Great Uncle Frank
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Great Uncle Frank

A journey to Belgium to show some respect.

One hundred years on and World War I still claims victims: in March 2014 two Belgium workmen were killed by an unexploded shell which was dug up on a building site.

It is estimated that 30 per cent of the billion shells fired on the Belgium and French battlefields did not explode.

Bugle players from the Last Post Association sound off the 25,000th  Last Post  at the Menin Gate in Ieper, Belgium, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2001.   The gate contains the names of some 50,000 Commonwealth soldiers who fell in World War I and whose remains have never been found.

Bugle players from the Last Post Association sound off the 25,000th Last Post at the Menin Gate in Ieper, Belgium, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2001. The gate contains the names of some 50,000 Commonwealth soldiers who fell in World War I and whose remains have never been found. Credit:Virginia Mayo

Last November, the bodies of seven World War I German soldiers were found in Langemark-Poelkapelle in the Flanders region. Some buttons and regimental numbers were found with the remains but no identification plates.

A division of the Belgium Army Ordnance has the specific role to remove and disarm bombs that are found in the fields where farmers plough the land. The finding of bodies and unexploded bombs is not unusual, what was unusual about the soldiers found was that there were so many together in the shallow mass grave.

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Picture shows light falling on the names of the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres (130 kilometres  south of Brussels) , Belgium. The memorial bears the names of thousands of missing Australians and others soldiers from World War I.

Picture shows light falling on the names of the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres (130 kilometres south of Brussels) , Belgium. The memorial bears the names of thousands of missing Australians and others soldiers from World War I.Credit:Jason South

Thirty years ago my father travelled to Belgium to see the grave of his Uncle Frank, 22947 Private F.M. Cranston, New Zealand Expeditionary Force. My father was named after him and wanted to see the resting place of his namesake. He wrote of what he saw and 30 years later, I also travelled to see Great Uncle Frank's grave and show my respect.

In Belgium alone there are 256 WW1 cemeteries. In the area near Ypres, around 100 of the cemeteries containing the remains of these young men can be found. The British lost an estimated 1.5 million soldiers, Australia 59,000 and New Zealand 18,000.

The Messines Ridge memorial is one of four in the Ypres battlefields, where the name of the 90,000 missing allied forces are listed.

My Father wrote of his visit: I was there on a warm, sunny Sunday morning, unlike the miserable, wet spring which had preceded the European summer. The undulating brilliantly green countryside made it difficult to imagine that once it was a shell-torn, mud-strewn wilderness of death. Some clue is available in the newness of the forests, which during conflagration were reduced to a few stripped limbs, the whole area liberally spattered with blood.

Defence writer Frank Cranston

Defence writer Frank CranstonCredit:act\karleen.minney

By the time my uncle was killed, my father had been invalided from the front and was unable to get back there. I can recall from childhood days how tears came to my father's eyes when he spoke of the younger brother he had left behind in Belgium, and for whom I was named.

The cemetery in which my uncle lies is enclosed by trees on three sides, with its northern flank open to face across Messines Ridge to the slight rise beyond it. The tranquillity of the setting belies the massacre done there.

Nor was I prepared for the emotional maelstrom I experienced when, for just a few moments, I stood before the grave of a man I never knew but had come to mean so much to me over the years.

A tattered page from his college magazine recording his death, a faded picture taken in a trench but on which features are indistinguishable, a life-saving medal from the Royal Humane society and two medals my grandmother had on his behalf for his effort in the "Great War for Civilisation" were the only tangible tokens I had before standing in front of the low slab which marks his resting place, and which is identical, save for the crests and the names, with the hundreds of thousands of other war cemetery headstones throughout northern France and southern Belgium.

The Battle of Messines occurred from June 7 to 14 in 1917. The British and supporting forces were successful in gaining a strongly-held German strategic position, Wytschaete-Messines Ridge, on the high ground south of Ypres. The capture of this land allowed for the allies to launch a larger campaign east of Ypres.

The seven-day battle cost about 125,000 lives on both sides. It was also the first time since the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 that Australia and New Zealand soldiers fought side by side.

My father wrote: That so many died so long ago under conditions of savagery unimaginable even in our age of uncertainty, in the defence of what they believed to be the cause of righteousness, is a difficult concept to grapple with. That they went off almost eagerly to face horrors whose nature they already knew bespeaks something of the spirit of man.

That they laid down their lives unnecessarily because of the failure of generals to grasp what it was they were about does not diminish in the least what was done. It is sad that there ought to be a lesson in it all but there is no sign that we have learned.

I found the grounds of the cemetery remain pristine and lie in a small village where daily life goes on. It is silent but for the chattering of birds and the occasional domestic sound. When I was there, a man was moving his lawn.

As I stood in front of Frank, I felt a sense of loss for a man I did not know but was so important to my father. To the left of Frank's grave lie two members of the Australian Imperial Force. They are not named like many in the cemetery but, as I stood, I reflected how young they were and how far they had travelled. What an enormous sacrifice they made.

Great Uncle Frank survived the Battle of Messines only to be caught by a shell a few days later - he died on June 17, 1917, aged just 19.

Belgium is a living history of the devastation of war. On my visit to the region I went to the Trench of Death located in Dixmude, which gives an idea of how horrid it would be to be living in the trenches during the war.

Max Deauville, in La Boue Des Flandres, wrote in 1922: "The mud, the horrible mud, the worst thing in the world, canons, carts the appearance of ordure splattered vermin, bloody puss which covers the Flemish land and eats away at it, which slithers, creeps into the landscape, the suffering landscape which only shows here and there is fresh greenery, its azure sky and red roofs of its house."

The IJzertoren (Yser Tower) memorial commemorates mainly the Belgium soldiers killed in the Yser Front. At the top of the 84-meter tower you can locate battlefields and the number of people who died. On each floor of the tower there is a part of the history of the war on display.

I was travelling with friends from Belgium, all from the Flanders region. The memorial is a good reminder of the atrocities of war and the impact it had on the Belgium people, especially the Flemish people.

The Belgium army was ill-equipped to fight the might of the German army and yet fight they did, despite knowing they could never win. It is estimated that close to 1.5 million Belgians were displaced by the German occupation of their land, of which about 120,000 were used as forced labour during the war by Germany.

The Memorial Museum of Passchendaele 1917, located in Zonnebeke, holds unique objects and respects the one million casualties that occurred in 100 days to gain just eight kilometres of ground. The underground dugout gives some insight in to how many lived their lives.

At the Menin Gate Memorial, where 6,000 Australian soldiers are remembered in The Battle of Ypres, the Last Post is played daily at 8pm. They have played it for nearly a hundred years, with the first sounding commencing on July 1, 1917.

The playing ceased on May 20, 1940 after the German garrison commander advised the memorial would be destroyed if services continued, but the buglers resumed playing when the Germans left Menin on September 6, 1944.

Since then, the Last Post ceremony has been held more than 29,500 times - its 30,000th occurrence is scheduled for July 9, July 2015.

It is worth a visit the In Flanders Field Museum in Leper which is devoted to World War I. But if the story inspires people to travel to Belgium, they will follow their own path and there is plenty of information on the net about what to see.

I was in Ypres on a Sunday, a few days prior to Remembrance Day. There were a few thousand people, speaking in low voices, huddled in the early chill of the evening.

When the lone bugler played the last post, it stirred up many emotions - the loss of my father (in June 2004), an uncle I never met, the buried unnamed soldiers and for my friends whose country had so much blood spilt on it.

It concerned my father that Uncle Frank would be forgotten and that the war taught us nothing.

Private Cranston has not been forgotten - the museums are packed with people from all nationalities and people roam the cemeteries, not always looking for fallen relatives but to take in the enormity of what was endured and to show respect.

With the steady stream of people arriving each day perhaps there is still a lesson we can learn.

* Frank Cranston was defence correspondent for The Canberra Times.

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