Of connections and hospitality…

My grandfathers, William Peppiatt (Pop), and James Saward (Papa), served in the Australian armed forces in WW1, as did a great-uncle, Alexander Harvey.  Alexander, Grandma Saward’s brother, was killed at Flanders in January 1917.  Pop and Papa obviously survived, but died when I was 2 and 6 respectively, so I knew very little of their stories personally.

When I knew that I was coming on this trip and had the chance to be in northern France, I hoped that I might be able to visit the area where Pop was involved in battles from 1916-18.  Papa was involved in the Palestine campaign, and was not in France.  This week my wish was fulfilled in a wonderful way…On Friday Cathryn and I were taken by our very gracious host Catherine Vincent to Ypres (sometimes spelled ‘Ieper’, just across the Belgian border, 30 km from Lille, where we are staying).  We had thought about visiting Villiers-Bretoneux, but knew for certain that Pop had been in Ypres, which was also much closer.  At Ypres we visited the Menin Gate (Porte du Menin).  This memorial is magnificent, and forms one entrance to the town.  On it are the names of 54 000 soldiers from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Pakistan, and maybe others I missed.

They are the names of those who, unlike Pop, did not return.

Le Porte du Menin, Ypres, Belgium

I was only half prepared for the emotions within me as I walked the streets of Ypres, knowing that unlike many nearby towns, some of these buildings and some of these cobblestones were those of 1914-1918.  Much damage had been done, for sure, but I was acutely aware that some of the cobblestones had been walked on by MY grandfather!

Looking through the gate into Ypres

I was deeply moved by this experience.  There was a profound sense of connection with this man who exists in my life largely through photo and the stories of my family.  The one major regret of my life, (greater even than not being able to play guitar like David Gilmour of Pink Floyd), is that I have very few memories of 3 of my 4 grandparents, and so the experience of Friday was quite extraordinary to me, even though my footsteps were 95 years after Pop’s.  I wouldn’t call this a pilgrimage exactly, but some of the elements of that were there, to be sure.

Equally powerful in that moment, was the sense of connection with my Father, named at birth Philip William, but called by everyone ‘Bill’ (or ‘little Bill’), because of his likeness to his father.  Dad died in 2008, and as I walked the streets of Ypres, I missed him all over again.  I would loved to have talked to him on the phone about this experience.  Instead, I talked to him in my head and tears, and I decided he would have been pretty chuffed at the whole thing!

On a whim we then went looking on the memorial for the name of Uncle Alexander Harvey, but didn’t find it, despite ringing Mum to check on his regiment.  On talking to a man in a local shop (a slightly strange but pleasant enough Englishman) we were told that this memorial was only for Commonwealth Empire soldiers killed in Belgium, not in France.  This made sense, because the info from Mum was that Alexander was killed in France and buried at Armentieres.  When I mentioned this to Catherine, she said “we drove past there on the way here, so we should go there and see if we can find the grave”.

Long story short: with the help of 2 knowledgeable and gracious women in the Armentieres Office du Tourisme, we knew exactly which of several cemeteries to go to, the exact location of his grave in the Cite Bonjean Military Cemetery. I expected this to be outside the town,  but it’s quite close to the centre.  We found Alexander’s grave within 5 minutes.

Alexander Almer Harvey, died 17.1917

On it, along with Alexander’s dates and regimental details, was the inscription: “In loving memory of Alex, Beloved son of Mr and Mrs A Harvey, Tasmania

Alexander and Eleanor Harvey, my great Grandparents!

The detail and personal connection sat, for me, in stark contrast to many of the other graves I had seen, where the inscription read, like the one here:"A Soldier of The Great War"

“Known unto God

I’ve mentioned connections, what of the hospitality in the title of this piece?

The photos below are of three inscriptions, 2 on the Porte du Menin, and one in the cemetery at Armentieres respectively.


They are expressions of great hospitality, in honouring those who fell, including those who could not be identified.  This is a place where their stories are precious.

In addition, these memorials and cemeteries are beautifully neat, and obviously well cared-for by local people.  Alexander’s grave has carefully tended plants around it, and the stone is clean. Successive generations of French people have offered this devotion for complete strangers!  This too, is generous hospitality in action.  Each cemetery also had a well-maintained Register of all the graves and who was where, and a Visitors Book.  It was good to be able to write Cathryn, Catherine and my names in here.  The cemeteries included graves of German soldiers, by the way, as I discovered when I looked at my photo of the page with Alexander’s record.

One of my convictions about the practice of Christian faith is that hospitality is at its heart.  I’m not sure how to put into words yet the connection between that conviction and this experience, but I know that it’s there!  I’m reminded of the wisdom of a member of Hobart North UCA, Isobel, some years ago on the occasion of a suicide bombing in Baghdad.  We had looked together at a photo showing a pile of shoes of the victims of that bombing.  This included the bombers, who were two intellectually handicapped women brutally recruited into this grisly act.  Isobel commented that the act of piling up the shoes gave the victims a memorial and in this generosity of spirit she saw the spirit of G.O.D.    I don’t wish to impose my faith, or the tag “Christian”, to what I saw on Friday.  I can’t help thinking, though, that Isobel is naming something profound…

Afternoon light at Armentieres

Perhaps nicest of all was the delight with which Cathryn and Catherine shared in this beautiful day for me, and saw its importance for this sentimental Australian looking for connections.  As we found the info in the Office du Tourisme, Catherine’s excitement was clear, as was ‘my’ Cathryn’s.  Catherine too now felt a connection to this long dead foreign soldier, now called “Tonton Alexander“, the French title for a special uncle.  I remembered the people of the Tasmanian Ethiopian community who once said to us as we shared with them in the funeral of a community member: “You have not only given us aplace to grieve our sister, you have sat and grieved with us.”  As Catherine shared with us in this experience, I knew what they meant.

This was a profound experience for me, one that will continue to teach me much of connections and hospitality, and one which I will long cherish and remember…

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