Over the next few blog entries I will post various segments from my recent overseas trip to Europe. Yes, I recently spent 3 wonderful weeks in sunny France and Italy. Now that I am back in the icy cold (I’m exaggerating), I’m lamenting the fact that it’s winter in Sydney, and why didn’t I stay away longer.
With this entry I am going to share the experience of traveling to the north of France to a place called Armentières.
The above image is the train station at Armentières. Some things in France are all shiny and new … this train station is not one of them. When I got off the train I was desperate to go to the toilet … no, this was a train station without a public toilet and so the attendant suggested I find one in a cafe in the centre of town. I laughed.
The purpose of this trip was to locate my great-uncle’s grave. The name of the war cemetery is “Cite Bonjean”. I had no idea where to go once I exited the train, so I headed to the nearest cafe. I found a coffee shop not too far away and as I was finishing, I noticed a conveniently located florist right next door. I had intended to buy some flowers to bring with me, so this was fortuitous
The story became magical once I entered the florist. A lovely man greeted me and helped me choose a floral tribute for my great-uncle’s grave. As we spoke I asked him if he could possibly give me directions to get to the cemetery, to which he replied, “No, hop in my car outside and I will drive you myself”. He called his wife to mind the shop and he took me to his florist van. I offered to pay extra for the service but he refused, saying if it hadn’t been for men like my great-uncle, they would all be speaking German today.
He kindly dropped me at a small gate to the side of the cemetery and then departed. In this one section there were more than 1,500 grave sites. Each fallen soldier had a headstone and these were arranged in long rows of two headstones, backing each other and facing out. The cemetery is huge. I was alone in this memorial cemetery and had no idea of where I might find my great-uncle. So I just started to walk towards the centre. I thought I would look around before working out a strategy to locate the grave site. Less than minute had passed when I looked to my left and there I found the tombstone of Pvt Murdoch McRae. How wonderful was that! It was a moving moment.
I spent time reflecting on the sacrifice of not only my great-uncle but also all the other men (and women) who had died during the Great War. As I walked through the rows of well-tended graves and read the epitaphs, I was reminded of just how young these boys were at the time … 21, 23, 26, 24, 28, and on and on.
I spent a couple of hours at the cemetery. It was solemn and peaceful. There was absolutely no-one else around, so I could lay on the grass, still and meditative. I left the bunch of flowers by the headstone, and a print of an old portrait photograph of Private Murdoch McRae, who died on January 16, 1917, and whose christian name is my middle name.