I met my first bunch of cycle tourers on the ferry over to France. All of them had there holiday set, route planned and bed and breakfasts booked in each town. When they asked me which direction I was headed after I got off at Dieppe, and where I was staying that first night I said ‘I don’t know’. I couldn’t help but notice a hint of jealousy from them. Whilst they cringed at the amount of luggage I had, they were definitely envious of my lack of plans.
On the ferry crossing I had a brainwave. An uncle of my grandma’s had died during World War 1 and was buried somewhere in northern France. I couldn’t quite remember where, so I quickly messaged a cousin who is an expert on all things family history to check the details. He replied almost instantly and a quick google search showed that the Mont Huon Military cemetery at Le Treport was only 60 km or so away from Dieppe. The ferry docked and I fare welled the other cyclists and detoured along the coast towards Le Treport.
My grandma’s uncle, Michael Percy Dwyer died in a military hospital near Le Treport on 7th November 1917 from severe mustard gas poisoning. Grandma often spoke of how his photo was kept in prime position in the house on the family farm. Two brothers had enlisted together, served at Gallipoli and throughout the western front but only one returned to Australia. Younger brother Thomas had been separated to another battalion upon arriving in France but by some macabre stroke of luck, was wounded and in the same hospital. Michael was able to have his brother by his bedside when he died in Northern France.
Thomas has his own story. He earnt a military medal for bravery after action near Peronne. The official statement reading..
“During the operations at Montbrehain, east of Peronne on the morning of 5th October 1918, this man acted as a stretcher bearer and in the face of violent machine gun and shell fire cared for the wounded with unremitting zeal. He frequently left his place of shelter and with utter disregard of danger dressed and carried out the wounded. For 12 hours he worked without rest, and to his utter contempt of the heaviest enemy shelling and machine gun fire many of his comrades owe their lives”
Whilst Thomas made it through the torment of World War 1 he sadly suffered the long term effects of multiple mustard gas poisonings, and died aged 39 in rural New South Wales. It seemed important to me that I should visit the grave of Michael Percy Dwyer, especially being so close.
I didn’t have a planned route through France up to Belgium, but I knew that I wanted to play tourist in Paris and then head in the general direction of Belgium (see my route). Incidentally I ended up cycling through much of what was the WW1 western front. Each day I cycled past countless memorials, cemetaries and plaques dotted around the countryside. I couldn’t stop at all of them but I made a point to detour to some of the more poignant sites for Australians, including Villers-Bretonneaux, Pozieres, Fromelles, Thiepval and finishing in Ypres, Belgium. I found it hard to process the landscape of devastation that was now quaint villages and rolling hills.
It was whilst cycling through this region of France that my grandma passed away back home in Australia aged 97, after a short battle with illness. I wasn’t able to attend the funeral but I know she would have understood. This detour all seemed quite fitting.
This post is aptly timed for ANZAC Day 2020 (possibly the first time since 1916 that ANZAC day services haven’t been held – thanks Covid-19)
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old Age shall not weary them, nor the days condemn At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.
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