It was pathetic to see an old man and his wife, bent almost double with age and rheumatism, poking about among the ruins of their one-time home, in the hope of finding something undestroyed. They were living temporarily in a miserable little shanty roofed in by pieces of corrugated iron, the remains of former Nissen huts and dug-outs.
In Neuf Berquin several families were living in new wooden huts the size of Armstrongs with cheerful red-tiled roofs, that seemed if possible to intensify the utter desolation of the surroundings.
Lusty youths, still in the bleu horizon of the French Army, were busy tilling the ground, which they had cleared of bricks and mortar, to make vegetable gardens.
My chief impression was that France, now that the war was over, had made up her mind to set to and get going again just as fast as she possibly could. There was not an idle person to be seen, even the children were collecting bricks and slates.
I wondered how these families got supplies and, as if in answer to my unspoken question, a baker’s cart full of fresh brown loaves came bumping and jolting down the uneven village street.
Silhouetted against the sky behind him was the gaunt wall of the one-time church tower, its windows looking like the empty sockets of a skull.
Estaires was in no better condition, but here the inhabitants had come back in numbers and were busy at the work of reconstruction. We passed “Grime Farm” and “Taffy Farm” on the way to Armentieres, then through a little place called Croix du Bac with notices printed on the walls of the village in German. It had once been their second line.
In the distance Armentieres gave me the impression of being almost untouched, but on closer inspection the terrible part was that only the mere shells of the houses were left standing. Bailleul was like a city of the dead. I saw no returned inhabitants along its desolate streets. The Mont des Cats was on our left with the famous monastery at its summit where Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria had been tended by the monks when lying wounded. In return for their kindness he gave orders that the monastery was to be spared, and so it was for some time. But whether he repented of his generosity or not I can’t say. It must certainly have been badly shelled since, as its walls now testify. On our right was Kemmel with its pill-boxes making irregular bumps against the sky-line. One place was pointed out to me as being the site of a once famous tea-garden where a telescope had been installed, for visitors to view the surrounding country.
We passed through St. Jans Capelle, Berthen, Boschepe, and so to the frontier into Belgium. The first sight that greeted our eyes was Remy siding, a huge cemetery, one of the largest existing, where rows upon rows of wooden crosses stretched as far as the eye could see.
We drove to Ypres via Poperinghe and Vlamertinge and saw the famous “Goldfish” Chateau on our left, which escaped being shelled, and was then gutted by an accidental fire!