After some much better weather, it has been great to see the tide start turning on the Southern Hemisphere for a change. Although it is somewhat variable, Mitch managed to get a tan digging trenches and moving bricks. His English colleague turned a bright shade of burnt red and was confused at his different reaction to the very same sunlight.
Our travel to Les Quesnoy (pronounced: ler kan-nwah) was a pilgrimage to the ANZAC forces who fought and died on the Western Front in WWI, this place in particular was a significant battle where New Zealand forces captured the French town of Les Quesnoy, defeating German forces who had occupied it for four years.
Our train to Lille on the Eurostar was a first in international subterranean travel. With a 1 hour check in and 1 and a half hour trip, we arrived in the same amount of time it takes to get through customs and board a plane. France was very different from our experiences in the Netherlands and not many people spoke English, let alone understood our version of English. We still managed to get a train to Les Quesnoy with little trouble, once we were there it was again, even more trouble. On arrival late at night our mission was to find the local backpackers which were part of a retrofit army barracks. After finding our first locals in a restaurant, Mitch’s first few lines of “Le Barracks” and “Militarie Accomodacion” followed by Tam’s amateur reenactment of WWI left the hosts and patrons understandably confused. We eventually found an old man walking his equally old labrador through the streets at 11pm who we treated to the same performance. He took us to the “Gite de Groupe” which looked much like the backpackers we were after, except it was completely empty. After Mitch set up the chairs in the lounge as a makeshift bed the concierge stalked out of the shadows. “I ‘ave been expecting you, ‘ere or your keys” in broken English. The beds were very spartan and homely adorned with bunks and 80’s tourism posters. But it was good to finally get some rest.
The following day, after some more navigation, we walked about the small town. Les Quesnoy is a high walled medieval fortress that would have proved difficult to the New Zealand forces scaling the walls lined with machine gun placements. Following the war, the fanatical association with New Zealand as soldiers who “came from the ends of the earth” to liberate the people is visible on the streets. It was quite a sight to see streets named after New Zealand icons, the town has gifted land as sovereign territory as tribute to our country.
We met up with the group, a diverse mix of Kiwi’s led by the enthusiastic tour group guide/leader Herb, who can recite the battles, losses and decorations at every site along the battlefront. A few London based Kiwis were on their 11th visit to Les Quesnoy and just keep coming back after the wonderful hospitality. One of our hosts, a local man Lou-Lou enjoyed entertaining us at lunch with a large spread put on for the guests. He was very apologetic for the Rainbow Warrior.
We were joined by the son of the Mayor of Cambridge, Les Quesnoy’s sister town in New Zealand. He quickly earned the title “The Prince” as he was much fussed over by the enthusiastic locals and ferried about. We eventually made it to the wall where Lieutenant Averill scaled the high wall using a ladder salvaged from an earlier attack and forced the surrender of the German army. A memorial sits embed in the wall at this point.
The nights dinner was great occasion with a round costing about 11 euros and a large amount of cheap red wine, it wasn’t long before we sat and got well into the celebration. Mitch got excited about the haka and managed to lead a good performance. Enough to remind them who won the World Cup at least…
The following day was a bit of a different story, particularly for Mitch, who took a bit too much advantage of the wine. We got a ride to Brussels with a Kiwi friend made in London, Petra and her partner Jon, who is in the British Army. With two other Kiwi’s Karen and Anthony in another car we stopped en route at Waterloo, site of a major battle and victory over the French in Belgium. Jon was a good guide and managed to give a good history of the battle and his regiment, named after the battle. We managed to climb the Lion’s Mound after finding a gap in the hedge for an amazing view.
After lunch in a park watching a Flemish Captain Jack Sparrow entertain some kids we got onto a Brussels train for Den Haag, ready for Queens day celebrations to come.