NZETC Tour 2012
Met at the airport by Clair and Richard. Bloody long walk to meet the hotel bus, which never turned up. Took a cab to the hotel. Got the train to Paris, met up with Robin, went to lunch at a great little traditional French restaurant. This really introduced the crew to France and brought home the reality that they had arrived. A nice little ride up in a fixed balloon looking over Paris on a wonderful fine day. Train back to hotel for a well deserved sleep.
Stuart and I picked up van, the new Tom Tom GPS wouldnt work, a very long story, which had to wait until I returned home to fix it. I had to turn on my GPS in my IPhone. This got us back to the hotel, however a lesson for those travellers who use roaming whilst they are away overseas.The 20-minutes that I had to use the roaming cost me over A$200. Fortunately I brought my old Navman with us and we were quickly on our way to Ypres. Arrived, checked in and went straight to the beautiful Rampart cemetery.This was a very emotional experience for all involved. We walked through the gate led by Raina chanting the Te Karanga.This brought both tears and the hairs up on end for everyone. If I was to say what was the most emotional part of the tour it would have been this visit. It was just us and us alone, this small group of Kiwis on the first ever official pilgrimage to visit our fallen in this beautiful small cemetery located on the edge of an ancient moat thousands of miles from home.I believe that this special experience set the template for the rest of the tour.
The tour with Lionel was another eye opener for the group. It certainly prepared them for what lay ahead over the next 10 days. The death and destruction that occurred in such a small area of the Ypres Salient absolutely left them gob smacked. Lionels knowledge was amazing and his day with us was greatly appreciated and well accepted.That evening we experienced another first. The NZETC were honored by the whole group laying two wreaths at the Menin Gate ceremony. Another moving experience shared by all. The organisers are so friendly and appreciative of all those who travel thousands of kilometres to attend these daily ceremonies.This was followed by a great dinner, which we believe just about killed another great Kiwi soldier by the name of Jeff Tobin.Gee he was sick, but like all tough Kiwi boys he lived to fight another day.
We visited the Passchendaele 1917 Museum. This gave us a great insight to the Battle of Passchendaele and the events that occurred around Ypres during those most terrible times. That afternoon we arrived in Arras. That evening we were welcomed by the Maire of Arras Mr Frederic Leturque. A great evening that made us all feel like prodigal sons and daughters returning after 95 years of absence. It was a chance to meet up with Isabelle, Christophe, Irene, and the Burbachs the Killingtons and the Towlers. After the event, another great French meal was to be had.
This morning we were met by Robin Sanderson, who had travelled up from Paris for the day, and we were also finally joined by the most charming, cognisant, energizing Mr. Chris Pugsley and his wife Dee. This introduction turned out to be the most enjoyable, valuable part of the whole tour. From out of left field arrived this chap with so much knowledge that most of us were left absolutely stunned by what we learnt and experienced over the following three days. We arrived at the Carriere Wellington tunnels for another amazing experience and journey through time that involved our ancestors and their efforts to liberate a country ravaged by a brutal war, doing it in the only way they knew how, and that was tunnelling. Christophe and Isabelle were delightful, when they took us through tunnels that were not open to the general public the tour quickly realized that they were being treated to a special event and returned the favor by turning out the lights and treated all involved with Maori song, verse, prayer, Kiwi songs and poetry. In line with the visit to the Rampart cemetery this was the next most emotional moment of the Tour. It was so effective that Christophe was converted to a believer and quickly put together a function the following evening to personally celebrate our visit and the event that he and all his crew had experienced at the tunnels. That afternoon we were met and taken to Vimy Ridge by Anthony who quickly became our adopted son to the whole group. His in-depth knowledge of the NZETC was undoubtedly unsurpassed by any one person throughout the whole tour. His youth and friendly personality was much appreciated throughout the three and a half days that he spent with us. He took up the void that was unfortunately made available by Bob Pike's father being ill. Anthony quickly took Bob's place without any fuss.
This day was spent entirely with Anthony, the visit to Chantecler will always be remembered by Colonel Pugsley having us all line up in an open paddock in the freezing cold acting out how the battle would have taken place and how we as soldiers would have been target to the German machine gunners. Christ it was wet and cold. It made you appreciate all the modern textiles that we were wearing and in turn made you realize how miserable it must have been for those soldiers only dressed on wool? The privileged visit to the glory hole tunnel at La Boisselle was another treat that even had Mr Pugsley more excited. The walk through the streets of Arras that evening whilst cold as hell was most enjoyable followed by another great French meal.
A visit to the Faubourg DAmiens Cemetery was particularly emotional with an excellent presentation made by Stuart about Sergeant Sam Vernon. We then visited Havrincourt and the Havrincourt Bridge. This was fantastic and the enormity to what was achieved by our tunnellers was quickly brought home by standing under the bridge by the Canal de Nord . What an achievement. On our way back from Havrincourt Anthony took us by his parents' house and surprised us with a wonderful traditional French Easter Monday lunch all prepared by his mum and dad. The crew was delighted with the array of culinary dishes that were served up.
Easter Monday was a day of really stuffing ourselves with French food. I think by the time we all got to meet for the big dinner we had all reached full capacity. That evening we were invited to a pre dinner gathering. Christophe had invited many dignitaries to meet with up with us. It was unfortunate that we had already planned and booked our large dinner evening, which meant we had to leave far too early The expanded group was made up by Lofty Hayward and his wife, the Prestons Clare and her family, Simon, Anthony etc. It was a great night, fun had by all. We all waddled home for a well deserved sleep and a deserved break from eating.
The 95th commemoration of the Battle of Arras. This was another milestone in the history of the NZETC. We were honored as special guests and were requested to read our descendants' letters as part of the official ceremony. It was a most memorable occasion. The ceremony was well planned and executed in the way the French know best, Isabelle excelled herself. Later that day we all travelled to the grave of Michael Tobin. We were honored with the presence of our NZ Ambassador Rosemary Banks and Brigadier Antony (Lofty) Hayward. Even despite the driving rain and the cold, this was a fantastic event. It was very emotional and Rosemarys and Lofty's speeches followed with Jeff Tobins presentation with Raina chanting the Te Karanga in the background. This was a moment I will never forget. Finally a fallen hero was recognised and laid to rest.
This was Simons day. A great trip through the Somme, a visit to Mailly Maillet with our lunch host Jacky Bedford was a visit to remember. Especially when Jacky pulled out these fantastic photos and then proceeded to treat us to history trip about the war in her local area . This was indeed a bonus that was enhanced by a great lunch. We then took the long drive to the southern Somme to the little town of Vergies to visit the WW2 grave of James Vernons, another relative of Stuart's. Well what can one say? Here we are in this small country village with the local Maire and the whole council. This was a first visit in 60 years by a Kiwi contingent to visit James' grave. These people were so excited that we had taken the time to make the trip, yet these were the same people that had looked after these allied graves for 60 years with not ever a thank you or a note of appreciation. It was probably the most humbling experience of the whole tour and well worth the visit.
Due to personal reasons Bob and Carol Pike could not join the tour, so our adopted son Anthony took their place and we visited the community of Saint Laurent Blangy. This was another great day full of special moments. The visit to the Chateau de St Laurent Blangy was a very emotional experience for Garry Preston. The formal Ceremony with Maire Jean Pierre Deleury and his council was unbelievable. They had gone out of their way to put together a hard copy presentation and a fantastic video montage of WW1 in their area. A visit to a German cemetery was very poignant and moving. It reminded us that we were not the only ones affected by the war, the Germans lost more soldiers than the allied troops and this cemetery was a somber reminder to the extent of their sacrifice. It was a great way to end the formal part of the tour. It cemented the whole tour together along with the reasons why we had made the pilgrimage to this beautiful part of France.
A quick trip back to Paris, check into the hotel and a train trip into Paris where Deb and I were able to entertain the group on a tour of central Paris, finally ending up at the Terminus Nord Restaurant where we were joined by Rosemary, Brian, Clair, Davis, Richard, Victoria and Robin. What followed was a most enjoyable finale to a great experience; an experience that I believe will never be repeated. One could never duplicate the number of firsts that were created by the share fact that this was the inaugural prodigal trip by our NZETC descendants and supporters. Our presence opened up so many doors that probably will never be opened again. I will never forget the experience and I believe that my fellow tour members will rejoice forever the opportunity that they took to join the tour and experience the experience.
NZETC Tour leader 2012.