At the close of our last blog, I reported that we were just underway again after our layover in Beuvry where we had experienced so much wonderful hospitality and assistance with our couple of engineering problems. Loaded up with fresh water and food from the Supermarche, (Supermarket) plus our motor scooter which we had just purchased in Lens, we plodded up some 52 kms on the Grand Gabarit canal and then took the offshoot canal l’Escaut heading towards Cambrai arriving a day ahead of our CEVNI exam plus two day barge handling school run by two salty characters Di and Tam (a wife and husband team) who have had so much experience in this field ranging from working on commercial barges back in the ‘70s to owning many working barges of their own and on to having barges and boats of different sorts and sizes.
Although being English and have their home at Twickenham, (just near the great rugby ground) they have based their school and 23 meter training barge, Friesland, here at Cambrai due to the close proximity to the French coastal ports and easy access for folk taking the course from the UK or elsewhere as trainees come from all over the world to enrol and “do the course”. Access to the canals with lots of locks within a two hour voyage is another draw for them so after a briefing at 9.0am on Tuesday morning, off we set and had hands-on experience with barge handling, rope usage and knots plus plenty of time at the helm going through locks and learning general canal courtesy and laws finishing back at our port at 4.30pm to face an hour and a half of tutorial on the laws of water flow and so on. We were exhausted by the close of “school at 7.0 pm” so it was off up town for a quick meal followed by a deep sleep.
Up and away again at 9.0am on the Wednesday we repeated the previous days voyage but the high winds and rain which came upon us, really made us to be highly alert as the canals were very busy with commercial traffic due to another canal being closed thus forcing the added traffic onto ours so we saw many large loaded and unloaded barges punching their way up and down this great waterway. They sure don’t appreciate any mistakes which may be made by leisure barges as they are so busy getting to their destinations and working to a schedule.
At the locks, it is a case of be ready to slide straight in and get out again without delay or you will have them tooting and yelling to let you know they are surely displeased and as they are so big you sure don’t wish to argue with them. They even get stuck into the eclusiers (lock-masters) if they are there to work the gates if they slip up in any way too.
Well again we arrived back at around 4.30 pm to then have to face our exam which we all passed, thank goodness. What a relief!!!!!!! We can now relax as this was the last timetable event we have listed to follow through on.
Cambrai has a delightful little port just off the canal where the berthage is safe and relatively inexpensive and has a small park alongside which suits Harry as you can imagine, and the city offers all the facilities one requires, apparently which we will verify or otherwise over the next few days. It is now fully spring with the trees in their new foliage and the flower beds making a great display and apart from polyanthus and the like, tulips are looking great and appear to grow almost every where in this district.
Two notable events which stand Cambrai out in history, one being that it was from here where Louie Bleriot flew the first aircraft across the English Channel – Cambrai to Dover. This was the start of true aviation which led to what we know it as today. Secondly, while this whole area has been a major battlefield in both world wars, it was also here that the first tank was built and employed and became such a major part of warfare of armies across the world.
We will spend time exploring the area now that we have free time to ourselves and have some transport to allow us to do so. As we had unloaded the motor scooter which was a doddle using our derrick on the rear of the barge, a short ride around was interesting as being on the wrong side of the road so to speak (right hand side of the road). Despite having driven a car last year through France, riding the motor scooter is different again so it will take some getting used to.
John and Carol on Plover
One of the interesting things is that nearby there is a military airport and some mornings as early as 4.30 am you can hear the jets taking off for training or missions unknown, however, to see the Mirage which is France’s standard fighter jet for many years plus the all new European Jet which is the very latest delta wing fighter ripping through the sky is awesome. You have to be quick to see them as they are going so fast that by the time the sound reaches you, they have almost disappeared over the horizon. I was fortunate enough to witness two of them practising a dog fight and was stunned by the agility of these aircraft as they twisted and turned like pigeons, then would race for the heavens to reappear miles away. Sorry to go on but it is not often one can see such a display. I bet Grahame Smith would enjoy these sights.
Later in the day we mounted our trusty 50cc motor scooter and travelled approx. 5kms from central Cambrai to visit a British War Graves Commission cemetery which was beautifully maintained and recorded the details of some 100 Canadian servicemen, all of whom seemed to have been killed on the last few days of September 1918 which was so close to the end of WW1.
As I mentioned before, it is the Easter break but the French don’t acknowledge Good Friday despite the country being mainly Catholic, however, this Sunday and Monday will be real holidays so the parks and leisure areas will be well attended for sure. All shops apart from the odd food shop and bakery are and will be closed until Tuesday. At our local lock we have three quite large barges tied up for this holiday until Tuesday when it will be all go again.
Wednesday saw us hiring a rental car and setting off for Holland (Netherlands) to carry out some business for our pensions etc. It is amazing when sitting in New Zealand how we view events in European countries and imagine how far it is between countries but after leaving our base in Cambrai where we had breakfast we had morning tea in Belgium and lunch in Holland. It is amazing how near each country is and with the wonderful motorway system which criss-crosses these countries, when you are whizzing along at up to 130 kms per hour the distance is soon gobbled up. Once we joined the motorway we did not experience a set of traffic lights until we left the motorway as we went into a town in Belguim and in Holland.
I guess the most scary part is the huge volumes of heavy duty trucks which also use these networks and as there are literally thousands per day, at one stage Rhonda counted 180 trucks caming towards us in 5 mins so you do the maths then double it for the trucks going in the same direction as us. They have to be seen to be believed really and hence you can imagine how big the truck stop-offs are with some having all the facilities of not only rest areas and food stops but full mechanical service centres right through from tyre changing to fitting new engines and so on. The names on the sides of the trucks give some idea of where they are from and that ranges from almost every European country you could find in your atlas.
We really enjoyed our overnight stay in Holland in the city of Breda (170,000 inhabitants) which comprises of some very old structures from the 12th century through to the very latest commercial and residential layouts which were a delight to view and it seemed as though there was real pride in this area.
Rhonda' Comments: The food was good but the wine was better.
On our return trip, we spent an afternoon and night in Belguim where we stayed in the town of Ypres pronounced Wipers by most of the English speaking countries, however, Yepern by others and the locals call it and spell it as being Ieper so one has to remain somewhat confused, however, the town and area lives on in war history as seeing some of the deadliest infantry fighting ever witnessed in WW1. With the Germans and the Allies, which included so many Australian and New Zealand soldiers facing each other with distances between the front lines as little as 50 meters and the landscape being an endless sea of mud for months on end, in fact from 1914 right through to 1918 this area changed hands so many times that there was not a tree left standing nor a blade of grass to be seen. With the continued explosions of heavy shells the soil which is naturally soft and silty just turned into watery slop up to 2 meters deep and if soldiers slipped off the duckboards that linked the various trenches they could well drown or disappear into this morass only to be found when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission began digging for bodies after the close of this terrible war.
Remains of these poor wretches have been found every year since 1918 right up to today and with the casualties being so horrific (in 1917 alone some 500,000 British and Allied soldiers were killed in 100 days alone, for a gain of only 5 miles and was won back by the Germans in 4 days in a later attack). One must remember that it was necessary for the troops to live below ground in dugouts and trenches which could only be kept dry (if you could call it that) by being pumped out continuously by soldiers using manual operated pumps and as there was nothing but mud above, rats and other vermin ran riot and disease was rife due to the soldiers being continually wet, day after day, week after week. The town is surrounded by some 150 military cemeteries as the authorities gave final rest to some of the 200,000 Allied troops who were killed or lost during that period.
We visited the New Zealand memorial which was dedicated to them by the British at a cemetery called Polygon Wood where some 1100 soldiers lay at rest. It is a serene position nestled in among the trees and beautifully kept in honour of those brave young men who gave up so much for our freedom. We moved on to Tyne Cot cemetery which is the biggest collection of commonwealth graves in the world. It is awesome to say the least and is so sad to see the thousands of headstones standing with brief mention of the soldiers name (if known) rank and country marking the spot. So many hundreds are simply marked “A soldier of the great war, Known unto god”. Imagine the families back home whose only news was that their loved one was missing believed killed in action, never to really know where or when he was killed, let alone where he was buried.
With 35,000 headstones in this cemetery you can only imagine the feeling of terrible waste of life which seems to hang over the grounds as beautifully kept as they are.
While we were greatly saddened by the views and readings of some of the names and countries of origin, we were pleased to at least be able to pay tribute to them. Both Rhonda and I had relatives who fought in this terrible arena of battle so it was a small tribute that we could make to them and their lost soldier mates by taking a few hours to visit the area.
This is the area also made famous by the red poppy which once grew wild right across the region and was adopted by the ANZAC’s as their emblem. The beautiful poem “In Flanders Fields” which was written by Major John McCrae has stood the test of time is surely remembered by thousands of Kiwis and Aussies and is to be found printed and displayed in so many shops and public buildings in Ypres and is still worth adding to this blog so that you too can reflect on this terrible waste of life through war which was almost unbelievably repeated some 20 years later with the outbreak of WW2.
In Flanders’ Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders’ fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders’ fields.
The remaining motorway trip home to the boat was quite sombre but safe so on this note I will close for now and rest up ready for cast off from Cambrai in the next few days and get on with our great adventure.