History, right around the corner (a WHF506 tour)

It’s that time again. That time I run back to my blog and write one of those rare long accounts of what I’ve done. It must be another We Happy Few 506 tour. Why yes, dear reader, you are correct. This time, though, it was right around the corner in my own country. Relatively, anyway – a one-and-a-half-hour drive in the rain on Friday to reach our hotel (the fancy Pullman) in Eindhoven.

Armed with camera gear (I consider myself a replacement at best) in the absence of our regular tour photographer Stu, Geertjan and I set out for the drive over. On a whim, we stopped at the airport to pick up Natasha before finally arriving at the Pullman. There was a little hick-up with the accessible room, but they sorted it out before the night’s end, so I won’t make a fuss in this blog.

I didn’t do much the first evening apart from eating spicy pizza at Happy Italy and popping into the supermarket for some supplies for the weekend. I gave Matt and Mark (Huberman, our Band of Brothers actor guest) some art, which I hope they liked. Do you guys think it’s getting old? Should I stop?

Day one: In the footsteps of Easy Company

The following day, we sat down for breakfast. I went the English Breakfast route (minus the beans on toast or tomatoes – gross). It was cold, so I abandoned it halfway. I brought some fruit for unexpected hunger pangs on the road and then set off towards the bus on the other side of the building. It took a bit to figure out the bus, as railings are never quite convenient, but eventually we settled on the first row, on the left – later right.

Our first leg of the tour focused on Band of Brother’s Easy Company. I was already familiar with this part from the very first tour. Still, our tour guide, Reg Jans (the legend,) took us to places within the towns and villages that I had never been to before, like the very centre of Nuenen (where van Gogh was not born, actually, Webster!), where we saw Café Schafrath. It’s the cafe that you see in episode 4. Little did I know – I only just found out – that my mom and dad attended numerous raging parties there in the seventies.

Other stops included the St. Antonius mill in Eerde, the Joe Mann Memorial Stone in Best (and other Joe Mann-related sites), the Robert Cole monument near the dropzones in Best, Paulushoef in Son where we were shown and told about Forrest Guth’s Purple Heart, the amazing Landgoed Schoonderlogt in Elst and the ‘Crossroads’ in Heteren. 

A Sunset March at the Waal crossing

The next part of the journey took us closer to (my) home and involved a little surprise. Our trusty bus (liberally put, those who were there will know) took us to Nijmegen. With rain pelting down on us and wind lashing at our faces, we crossed ‘De Oversteek’. Literally, The Crossing, this bridge took us from one side of the Waal river to the other. What followed was something extraordinary—a Sunset March. We were met by a fully uniformed veteran, who led the way back over the bridge. As we followed him in columns of two on the bike lane, 48 streetlights came on one by one as we walked across in silence—one for each American soldier who died in the perilous crossing on September 20 1944—a fantastic thing to be a part of. As I’m writing this, 3294 Sunset Marches have already been completed. A veteran has made the crossing every night since the start of the ‘Crossing Lights’ project on October 19 2014. We concluded our day at the monument below the bridge (only accessible via some stairs, thanks boys for helping me down).

Day two: British Paratroops

Day two of the tour was dedicated to the British troops, and all locations we visited were within 40 minutes of my home, yet I had never purposely visited any of them. Shame on me. The first stop was in Heelsum, where the 1st Airborne division landed on September 17 1944. We also saw the dropzones in Renkum and Ede, from where we followed the stories of commanders Frost, Dobie and Fitch, as well as Urquhart to Arnhem and Oosterbeek. And I didn’t even photograph the goddamn bridge! While each of their stories were amazing and heroic, I won’t all relay them here, though I implore you to research them.

Ivor Rowberry's Letter

There is one story, though, more specifically, one letter, that has stuck with me since. The letter that Private Ivor Rowberry wrote to his mother. While at the Old Church in Oosterbeek, Mark H. read it for us. Find below a wonderfully moving audio recording made available by Reg Jans.

Dear Mom,

Usually when I write a letter it is very much overdue and I must make every effort to get it away quickly. This letter, however is different. It is a letter I hoped you would never receive, as it is just a verification of that terse, black-edged card which you received some time ago, and which caused you so much grief. It is because of that grief that I wrote this letter, and by the time you have finished reading it I hope that it has done some good, and that I have not written in vain. It is very difficult to write now of future things in the past tense, so I am returning to the present.

Tomorrow we go into action. As yet I do not know exactly what our job will be, but no doubt it will be a dangerous one in which many lives will be lost – mine may be one of those lives. Well Mom, I am not afraid to die. I like this life, yes for the past two years I have planned and dreamed and mapped out a perfect future for myself. I would have liked that future to materialise, but it is not what God wills, and if by sacrificing all this I leave the world slightly better than I found it I am perfectly willing to make that sacrifice. Don’t get me wrong though, Mom; I am no flag-waving patriot, nor have I ever professed to be.

England’s a great little country, the best there is, but I cannot honestly and sincerely say “that it is worth fighting for”. Nor can I fancy myself in the role of a gallant crusader fighting for the liberation of Europe. It would be a nice thought, but I would only be kidding myself. No, Mom, my little world is centred around you, and includes Dad, everyone at home, and my friends at Wolverhampton, that is worth fighting for, and if by doing so it strengthens your security and improves your lot in any way, then it is worth dying for too. Now this is where I come to the point of this letter. As I have already stated, I am not afraid to die, and am perfectly willing to do so, if, by my doing so, you benefit in any way whatsoever. If you do not then my sacrifice is all in vain. Have you benefited, Mom, or have you cried and worried yourself sick? I fear it is the latter. Don’t you see, Mom, that it will do me no good, and that in addition you are undoing all the good work I have tried to do. Grief is hypocritical, useless and unfair, and neither you or me any good.

I want no flowers, no epitaph, no tears. All I want is for you to remember me and feel proud of me; then I shall rest in peace, knowing that I have done a good job. Death is nothing final or lasting; if it were there would be no point in living; it is just a stage in everyone’s life. To some it comes early, to others late, but it must come to everyone some time, and surely there is no better way of dying. Besides, I have probably crammed more enjoyment into my 21 years than some manage to do in 80. My only regret is that I have not done as much for you as I would like to do. I loved you Mom; you were the best mother in the world, and what I failed to do in life I am trying to make up in death, so please don’t let me down, Mom, don’t worry or fret, but smile, be proud and satisfied. I have never had much money, but what little I have is yours. Please don’t be silly or sentimental about it, and don’t try to spend it on me. Spend it on yourself or the kiddies, it will do some good that way. Remember that where I am I am quite O.K. and providing that I know you are not grieving over me I shall be perfectly happy. Well, Mom, that is all, and I hope I have not written it all in vain. Goodbye, and thanks for everything.

Your unworthy son,

Ivor

There’s a twig in my eye. In yours, too, don’t lie. He was only 22 when he wrote that letter, five days before a mortar grenade hit and killed him. I was barely beyond crawling at that age. (Feel free to joke about how I’m still barely beyond crawling now. It’s funny, okay?)

Our second-to-last location/story was at the home of Kate ter Horst, also known as the Angel of Arnhem. I don’t remember much of it because I was exhausted and somewhat numbed by Ivor’s letter. Sorry, Reg, you’ll have to tell me again.

But there could have been no more fitting ending than the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetry where we met once again with the heroes whose stories we’d heard during the day. Another place I had shockingly never been. A place both haunting and peaceful. Humbling, too, to see the young (!) soldiers in their final resting places with epitaphs by their families who missed them most. I don’t think that if I ever have an epitaph, it would be quite so moving.

The tour's Epitaph

This tour ranks way up there on the list of tours I’ve been on, maybe because it is right around the corner. It makes it all the more real. As for the people on this tour. Well, I promise I was only crying over breakfast because I was really tired, not because of how much I will miss every single one of you. I was just really tired. Shut up.

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2 Comments
  • Andy
    says:

    I’m sorry to have missed the tour and of course, the top notch company. The Sunset March must be something very special to experience and I think Ben, Rob and I will get along there sometime to see for ourselves. The maturity of those young squadies is astonishing and makes one feel very humble. A lovely blog Marrtje, awesome photographs and see you on the next one!.

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