Monday, 28 April 2008

Le Quesnoy, France

Le Quesnoy, France, twinned with Cambridge, New Zealand.

Our weekend was rather mixed to say the least. There was loads of sunshine, new friends, laughs and many sombre moments.

We picnic-ed over to Lille on the Eurostar. I am a huge fan of the Eurostar, especially as the terminal is now two tube stops from my office and three from our house. I had neglected my civic duty to bake Anzac Biscuits but shared a bucket of M&S Flapjacks, which are the next best thing.

It was a lovely warm evening so we ate our we're-almost-in-Belgium moules et frites (et biere bien sur!) sur la terrasse while getting to know our travelling buddies.

Saturday morning fortified by croissant, pain au chocolat et cafe we picked up the hire vans and wedged ourselves in for the journey.

Our first stop was Beaudignies. In the town hall a kiwi gentleman by the name of Herb explained the history and significance of the kiwi involvement at Le Quesnoy. He explained the divisional structure in the army, and the respect the Kiwis had from everyone else.

We then drove to a local war cemetery, and then had a very moving ceremony at Vertigneul. This is a private chapel with a few war graves to the rear. In the sun there were bagpipes and prayers and a song sun by Lulu. Lulu is a local from Le Quesnoy, who was not even a teenager when WWII was taking place but clearly he had a lot of memories. He sung us a song with his accordion, and I swear there was not a dry eye amongst us.

The Green Fields of France

(Listen here)

Well how do you do, Private William McBride
Do you mind if I sit here down by your grave side?
A rest for awhile in the warm summer sun,
I've been walking all day and I'm nearly done.
And I see by your gravestone that you were only 19
when you joined the glorious fallen in 1916.
Well, I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean
Or, William McBride, was it slow and obscene?

Did they beat the drum slowly?
did they sound the pipes lowly?
Did the rifles fire o'er ye as they lowered you down?
Did the bugle sing 'The Last Post' in chorus?
Did the pipes play 'The Flowers o' the Forest'?

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind?
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart are you always 19.
Or are you just a stranger without even a name
Forever enclosed behind some glass-pane
In an old photograph torn and tattered and stained
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?

Well, the sun it shines down on these green fields of France,
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance.
The trenches are vanished now under the plough
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard it is still No Man's Land
And the countless white crosses in mute witness stand.
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation that was butchered and downed.

And I can't help but wonder now Willie McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe them that this war would end war?
The suffering, the sorrow, some the glory, the shame -
The killing and dying - it was all done in vain.
For Willie McBride, it's all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again.

Did they beat the drum slowly?
did they sound the pipe lowly?
Did the rifles fire o'er ye as they lowered you down?
Did the bugle sing 'The Last Post' in chorus?
Did the pipes play 'The Flowers o' the Forest'?

Lulu singing.

Lunch was an informal affair back in the town hall, cheese, baguettes, ham, pate, apples et vin, followed by a walk in the sun. We retraced the path that the Kiwis travelled on November 4 1918. This took us through farmland to the place where the Kiwis found a shorter part of the medieval wall, and after some casualties in the morning they were able to climb up with ladders and pistols in the afternoon.

Approaching the walls of Le Quesnoy.

At the Monument on the Ramparts we were told about the casualties, given examples of gallantry awards and had readings about the war and the NZ flag. We were reminded about some of the facts; It was seven days before the armistice and some men who died had also fought at Gallipoli ; there were Brigades that were released from service the following day. 117 Kiwi men died that day.

The rest afternoon and evening was somewhat more light hearted with beers in the sun followed by a fabulous dinner put on by the locals (with the ladies bringing a tart each mmmm plate culture). We and the locals entertained eachother with various local songs, a haka and a bagpipe dual. The hardy amongst us also went to the local pub, the Cambridge, and sung folk song karaoke with the local death metal band (you could not make it up).

I need to work out how to rotate this, but here's a sample of the tarts for now...

Paul leading a few songs.

Sunday morning it was back to the formal affairs. Wreath laying in the town square before following the brass band back to the Monument on the Ramparts. We perched ourselves on the ramparts and viewed the ceremony from above. There was more wreath laying, national anthems, bagpipes (The Flowers o' the Forest), and just when the ceremony seemed to be over from behind us on the ramparts came the sound of a haka performed by some students from Nelson Boys'.

Young Kiwis sitting above the memorial, at the 1918 entry point after the service.

Again tempering the formal with the fun/eating the locals once again put on an amazing lunch, with more singing, and another haka, before sadly leaving for Lille and home.

It was an Anzac weekend unlike any other. It was amazing to see how this town was still so deeply grateful for what the Kiwis had done 90 years ago. And while I had a fantastic weekend - hard not to in France surrounded by cheese - there will be one thing that I will remember; at the time the war started NZ's population was only 1.1 million, nearly 10% of the population served and half of them died. Such a great sacrifice; and certainly not forgotten.

1 comment:

Brenda said...

What a memorable Anzac weekend.