My Trip To Ypres
It maybe along time ago since I went to Ypres. But today I am remembering that journey.
Do you remember sitting in assembly on Rememebrance Day during the minutes silence? I do. But I never knew what to do. Obviously stay quiet but when our teachers used to say think about those who died for you, my mind went blank. It was something that used to bother me. I didn't know who died for me? Did anyone die for my family tree? That sounds a bit morbid but you know what I mean. Did anyone go to war and fight for my tomorrow? It was a question that always crossed my mind during those quiet moments. I remember one day our teacher said that we could research anyone of our relatives to see if we could find their war records. I was so excited and managed to call my mum for help. But she didn't know. She had heard there was someone but all she knew was their surname. Bird. Not exactly the most unique name in the world and not a lot to go on when you have infinite amount of records to go through.
So that's how it always remained. A mystery.
One sorrowful day in 2014, my great aunt passed away. The news came as a shock as she was busy planning her 80th birthday that would have been the next month. The months that followed were booked solid with cleaning out her home for it to be sold. It wasn't pleasant but my mum came across a little box of help that we would need in the next few years.
Years later I was watching the Passchendaele celebrations for the start of the battle in World War One. I was amazed by the the dedication the people of Ypres paid to the Menin Gate and I really wanted to see it. So I had a brain wave. We were planning to go to Disneyland Paris that year and I thought why not do a little detour. I put the suggestion to my parents who thought it was a brilliant idea. So it was settled. We were going to do a little roadtrip. Cross the channel via the eurotunnel like usual. Fit in an evening to Dunkirk to see the vast beach, and then spend a few days in Ypres before heading to Disney. I was so exited. Then I had another brainwave. What if we had relatives on the memorial? I would have felt awful for not paying my respects if they were.
'Right then.' I thought. 'I'm finally going to research my family history'.
(Just to be clear I was only researching the First World War).
Now my family tree is a bit quiet when it comes to World Wars. Well for my Dad's side anyway.
My Grandpa's side of the family came from Russia so war records are more unknown on that side. My Gran's side is also a bit quiet, I have a feeling we had someone who objected to the war so no involvement there then. Yet I do admire their bravery in a time when that type of objection would have been looked down on. But I know if it was my Dad and/or brother having to sign up, I would have locked them away from the world.
My Mum's side though was involved in the war but she didn't know a lot so I went to the only person I could go to, my Grandma. She didn't know a lot but she knew the basics. That her Grandfather was wounded and died off the battlefield, that he was in his 30s, came from Newcastle Upon Tyne and was a Corporal. Something she was very proud of. She also told me that in Regiment name there was something connected to Ireland? Like Tyne Side Irish? And to add, she gave me his name. Anthony Holden Dawson.
Now looking up any war records is difficult. You have to pay constantly if you want to research something. So after caving into the what I thought was the best War Records website, I paid up. And soon found who I believe to be my Great Grandfather. I couldn't believe I found him. Well, found him on the internet. But where was he? After doing more research I found Anthony's grave. I was so happy. I had done it. 101 years after his death, and he was going to have his first visitor.
But what about my Grandad's side of the family. Well that is harder to find. My Grandad sadly passed away in 2006 and his sister was my great aunt I mentioned before. But do you remember that my mum found a little box of help from her? Well it was about to come in handy.
Now my Great Aunt who I lovingly called Auntie Renie kept nearly every historical document you could think of. And she would happily tell you about her experiences in the Second World War as a girl. I remember her saying that she could still picture her stood on the doorstep of her house with my Grandad as young children, in Cheshire, watching the sky burn orange. Little did she know it was the glow of the Manchester Blitz.
Mum was sure that there was someone who died in the first world war and after a think. Mum got out the Box of Help from Auntie Renie's vast document collection. And not long after we opened it. We found an envelope that contained a postcard. It was a postcard sent from the front telling a soldier's family where they were buried. She had kept it all this time, and even better. She had typed up the information about him on a word document so I could read it better. It was like we were being cheered on to find him from the heavens. But the treats didn't stop there. She had a photo of him. Her uncle. My Great great uncle. Thomas Bird. Killed in Action, aged 22. The same age as me at the time.
I found them.
We wanted to see them. We found Anthony's burial place and it wasn't far from the motorway we travel down to Disney. Amazing! And Thomas? Incredibly. These two brave men, who never met. Who may of met? But would in years to come be joined together in marriage. Were only twelve minutes away from each other.
We were going to see Anthony and Thomas.
I couldn't believe my luck. And I was so excited to see them.
We went to Dunkirk in the rain. I saw the beach. We went to Ypres. I saw the Menin Gate. I saw Trenches. I visited Cloth Hall. And popped into the CWGC (Commonwealth War Grave Commission) in Ypres to double check my facts with them. And they were very impressed with my knowledge and offered me a job in the shop. Haha! I think the commute would be a little tiring.
Then the day came to go to see them.
Thomas was first. He is buried in Serre Road Extension No.2. (Even the fact that this cemetery is called Extension No.2 is sad). It took me and my family a long time to find them but then mum stumbled upon him. Thomas Bird. Right under our feet. In this glorious garden of tranquility. Before we got there I thought the first thing I would want to do was just bring him home. To bring him back to England. And I did. But I was happy to leave him there too. He was with his mates in this beautiful place that seems wrong to call a cemetery. It was what he deserved. To be in his own Garden of Eden.
Next was Anthony. Anthony is buried in an extension to a village graveyard. In the graveyard are British, German, Australian, and French soldiers. All sleeping together. War lives here no more. Again, I felt the pull of wanting to bring my Great Grandfather home but once I looked at his view. And saw the rolling hills as the sun was setting I felt happy that he was able to look out at a free world.
My life has been enriched by this experience. I now tune into any celebrations dedicated to our boys. And I can now be silent today and know exactly who I died for me. And to them and the many others in my family and in my country I say thank you. You have given me a debt that I can never repay. But I hope that you are proud of how your sacrifice has saved generation after generation to live freely.
I will remember them.