A STORY OF YOUTH IN YPRES, BELGIUM
Matthias rested his head on his arm, leaning against the cool stone. He felt woozy, too much alcohol in the club. Worth it though, a great gig to round of Ieperfest. He had travelled from Munich for the festival, one of the biggest hardcore punk gatherings in Europe.
Ypres was a strange place to hold such an event, he thought. He had only known about it from history at school when they were taught about the First World War. Ypres was strategically significant, the Allies set out to stop the invading German army around the town. The trenches were occupied throughout almost the full four years of the war, each side making small, insignificant advances then being pushed back. It was where the Germans had first used poison gas. In this series of battles the combined casualties from both sides reached over one million.
That was about all Matthias could remember. He had little interest in the history of his country. Like most of the new German generation the World Wars a century ago were a source of shame and embarrassment, the horrors inflicted by their forebearers that subsequent Germans were still making amends for and being punished for.
He sighed as his bladder emptied against the wall. He should have gone in the club before he had left. Instead he was caught short half way back to the hostel, which he was sure was somewhere down this street, although his sense of direction was hindered by his inebriated state.
‘What the hell do you think you are doing?!’
Matthias felt the harsh slap to the back of his head and someone pulling at his arm. ‘Hey,’ he cried, leaping back, fortunately managing to avoid getting any of his urine on his trousers. He hastily tucked himself in and fastened his trousers, swaying and stumbling as he did so. Facing him was a determined petite woman, about his age, dressed in jeans and a long coat, despite the warm August evening. ‘I was just relieving myself, I couldn’t hold it any longer,’ he answered in German.
‘You’re German as well,’ the girl’s face flushed with anger, ‘Brilliant.’
‘Entschuldigung,’ Matthias apologised, before switching to English, ‘You haven’t seen a man pissing in the street before?’
‘You don’t even know what you were relieving yourself against, you idiot,’ she cursed him in Dutch, the local language of northern Belgium.
‘A wall,’ Matthias shrugged, ‘so what?’
‘Come here,’ she grabbed him and dragged him a few paces back along the street. ‘Look up.’
Matthias looked up. The wall was part of an arch. In his muddled state he recalled it was some sort of memorial to the war.
‘The Menin Gate,’ the girl said. ‘A memorial to the Missing, the bodies they couldn’t identify, or couldn’t find, Germans and Allies.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Matthias murmured, unable to look her in the eye anymore.
‘My grandfather was one of them,’ she carried on, more animated with each word, ‘Albert Beckett. I never met him, neither did my mother. She arrived in Belgium as a baby after the war from Malta, her mother was looking for the British soldier she had a brief romance with while he recuperated in the hospital in Malta. She never found him, only a name on a list of missing soldiers.’
With that, she stormed off. Matthias stood feeling drunk and foolish in the street. At least no one else was about to witness their confrontation. He looked up at the white triumphal arch and read the inscription: ‘Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam – Here are recorded names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient, but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.’
Sobering up rapidly, he walked inside the arch and saw the stone panels filled with names. They stretched the full length of the arch, down both sides and from top to bottom.
It was daybreak before he had walked past each panel, closely looking at all of the names, each a story, each a person, a father, a son, a brother. On one of the final panels, dedicated to the Regiment of the Lancashire Fusiliers, he found the name of a Private: Beckett, A. – all that the girl had ever known of her grandfather.
Written as part of The A to Z Challenge 2018. Click HERE for more details of the challenge.
Each day in April we will visit a different town or city in the European Union, whose name will begin with the letter of the day – today it’s Ypres in Belgium – for a story based on a theme also corresponding to the same letter.
Over the course of the month and 26 stories, we will visit all 28 member countries to complete a farewell tour before Britain leaves the political union next year, touching on the history, politics, culture and people at the heart of Europe.
For a full list of stories and places visited, visit here: THE A TO Z CHALLENGE 2018.
The story of Albert Beckett featured in an earlier post in this challenge: B IS FOR BIRKIRKARA, MALTA