In this week's documentary, Michael O Kane follows the events which unfold around a weekend trip to Belgium to commemorate and retrace the steps of 3 men who fought in World War I, around the farmland of Ypres, between May 1917 and April 1918
Organised by Mike Walker, grandson of one of these men, Dubliner Captain, Maurice C, Walker, we listen in as he escorts the mainly Irish group, including a great grandson, on a visit to various battle scenes, where we see how life unfolded for those caught up in this tragic war and hear how lives were lived and lost in the midst of these traumatic trenches.
Much of the detail for the weekend event is taken from Captain Walker's book ‘The History of the 154 Siege Battery’, with the highlight of the weekend focused on Manor Farm, where the 154 Siege Battery were positioned in early 1918 and from where a plaque is unveiled before the assembled families.
At the outhouse at ‘Manor Farm’ we visit the owner’s private museum with unexploded 12-inch shells marking the four corners of the room.
You don’t have to dig to deep to feel the history of the place.
As Michael Walker, grandson of Maurice says, ‘Driving around Ypres, it is common to see live shells left at the edge of fields. Farmers carefully leave the ordnance for the weekly, milk bottle-like collection by the Belgian army. For the last decade, they have been collecting an average of three tonnes a week and disposing of it in a specialist facility.
This programme portraits a haunting yet rewarding experience, as the families crisscross the landscape of their ancestor’s battle. It includes comment on some of the social and historical issues surrounding Irish involvement in WW1 and more recent reaction and implication away from the battleground.
The documentary follows the weekend’s events capturing the reaction and emotion of the families as they see, first hand, the site and sound of what life might have been like for their relatives during WW1.
Down idyllic country roads, we come across unassuming plots containing a few hundred graves, another 500 metres away there is another, and then another. All died in a 100-day period in order to secure a low-lying ridge and eight kilometres.
Back in Ypres, as we prepare to hear the last post, played beneath the famous ‘Menin gate’. The town of Ypres looks immaculate, with beautiful Flemish architecture and tight, tidy streets. Almost completely levelled in the war, bar the ghostly cloth hall tower, it was painstakingly rebuilt in the 1920s.
It is beautiful and lush farmland, a far cry from what these three men and hundreds of thousands of other soldiers witnessed nine decades ago.
Produced by Michael O'Kane
First broadcast 15th May 2010.
An Irish radio documentary from RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland - Documentary on One - the home of Irish radio documentaries.