Friday, April 28, 2006

Drew and Kevin's Excellent Adventure

It's not often that you see a man successfully accessorising his khaki green puttees with his World War One military uniform these days however that was my experience in Ieper.

Drew and Kevin were standing to attention throughout the ANZAC ceremonies at the Menin Gate in Ieper (Ypres in French). They were still-life subjects when my photography was limited by the number of heads in front of me. Casting about for something 'in theme' my eyes were drawn to Drew's puttees.

After the ceremony, I wandered over for a chat, and in keeping with a time-honoured tradition in both New Zealand and Australia, we retired to the pub for a beer ... the children of the children whose fathers fought for the freedom of towns like Ieper back in the First World War.

Kevin and Drew had an interesting tale to tell, and once I worked out they weren't spinning a yarn, as downunder folk are apt to do when faced with an eager audience ... we talked of adventure and travel.

They had been walking the Somme, retracing the footsteps of the Australian 12th/40th Battalion via battles they fought; walking and sleeping rough where necessary, employing a military technique known as camouflage and concealment ... which consists of setting up camp after dark and leaving at dawn.

Kevin is an ex-British Army regular now living in Australia and Drew is a 40th Battalion reservist who, signed up when he was 38, with a 3-day equestrian eventing career behind him and an ongoing passion for diving.

Drew showed me the stain of blood on his boots ... they were reproductions of the original boot worn by the ANZACs and had none of the comforts our contemporary soldiers have come to expect. I commented that perhaps this added to the authenticity of their pilgrimmage .. Drew seemed unconvinced about the need for that kind of authenticity.

Kevin laughed, explaining that they were authentic by day however nights were another matter and comfort wasn't something they spurned, although they were sleeping rough when there was no other option, using their Australian issue hoochies or makeshift tents; other times sleeping in first world war pillboxes, in farmers sheds and an old hunting lodge used by the Germans during the war.

The uniforms had opened doors throughout Belgium and France and the hospitality had astounded the travellers. They had experienced many things, met Mayors and other interesting people, most memorably spending time with a bomb disposal unit in France, admitting that they had been 'as nervous as 6 cats in Ieper'.

Seeing my confusion they gave me a quick rundown on the history of Ieper, harking back to the Middle Ages when live cats were being thrown from the belfry tower. A little research and I discovered that on the last day of the Annual Market in Ieper's Grote Markt there would be an excess of cats, attracted by the mice attracted by the Market produce and someone came up with the idea that the city jester should throw these excess cats to their death from the tower.

Drew and Kevin's nervousness was induced by the work of the French bomb disposal unit who collect and dispose of highly unstable and ancient explosives; the iron harvest is the explosive legacy of world war, old shells that rise to the surface or are discovered as farmers work over their land. The simple act of building a house or digging a road has an potentially explosive twist to it but I wrote of the work done by the unit in more detail in the ANZAC Day post, so it's easy to imagine why the guys found the unstable nature of the old explosives disturbing to be around ... most particularly the mustard gas shells, still dangerous today.

They had attended a re-enactment of the war, enjoying by the recreation of events long ago; they visited an archeological exploration of a war site and called in at Australian memorials along the way ... disappointed by the state of disrepair they found some in and a little envious of the rumoured 5 million dollars the Canadians were planning to spend on their own memorial restoration.

How did it begin ... well, once upon a time, Kevin met a girl ... just as he was heading back to Scotland for a holiday. She was a teacher and he, clearly desiring to seem chivalrous and memorable, offered to take the letters written by her Australian students to a school in Europe.

He was in Scotland for three months, the students exchanged more letters and his girlfriend was invited to to visit the school. He went back with her and revisited historical military sites, making contacts and receiving an official invitation to Ieper ... which led to this third visit with Drew, who will write up the trip and give a lecture to the Battalion back home in Tasmania, Australia.

Eventually our interview ended ... and staying in theme, Kevin's last words to me were a thank you for getting them seats on our bus out to Tyne Cot Cemetery and 'I need to go back and pick up some barbed wire'.

I've no idea why ...


Kelvin said...

Kia Ora, No prize for guessing where I am from !!! I was surfing the blog world when your blog popped so i thought I would say hello. Interesting blogs - I had a quick look at both. I started an ex-pat's blogs. I did quite a lot fo ANZAC Day. I was looking for ex-pats to join the ex-pats blog or to list their blogs. How is life in Belgium ?

wandering-woman said...

Brilliant post, w-w!

What cool guys - tell me they are going to write the whole big adventure when they're done and blog it or publish it or hire a Kiwi ghostwriter or something!! Fabulous story.

woman wandering said...

Hey kelvin, I wandered over your sites ... nice work, the hangi poem made me smile.

Life in Belgium's not too grim and now that the long cold grey winter is over, it's positively superb :)

Hi w-w, I don't think they have book plans this time but Kevin was definately looking at giving lecture-type presentations on it.

They were too interesting not to talk to.

The Wandering Turk said...

Great post! I must warn my cats to stay away though....

woman wandering said...

Hi wandering turk ... I think your cats would be honoured guests these days :) They were burning witches back then too but it's over.