bite of bread and cheese I returned to Ypres for the final act - a daylight photo of a pilgrim at the Menin Gate - see photos below. Then it was on to Lille where I met up with my wife for 2 days R and R (rest and recuperation).
I've done this for 3 reasons:
1. I'm the organiser of Salisbury International Coaching Week: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/salisbury-international-coaching-week-29-april-03-may-2019-tickets-56050148503 We have been hosted annually since 2017 by Alabare, free of charge, so I would like to give something back to recognise their support.
2. On 11 November 2018 on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, I paraded with my Royal Engineer intake as a veteran for the first time. We were commissioned into the Corps of Royal Engineers 35 years previously and decided to base our reunion around Remembrance Day events in a village in middle England . I found myself unexpectedly moved by being part of this significant moment in our nation's history. This experience has inspired me to do more. Supporting our homeless veterans feels like an appropriate way to honour the memory of the fallen: #homesforveterans
3. Both my grandfathers and a number of great uncles fought in the trenches during WW1, some of whom were killed and wounded. I wanted to pay my respects for their service and sacrifice.
Alabaré’s Homes for Veterans provide supported accommodation to British Armed Forces Veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
Alabaré believe no Veteran should be forced to sleep on the
Alabaré provide dedicated support to Veterans across the South of England and Wales - specifically; Wiltshire, Hampshire, Gloucestershire, Devon, Dorset as well as North and South Wales. On any given night our Homes for Veterans are able to keep over 100 Veterans off the streets.
Alabaré offers support to thousands of people in need through its homes and services across the South and South West of England and Wales. They provide specialist support for young mothers and their babies, people suffering from addictions, young people and those leaving the care system, those experiencing mental ill
health, adults with learning difficulties, and Armed Forces Veterans who struggle to cope with life outside of the military. They also run training courses and day activities at two Development Centres in Wiltshire. Beyond this they also provide learning difficulties clients with long term supported homes; a care service for those living in their own accommodation and a residential Christian Community.
In each of their homes and services, the vision of helping each person to
live an independent life of their choosing is achieved by holding fast to our founding principles of generosity, care, compassion and respect.
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