St. Symphorien Military Cemetery in Hainaut
Construction workers uncovered this live mortar shell near one of the WWI sites my tour group was visiting while we there.
This is only one of three monuments to the German dead erected by the Germans in Belgium. Our tour guide, Marc Hope, helped in the effort to find this German cemetery several years ago.
To get to Belgium we started in a small, dumpy café near a Tube station in the London borough of Hounslow. Having learned the hard way that you have to double the time you think you need to get anywhere in the city, we arrived nearly two hours early. With rain threatening and nowhere to sit, we decided to reside in the café until our coach arrived. To justify this, I bought some hot chocolate and a croissant for breakfast, then explained to the woman serving me our plan to stay until our coach arrived. She shrugged her shoulders and said she didn’t speak English.
As we sat there, paranoia ate at me. What if we had the wrong place? What if we got kicked out and had to stand outside in the rain? What if we somehow missed the coach? With no cell phone (neither of ours worked in Europe) and not a phone booth in sight, getting hold of the tour company might prove a bit difficult. Welling in my underlining fears, I waited. Finally the coach arrived and off we went.
I had begun planning this trip in the summer of 2014 when I decided it would be nice to do some onsite research for the book I was working on at the time about the First World War. I initially thought I’d fly directly to Belgium and there either rent a car or use mass transport to get around. I quickly scrapped that idea because I didn’t want to go wandering around in a foreign country in which I don’t speak either of its official languages, Flemish (a form of Dutch) and French (spoken by the Walloon population). No, what I wanted was a tour in English, so I went online and found one called “The Old Contemptibles” by Leger Holidays of Britain. This tour explored World War I in 1914, the year I was interested in, and would go to many of the places I wished to visit.
I asked my mother to be my traveling companion for the trip to which she happily agreed. While Leger would get us from London to Belgium, it wouldn’t handle the portion of the trip from America to the UK. For this part we used an online travel service, and while planning it, my mom suggested that since we were going to London anyway, we ought to head there early so we could see the city for a couple of days. This we did, and for those interested in reading about that portion of trip, click here.
We would reach Europe by catching a ferry in Dover bound for Calais, France. Once on the ferry, we decided to watch our departure from the outdoor observation deck. A few minutes out at sea, I realized my jacket wasn’t keeping me warm enough, so we went below and headed for the ferry’s giftshop in which I hoped to purchase a sweatshirt. This being an English ferry, I found aisles and aisles of sweets (the British do love their candy), but little in the way of apparel. The only sweatshirt I found had on it “I Love London.” And while I’d normally never wear anything says something like this, necessity trumped taste and I bought it. My only consolation was that I at least had a jacket over it and therefore no one could see what it said.
Once in France we headed for Belgium and, because both countries belong to the European Union, no border crossing impeded us. For the duration of the trip we would stay in the excellent Novotel Hotel in Ieper, or Ypres.* Although Ieper looks like a beautiful Medieval town complete with cobblestone streets surrounded by a wall and wide moat, in truth none of its buildings date any earlier than 1919 because the Germans flattened the place during the First World War, with some ruins remaining to this day. World War I’s dead have left Ieper with far more graveyards than a city with a population of about 35,000 would otherwise need, nearly all of them military.
*Pronouncing this city’s name turned out to be trickier than one might think. The English pronounce it as “Eep,” which rhymes with “jeep”. Its own inhabitants call it “Ee-pier” while the French-speakers say, “Ee-pra.”