Lives of the First World War

Lives of the First World WarTo help commemorate the First World War, the Imperial War Museum (IWM) has launched a digital memorial to record the life of every person who served in uniform or worked on the home front during World War One.

During the next five years the “Lives of the First World War” will become the permanent digital memorial to over 8 million men and women. This memorial is still a work in progress; not all of the records are yet online and more will be added over the coming months.

Over the coming months, millions of additional new records will be added to Lives of the First World War – from the Royal Flying Corp/Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy, the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the Australian and New Zealand Imperial Forces along with the records of almost 17,000 conscientious objectors. IWM is also seeking to include the Indian Army, Home Front workers and all others who made a contribution from across the British Empire.

Lives of the First World War will continue to evolve over the First World War Centenary and new functionality will be added so that people can easily share and discuss who they are remembering online.

The “Lives of the First World War” is a project that anyone can contribute to by adding to the records, perhaps by uploading a picture, sharing a family story or connecting to official records that will help build up a picture of what happened to someone who served during the war.

You might recall I wrote about my great uncle who served in the RAMC during the war. His name was Harry Jefferson and I found a record for that name. The record has no other details against it so I wasn’t sure if it was the right Harry Jefferson. We have a medal with his name on the edge which my grandfather (Harry’s brother) gave to me when I was a child. I had given the medal to my dad and he kept it with his own service medal.

A couple of weeks ago my Mum and I had a little trip down memory lane by way of looking through dad’s bedside box of trinkets and cufflinks etc. I found a medal but not the one I was expecting to find (which I hope will turn up eventually). Luckily, the medal I found was Harry’s British War Medal, 1914-18 which has his service number, rank and name engraved on the side.

I was therefore able to establish that the digital memorial record I had found was his. I will be taking part in the project by adding the few things I know about him to his individual memorial record.

Kazerne Dossin

Kazerne DossinMechelen played a sobering part in the history of WWII.  Within the city, the Kazerne Dossin museum and military barracks serve as a permanent history and memorial to the Jews who were held there awaiting deportation to Nazi concentration camps.

The Kazerne Dossin museum of ‘deportation and resistance’ was initially housed in the former Dossin barracks until a new purpose built building, containing a more permanent exhibition took its place.

The Dossin barracks was a waiting room for death for more than 25,000 Jews and gypsies from Belgium and Northern France during the Second World War. The museum serves as memorial to those deportees and as a poignant reminder that atrocities still occur today and invites the visitor to ask questions and look for answers.

From Museum website:

The barracks were designated ‘Sammellager’, a transit camp for Jews and gypsies. The central location of the barracks (between Antwerp and Brussels where most of the Jews lived), the railway next to the barracks, and the enclosed structure made this location the ideal deportation centre. Between July 1942 and September 1944, 25,492 Jews and 352 gypsies were rounded up and transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and to a number of smaller concentration camps. Two-third of the deported persons was gassed immediately upon arrival. At the liberation of the camps, only 1,395 were still alive. On 30 May 1948, a commemorative plaque was attached to the façade of the Dossin barracks as commemoration to this abomination. Since 1956, an annual ceremony is organised to commemorate the victims.

Between 1942 and 1944, 25,484 Jews and 352 gypsies were deported from the barracks to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Only 5% (approximately 1200 – 1300) returned!

The museums introductory film presents some chilling images and poses some disturbing questions. The film highlights the part that Belgium played in the Holocaust and touches upon other human rights issues in recent times.

The Kazerne Dossin museum deals with wider issues than the ‘Belgian Case’ and deportation of the Jews by focusing on massive violence as a central theme.  Starting with the Holocaust it looks at how group pressure and collective violence can, under certain conditions, lead to mass murder and genocide.  The behaviours of instigators and opportunists are explored and how they instigate collective violence.  It questions why individuals find it difficult to say, ‘No’.

An enormous photo wall spans five floors showing the faces of the 25,856 deportees and their human aspect contrasts with those whose propaganda and mass hysteria persecuted the deportees and threatened them with annihilation.

Within the museum two of the rooms are dedicated to present the names and faces of those who were deported therefore breaching the anonymity of the victims and going against the aim of the Nazis which was to extinguish them without a trace.

The two rooms can be viewed here and here.

The museum is both sobering and thought provoking, inviting the visitor to ask questions and look for answers.

A railway ran alongside the barracks and today a restored railway goods wagon that had been used to transport the Jews from the barracks to Auschwitz Birkenau can be seen next to the barracks in the place where the tracks used to lie.

The former barracks have now been turned into residential apartments but a memorial remains in one corner of the Dossin barracks.  When I stepped into the quadrangle I heard the beautiful sound of birds singing and it was so peaceful that I found it difficult to imagine the sadness of its former use.

We must ensure that we remember, think and act to stop these atrocities recurring…

The National Memorial Arboretum

My contributions to a conversation in Amfortas’ Tavern:

Royal Airforce Memorial

I visited the National Memorial Arboretum today and the Eagle in the attached photo was quite stunning against the skyline inviting closer inspection. When I got up close I found that it was the centrepiece of Royal Air force Association Memorial Garden.

It is a wonderful piece of artwork, a fitting memorial for those who served in The Royal Air Force. The crosses beneath have been placed there by friends, family and colleagues of those who served. Unfortunately the drizzly weather dulls the shine of the eagle against the sky… I thought you might enjoy it anyway.

Shot at Dawn

Another of the memorials I visited was the one I mentioned to you recently; ‘Shot at Dawn’. I have posted about it giving more detail of what the memorial represents.

When I set off to visit The National Memorial Arboretum this morning I didn’t realise that it was Memorial Day in the United States. It was only later when I got back home and read Ginnie’s post at Vision & Verb that I realised I had picked a perfect day to visit the Arboretum. The Arboretum is a centre of remembrance to honor the fallen and recognises their service and sacrifice for their country.

The site covers over 150 acres and there are currently around 300 memorials. Far too much to see in one day. I picked one of the self guided First World War Centenary trails that had been launched earlier this year:
History enthusiasts will enjoy the more detailed Shot at Dawn Trail (2km), created to provide a deeper understanding of many of the trees and memorials connected to WW1 by fascinating stories and symbolism.

The ‘Shot at Dawn’ memorial is very moving and requires a few minutes silent contemplation. The memorial is situated on the eastern edge of the arboretum where dawn strikes first.

I was sitting on a bench when I took this this photograph. Right behind the bench were six trees placed where the firing squad would have been. The six trees facing the posts represent the firing squad, all aiming for the medallion around the statues neck and none of them knowing who had the fatal bullet. It must have been very traumatic for them too, having to shoot one of their own.

The full conversation can by viewed here.

A Weekend Away in Mechelen

A Weekend Away in MechelenMy recent journey to and from Mechelen by train including Eurostar was enjoyable and relaxing.  We had the luxury of being served with meals and drinks on both inward and outward journeys.  On arrival in Mechelen we quickly unpacked our bags before setting off to explore the city.  The Eyewitness Travel Guide to Belgium and Luxembourg states that the historic city of Mechelen, on the River Dijle, has exceptional charm.  It was easy to see why.  During my stay one thing I couldn’t help but notice was the abundance of bicycles both with and without riders.  I will always remember Mechelen as the city of bicycles.

You may recall from my last V&V post that I had fallen in love with a hotel (Martin’s Patershof) which led to us choosing Mechelen as a destination.  The hotel lived up to expectations.  Architectural features and stained glass windows are prominent throughout the hotel and our room had a stained glass window and stone pillars.  The breakfast room is quite stunning being situated in what was the choir of the church.  The breakfast buffet was one of the best I have ever seen.  There was even a decadent option of having a complimentary glass of Cava; I decided not to indulge so early in the morning.

Although this hotel is no longer a place of worship there are many historic churches still in use and eight are promoted as especially worthy of a visit. St Rumbold’s Cathedral with its wonderful architecture, artworks and stained glass windows was on our ‘to visit’ list but it was difficult to decide which others to include.  We settled on the Beguinage Church (which we found to be full of amazing artworks and treasures), Church of our Lady Hanswidj (whilst there we learned that it would shut for renovations in just two weeks’ time for four years), and the Church of our Lady across the Dyle. The custodians of each of the churches were very proud of their churches and keen to point out the special features of each to us. Being English we were somewhat of a novelty to them, with Mechelen not being an obvious choice for English travelers.

Mechelen played a sobering part in the history of WW2 so the Kazerne Dossin museum and military barracks were also on our ‘to visit’ list.  The barracks and museum serve as a permanent history and memorial to the Jews who were held there awaiting deportation.  I found the museum thought provoking.  It serves as a poignant reminder that atrocities still occur today and invites the visitor to ask questions and look for answers.  Alongside the barracks is a restored railway goods wagon that had been used to transport the Jews from the barracks to Auschwitz Birkenau.

We visited many other things of interest; the garden of the former palace of Margaret of Austria, an art exhibition of the work of Rik Wouters which is housed in the Schepenhuis,  the toy museum, the Beguinages and we strolled through the botanic garden to see the ancient wooden fulling mill.  We were even lucky enough to find ourselves next to the Grote Markt when the annual carnival was in full flow.

No visit to Belgium is complete without sampling some chocolate.  We came home with a box for ourselves and some as gifts.  The lady in the shop guided us through the different options and helped us to choose a bespoke collection for someone who has nut allergies.  The delicious chocolates are sadly already gone…

I enjoyed my stay in Mechelen and the Hotel Patershof; there is more than a passing chance that I may return there one day 😉

You can read the unabridged version of my travels in the following links; Mechelen Day One, Mechelen Day Two, Mechelen Day Three, Mechelen Day Four and Mechelen Day Five. I am currently writing up on the details and history of the places that I visited.

The Victoria Cross

My contributions to a conversation in Amfortas’ Tavern.

You asked so I will tell…

A number of years ago a colleague and I showed a couple of visitors from another department around the Weapons collection that was held at MoD Donnington.  One of the exhibits was a replica of the Victoria Cross metal.  

After we had finished our visit we called in on the senior military officer who was OIC of the building where the museum was housed, in order to say thank you for allowing us to arrange the visit.  We got chatting with him and he asked if we would like to see the Victoria Cross metal.  Well there was only ONE answer to that question!  He then produced a locked box from within a locked cabinet in his office.  He showed us the fragment of metal and pointed out the smooth side where the metal had been sliced to send for casting.  He explained that a portion is always kept ready the jewelers, so they can start work on a medal when it is needed.

The security of the metal seems to have stepped up a bit since those good old days 😉

The weapons collection has now been moved from Donnington and is available for public viewing:

In my early days at work the piece of VC gun metal had a Nato Stock Number (NSN) and was part of the weapons inventory in the storehouse.  The VC gun metal was stored and locked in a secure cage along with other attractive items…

The following link refers to a stock record card, that is how the stores were accounted for before the advent of computers (the army were well behind the curve introducing computers into regular use).

Recording of the VC gun metal.

I think the picture in the link is showing the replica as it was displayed in the museum at Donnington.   The cut portion of the metal is to the rear.

Then later as I mentioned below the gun metal was moved from the stores inventory (and stores location) and kept under lock and two keys by an Army officer.

Somehow you (often) seem to  have the knack of getting me reminiscing 😉

The full conversation can be viewed here.

A Christmas Gift

A Christmas Gift

When Christmas time arrived, Mr C and I didn’t really want anything in the way of presents so we decided to treat ourselves to a relaxing weekend away instead.  This ruled out flying to a destination because that would mean several (non-relaxing) hours in an airport waiting to fly…

As luck would have it an email arrived from the Belgian hotel chain that we used when we stayed in Bruges.  It gave us inspiration and I fell in love with one of the hotels in the chain.  The Hotel is a converted Church!  I researched the hotel’s town and found that it had many things of interest.  The guidebooks describe it as a beautiful medieval town, with charm and outstanding architectural treasures.

But how would we get there…

We decided that the best way to travel was by train.  The ‘end to end’ journey could easily be booked via the Eurostar site.  As well as travel to Brussels by Eurostar, we also booked travel by rail to London and onward from Brussels.

In theory it should all be ‘Plane Railing’ and I will be able to sit and relax and watch the world go by and maybe take a photo or two along the way.

By the time you read this I should be able to tell you how we faired on our travels…

Freakish Weather

Freakish Weather

In England, weather is often a favourite topic of conversation.  We English are never content whatever the weather.

The beginning of 2014 has brought some freak weather to our shores.  Since December last year there has been torrential rainfall in the south of the country leading to intensive flooding.   The ‘Somerset Levels’ has now become an inland waterway.  Many people in that area have been forced to evacuate their homes and farmers have bought boats so that they can get to and from their farmland and the local town.

For some reason the Jet Stream has become stuck and it is this that is causing this unseasonal, freakish weather!  In recent weeks this anomaly has caused hurricane force winds along parts of the coastline.  Some gusts peaked at over 100mph exacerbating high spring tides and causing waves that damaged coastal properties.

The torrential rain has also caused sinkholes to appear because of underground corrosion.  Some of these have appeared next to residential properties, requiring them to be evacuated.

Moving closer to my Shropshire home the winds have been less severe but still strong enough to bring down many (old) trees, causing travel problems and damage to property.

Sadly the extreme weather conditions have led to some loss of life and some people have unfortunately lost their livelihood.  The weather has also had a devastating effect on the environment and the land will perhaps take a long time to recover.

Once again I am impatiently waiting for spring