Of Mines and Water Lillies

Trip Start May 31, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Belgium  ,
Sunday, June 17, 2007

We stopped for lunch at the Old Cheese Factory after twisting and turning on the roads.  We found a nice table outside in the sunlight where tiny spiders (or ants?) seemed to appear from nowhere.  I flicked at least 10 off Lucy's hair during the course of lunch yet we couldn't tell where they were coming from.  
After our salmon and goat cheese croques we stayed talking and laughing under the sun while I had yet another cherry beer for desert.   Still pulling little spiders from our hair and clothes, we finally pried ourselves away from the sun and the beautiful green countryside and walked back to the car. 
We drove to a place called Pool of Peace.  The name sounded out of the ordinary and I was instantly intrigued.  David and Lucy took off immediately and sped off behind some trees which turned out to be a grove next to corn fields.  Ed and I followed but missed out turn and ended up in a little cemetery past an old farm house, with a view to the entire Belgian plains...or so it seemed.
We finally saw Lucy waving far away and followed the trail back to the Pool of Peace, or Spanbroekmolen.  Thick vegetation surrounded this lovely and perfectly round pond, with floating water lilies and white lotuses, and dragon flies faltered on top of a water flower and buzzed by with their iridescent wings.  Although the place was beautiful and indeed peaceful, I couldn't see how this place had been part of the WWI scene.  People from a large tour group gathered round and I sat to listen.  
It turns out this wasn't a natural pond.  This was the result of a bomb, or rather one of 19 mines going off at the Messines Ridge, leaving a crater large and deep enough to turn it into a large pond.  I was amazed.  The series of mines laid underground in tunnels built by French and British were set to go off at 3.10 am 7th June 1917.  The explosion was so vast that it was said to have rattled windows all the way in London.  The detonation of this and 18 other mines formed the signal for the Allied attack on the German positions and the liberation of the Messines Ridge.  This pool was turned into a natural habitat for fish, birds, insects and water plants in the form of a memorial.
In the tour group, a man started playing the guitar and signing a song about the youngest recorded soldier of WWI, who was 14 years of age.  I could lie and say the Irish tune didn't move me, but watching the people there silently listening to the song with their heads low, it was hard not to. 
David and Lucy had disappeared long ago so I hurried back to the car and found David socializing with random people, as is usual in his case.  We hurried off to Hill 60 where the land was incredibly holed and cratered by bombs.  It was an amazingly irregular land, making it hard to walk straight, even though it was just a small hill.  The craters ranging from large to small were now patched with thistles and cherry trees, and small trees shadowed the remains of the old concrete bunkers left behind.  
The hill was taken by the Germans in 1914 but soon after the British Tunnelling Company started digging and placing their charged mines, much like in Messines Ridge. The explosions ripped the hill apart, flinging debris up to 100 m into the air, and resulting in the large craters and holes we saw today.  Hill 60 got its name way before the war because it was precisely 60 meters above sea level, but has since lost most of its height.  Most of the bodies and body parts of German soldiers were never recovered and still lay here somewhere beneath the earth.   
The thought gave me shivers, and David mentioned that to this day bones and other decomposed parts are still being found in the area.  To those who would like to travel to Flanders, never take your dog with you.
So this is how our WWI Battlefields trip ended.  We still had to drive back to Calais in France to catch the train back to London.  I was sad to leave Belgian soil and was comforted by my travelling buddies as they started to sing the French national anthem at the top of their lungs.  Oh well, beats singing in Phlemish! 
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