Dunkirk is about 15Kms from the Belgian border and the canal travels not far behind the sand dunes and beaches of this part of the "Opal Coast". We spent an evening just 2Kms from the border in order to try out various phone SIMs, find our Belgian Flag plus a variety of books and charts for Belgium. This was time well spent. The spot we chose for our overnight stop was also a favourite of the Gendarmes, Customs and heavily armed Army personnel who were often there for spot checks of cars and trucks. They did not bother us and we certainly kept a low profile. Every now and then, some of them would come over to the canal and look at us (or at least, at Anja).
The next day, we crossed the border and experienced a most rewarding week in "Westhoek", the West Corner or quarter of Belgian Flanders. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there. This part of Belgium is very rural so we saw plenty of cattle, several black sheep and lots of tractors carrying crops to the silos as this is harvest time. The harvest is probably a little later than in France because it is cooler. It is also possible that the harvest is better because France has had the worst wheat harvest for over 30 years due to the very bad floods.
We had been concerned about reaching Ypres due to reports of low water depth within the canal. Fortunately, because our water draft is well under one metre, we had no problems. We had also read that parts of the Lo Canal were very narrow, at less than six metres. As we are 4.4 metres, this could be a tight squeeze. We did meet some other boats but were always able to find a spot where we could pass one another without drama.
One of the towns where we spent a night was called "Fintele", population 30 with three restaurants! During a public holiday, there were hundreds of people there. The restaurants and nearby park were full of people, many of whom had cycled. One of the restaurants had a full sized children's' playground next to the terrace. Food prices were much higher than in France, probably because people were paying tourist prices.
Because it is so flat there are few locks, though lifting bridges dot the canal, very well managed by the travelling attendants. Cycling is very popular with all ages. There are 2,000 kilometres of bike paths in Westhoek and we saw many groups of people, including families and others our age enjoying the countryside on their bikes. Sometimes the bridge lifting for us held them up and gave us an audience. One of these bridges was particularly narrow with the deck remaining at quite an angle so that we were not sure we would get through. This dilemma must have been apparent to the onlookers as well because a great cheer went up when we passed through successfully. We think that is the first acclamation we have ever had and is typical of the friendliness we met with in Flanders. To follow through this welcoming approach, most of the historic markers on buildings and all the museums in this area present their information in four languages, Flemish, French, English and German.
As we travelled through these areas so central to World War 1 history we became aware of aspects new to us. We had not realised that this small part of Belgium remained free during the First World War. The town of Veurne (Flemish) or Furnes (in French and English), population now 11,000 was the capital of the area known as "Vrij Vaderland" or Free Fatherland, and was virtually undamaged so we could admire its beautiful town square and impressive Belfry and Church. King Albert and Queen Elisabeth spent much of their time around Veurne and were very active in every day support of their people. It was King Albert's decision to open the sluices at the sea port of Nieuwpoort to flood the area near the German line, so creating a barrier which the Germans could not breach. Queen Elisabeth spent her time setting up and visiting hospitals and in organising schools to ensure continuing education for the many children who were taking refuge in this part of Belgium.
Madame Curie was a frequent visitor bringing with her portable X-ray equipment so that injured soldiers could be diagnosed and treated close to where they were injured, saving many lives. Madam Curie also brought her daughter Irene, then 17 years old, to teach technicians how to interpret the films.
Each year (just before our visit), Veurne has an anual procession of "penitents". The people dress up in sackcloth and ashes and march, carrying crosses.
Ypres and Diksmuide which we later visited were both on the German line and virtually destroyed between 1914 and 1918 while the towns behind that line remained free, though very affected by the conflict.
The name of Ypres is well known and has thousands of visitors. It was completely devastated during the War but afterwards was reconstructed as before. Its museum includes poignant and graphic portrayals of life during those long years. It has a beautiful town square and magnificent views from the Belfry. There are approximately 120 military cemeteries in the vicinity.
We attended the Last Post ceremony which has been held every night at 8pm since 1928 to remember those Commonwealth soldiers who died and lie in unknown graves. Last year, they celebrated their 30,000th Last Post. There were at least 2,500 people at the Last Post that night, just an ordinary week night, and this is the normal figure. There was a Scottish honour guard and a Royal Navy flag bearer. Various people presented wreaths. It is as well that we were there almost an hour early because there was no room left when the ceremony started. The three buglers played very, very impressively and everyone seemed moved by the experience.
The walls of the memorial, the Menin Gate, are filled with the names of almost 55,000 Commonwealth fatalities with unknown graves who fell before August 15th 1917. We were overwhelmed at the huge numbers of Australian names there. One reads the figures but seeing them listed makes it so much more concrete. More than 43,000 Australian soldiers fell on the Ypres battlefields though not all of them are in unknown graves.
"The Trench of Death" was the name given during WW1 to our final destination, a bunker complex two kilometres north of Diksmuide. Diksmuide was in German hands and entirely destroyed. The trench was constructed along the Belgian front line facing the German posts and was successfully held by the Belgians from 1914 to 1918. The trench has been fully restored so we could walk along its entire length of approximately seven hundred metres, examining the observation posts and lookout platforms, with an excellent museum displaying some of the equipment and describing the experiences of the men who occupied it.
And so back to France along those same canals which formed the front lines 100 years ago.
Penny and Dave