Delving into the Miracle of Dunkirk and the Battle of Passchendaele Ridge

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August 26th 2013
Published: September 2nd 2013
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The weather has improved back to its old self, clear skies, plenty of sun but a slightly cooler temperature.

We are very comfortable in our apartment with plenty of room and we wish we had been able to arrange more of this type of accommodation during this adventure.

The cats were back for breakfast but stayed their distance from each other. At one stage we thought there were two black and white cats as Gretchen looked out the window to see the cat on the wall only moments after having it at her feet.However,we are sure there is only one and he is a fast mover!

We are only a short distance away from the combined TGV and Eurostar rail line and we hear them passing by at great speed with a quiet whooshing type sound and then silence. That has been one of the very enjoyable things about the apartment’s location in the small village, it is very quiet and no traffic noise.

Today we have planned a round trip to Dunkirk, into Belgium and Ypres & Passchendaele on another pilgrimage to check out WW1 and WW2 battlefields and memorials as well as taking in the countryside and towns on the way.

The road to Dunkirk was straightforward and it took only about 45 minutes to get there and find a car park on the waterfront which like many cities has been redeveloped for tourists and pleasure craft after the docks that all the commercial shipping was moved away from the city area.

The area was very quiet with few cars in the large car park and even fewer people on the streets. Perhaps they were all at the beaches further up the coastline and we would find that out shortly after we had finished in the city.

We spent an hour or so wandering a small part of the redeveloped inner dock area but didn’t find anything we were looking for in relation to ‘The Miracle of Dunkirk’ or the evacuation of the British Expedition Force in late May and early June,1940.We did find the tourist office and with the help of a map worked out a route to head north of the city centre to the beaches of Malo,Bray and La Panne which were used for the evacuation of nearly 100,000 men who found themselves at the beach as they retreated from the advancing German invaders.

Of the 338,000 Allied soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk, 238,000 were embarked onto ships and small boats of all types at the west and east moles at the entry to the port in Dunkirk itself.

We found a car park at Malo and walked onto the promenade and looked out over the wide beach to the water which must have been at least a half kilometre if not more away as the beach is so flat. We stood there thinking what hell it must have been like for the Allied soldiers waiting in the open or in the sand dunes for several days to be evacuated, while frequently being strafed by the German Luftwaffe and not knowing whether they would get back to England to fight again let alone live long enough to get aboard one of many ships and small boats sent to rescue them.

The prospect of lunch at a patatiere restaurant was too good to let pass so we sat at the last outside table with a glass screen to keep the breeze at bay available and ordered up what is a bit of a speciality in western France. The meal was a very large baked potato cut in half with the middle taken out and mixed with various meats of fish with cheese on top then grilled. With a salad and a cold beer followed by a choice of desert, it was a very filling meal and will mean a light dinner tonight.

It was very pleasant sitting in the sun and enjoying great food and letting the afternoon drift by. But all too soon it was time to pay and carry on our search of history.

Just down the promenade from the restaurant was the memorial to the evacuation. Aside from that there was really nothing else to see and once we had taken another look along the beach which stretched off into the distance towards the Belgian border we got back in the car and carried on further up the coast ourselves.

Before we reached the beach at LaPanne we passed by a mixed WW1 and WW2 cemetery containing graves of soldiers from England, France and Germany. This was the first cemetery we had seen where soldiers from both sides of the conflicts had been buried together.

After a quick look at the beach at La Panne we headed inland and soon crossed the border into Belgium although again it was only the line on the GPS that told us we were in another country as on the country road we were on didn’t look like there had ever been a formal border crossing.

It was starting to get late in the afternoon by the time we arrived in Ypres and after a quick check in the Tourist Office for directions to Tyne Cot War Cemetery at Passchendaele we had just a short walk to admire a very large gothic cathedral and the cloth hall both substantially damaged in WW1 but rebuilt.

We arrived at the cemetery with enough time to take a look through the visitors centre before it was due to close at 6pm and read the history of the WW1 battles in the area in which more than 2700 New Zealanders were causalities in just one day of the battle. The war in this area had been particularly fierce with over 600,000 soldiers from both sides as casualties although as history says ‘no one will ever know the real cost’.

The cemetery is the largest Commonwealth War cemetery in the world in terms of burials and it was a sobering experience to stand in front of the thousands of white crosses laid out I perfect row upon row upon row.

In the quiet of the early evening it was a very peaceful scene looking out over the fields that surround the cemetery so vastly different to the pictures displayed in the Visitors Centre taken in between the battles that raged here nearly 100 years ago.

As a couple of Kiwis,away from home for five months, standing there, we too had that feeling of being a very long way from home and missing family that the soldiers would have felt.

As we drove home across the border back into France we again had time to reflect on places and things we had seen today and wish we had more time to experience this peaceful part of France.

The cats,who both came visiting separately as usual,were a bit displeased that we were just having soup and toast for dinner after such a big lunch on the beach.

We finished off the day by watching two of the six episodes of a BBC docudrama series on the evacuation of Dunkirk,a series that we don’t recall having seen screened in NZ rounding off a day where we indulged in a lot of wartime history.

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