Wednesday, 21 November 2007

On Flanders Fields

I'd like to share a little family war story I found out about when I told Mum and my aunt that Lauren and I were heading to the World War 1 battlefields in Belgium.

During the war, my great grandfather Arthur Baynes was a Lance Corporal with the Royal Engineers Regiment, fighting in the trenches near Ypres. Arthur was near the town's cathederal when it was hit by a shell. The next day he walked into it and found the wrecked organ's ivory and ebony keys scattered about. Being a practical chap, though apparently not a terribly God-fearing one, he collected the keys and some fragments of the oak confessional box. A cabinet maker by trade, he used a penknife to carve the wood into a trinket box for his wife and inlaid it with some of the ebony and ivory. He took the rest of his war spoils home and used to beautify tables and other furniture. My aunt now has the trinket box.

My great grandfather, Arthur Baynes. They say he was a bit of a devil.

So when Lauren and I went to Ypres, I was pretty keen to track down the place my ancestor pillaged. Trouble was, I mistook the cathederal for the town hall, so we ended up at another church. As this one had also been destroyed during the war and in any case, we are not exactly sure if it really was the cathederal that curious Arthur had pillaged, we grabbed a snap of it.

Then, as we hurried off to a chocolate shop, I realised where the cathederal was, and took a slight detour.
Imagine walking into this after it had been shelled.

The land around Ypres is much like it was before WW1; low hills covered in fields and patches of trees. It's a pretty place and, like Gallipoli, is strange to think that this was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting ever. We got an idea of what it would have looked like at an excellent museum, which was crammed with photographs, slides, uniforms and the various shells, weapons, helmets and other paraphenalia the locals had dug up over the years. They had also kept a section of trench-crossed, shell-cratered battlefield intact.

There were four major battles here during the war. In just the third battle, which is also known as Passchendale, about half a million men were killed. Half a million.

Among the dead were 3,596 New Zealanders - making Passchendale the deadliest battle in our history. Many of them are buried at Tyne Cot Cemetary, the largest Commonwealth war graveyard. Tyne Cot also contains the Memorial to the Missing - the soldiers whose bodies were lost in the mud. There are nearly 35,000 names on it, 1,176 of them New Zealanders.

Tyne Cot. It was a cold, gloomy day, which suited the place perfectly.

Do you have any family war stories? If so, we'd be interested to hear them.


Anonymous said...

Hi Tane
This was a great read. Pleased you did it.
Was great to see you today and meet Lauren and long last. Look forward to seeing you next week at Chris's party.

Sarah said...

My stepfather's grandfather had a similar story, but I don't know the exact details. He went into a church in Belgium somewhere, and found a wooden scene of Jesus and the apostles all shot up and scattered on the floor, so he took a piece home with him. It's on the wall in my stepfather's house, with a bullet track right through Jesus. It would be nice to track down its original location and return it one day.

Helen and Ryan said...

Once upon a time when I was a wee little lad my parents took me and my infant brother on a tour of Europe. One of the first stops was in the UK, my pop's native country. While touring the north somewhere above Edinburgh they came across a famous Scots versus English battle site. My pops, as mentioned before, being of strict English decent and my mother being of Scots Irish lineage agreed that this would be a historically interesting and culturally relevant stop for them the time however they couldn't have realized how different their reactions to the site would be. Apparently, my father, in one of those typically male moments of speaking of 'facts' but completely missing the point, decided that this was the time to strike up a conversation about how bad he felt for the "poor, savage Scots and their desperate (and silly) attempts at resisting the crown" with my mother, who, as fate would have it, had just discovered a Stuart clan grave stone (apparently her clan) and an accompanying description of how the brave and outnumbered clansmen died cruelly on the swords of the dastardly English (i.e. my father's people) while defending their freedom and their women (i.e. her people). Long story short, it caused such a huge argument between them that some 30 years after the trip (and some 20+ years after their divorce) they both suggested to me, separately, to visit the site while Helen and I are on our RTW honeymoon trip to see for ourselves just how insensitive men are and just how much women over react. weird.. said...

Hi Tane
i made a search for Arthur S. Baynes on the web and found your blog. Was your grandfather in the Crimea War in Malta 1855 ?
Is his complete name maybe Arthur Simcoe Baynes ?
hope you will answer me @
thanks a lot