GUARDIAN 13: Alain Matton
Alain Matton is a large man with a warm smile.
His elbow rests on the wet surface of the Ypres Inn bar as he nurses a half pint of lager and looks at the scene before him with a slight look of bemusement.
At 7.55 p.m. his beer sits alone.
His seat is empty.
The faint strains of the bugles playing The Last Post float across from under the Menin Gate Memorial to mingle with the noise within the small bar.
As the final notes vanish into the evening, Alain reappears and continues to sip his beer within the strange mix of languages and accents swirling around him.
Alain is owner of the Le Chat Noir guest house and has been welcoming visiting Australians for many years. He cheerfully sits with me by a window that looks across the street at the Menin Gate. As Chief Inspector of Police for the Ypres area, Alain is also in charge of all big events and he now points to the crowds outside, wandering away from the Monument now The Last Post ceremony has ended.
‘There used to be an old pub and we would to go in there nearly every night when The Last Post was played at 8:05,’ he said. ‘I started going in the ’80s and there was, at that time, two buglers and two policemen and that was nearly it. It was just part of life at that time – to stand under the Menin Gate and then have a chat with the buglers or a drink afterwards. But now it’s impossible. The interest is getting bigger and bigger.’
I ask if this increase in visitors might have led to a greater understanding of Australia’s role in the war with local people.
‘Now there’s so many interesting stories coming from the Australian side,’ he says with a nod of agreement. ‘I still remember the 80-year anniversary of the First World War. There was interest, but not that big. But the 90-year anniversary was already crowded everywhere. Now it’s 100 years and it’s getting bigger and bigger.’
Alain says there is a feeling of mutual appreciation between Belgians and Australians.
‘I think that the people from over here are still very grateful towards the Commonwealth people because they helped us out – twice,’ he says. ‘They remember it today. The Aussies are very thankful for what we do, too. They come from the other side of the world and everybody helps them out over here. They are very grateful, very thankful.’
I ask if local people feel their history is being a little overshadowed by the fascination Australians are showing for battlefield tourism.
‘Well, it’s part of the life over here, I think. Everybody grows up and there’s World War I all around you – wherever you go. When you’re a little boy, there are cemeteries. There are memorials. I used to play on the fields when I was a kid, and sometimes we used to collect the little metal balls which were from the shrapnel. We used the leaden balls when we went fishing, to put weight on and things like that.’
He explains that today there are still phone calls to the police about bombs discovered in the area.‘Mostly farmers or people who are doing building works. Yesterday there was a call from not so far behind Passchendaele. They were doing work on the fields and they stopped the works because they found on one spot eight big shells, unexploded. The army were going in this morning to see if there’s more because sometimes that’s how they find still-big depots of ammunition underground.’
It is a daily reminder of what his family endured during the war. His great-grandfather was in the army, and the rest of his family went on the run during the four years of battle.
‘His wife and his two daughters had to leave Ypres, and they came back just after the war,’ Alain says.
I asked him what they found when they returned.
‘Nothing, nothing. They built homes out of the wooden barracks after the war.
‘I didn’t know my great-granddad, but I knew his wife very well and she often talked about both wars. She got to 98 years old. She knew a lot of stories.’
Over the years Alain has expanded his local knowledge of the war to encompass the role of the Australians here through his fascination with old war diaries.
He is obviously eager to help any visiting Australians.
‘They come over once in their lifetime,’ he says. ‘They want to visit the graves of their relatives. When you see the family seeing for the first time that specific grave, that’s always shocking. Sometimes I get into tears.’
However, while always willing to help those with a genuine passion for following their family history, Alain is obviously concerned with changes he sees on the battlefields.
‘Now it’s getting commercialised and there’s a lot of people who just come here like to a tourist attraction. You can see that at the Menin Gate in the evening. At Last Post. I go there quite often, and sometimes it’s like they go to a theme park. There’s sometimes not much respect any more. It doesn’t feel good. There’s now gadgets and beer bottles and new beers and whatever. There’s even World War I wine. In the last month, 20 new guesthouses. This is getting crazy. I don’t know if it will stop. I don’t think so.’
‘I prefer Last Post somewhere in January when it’s snowed and cold and there’s nobody, no tourists. The only time in the year you may be lucky to have a night where there is nobody at the Menin Gate is very rare now, even in January. But I prefer Last Post like that.’
On a Saturday morning in Ypres the sun was shining, and Alain’s yearning for peaceful winter days was far off in the future. The large group of visiting pilgrims staying in town had filled up on their hotel breakfasts and trooped out to eye the monuments. In their absence, the locals had seeped in to reclaim their village for a few precious hours. The Ypres markets filled the square, and restaurants were jammed with people welcoming one another with raised hands and called greetings. Slouched back in chairs balancing on the cobblestones, they tucked into their meals.
Then, as afternoon loomed, they cheerfully merged back from where they came as the tourists rumbled back, tired and weary from their day of sadness. The Aussies, English, New Zealanders and a variety of other nationalities filled up the restaurants and bars with their array of accents.
I sat in a corner of a café, watching quietly as the crowd swirling around me suddenly rose about 7.45 p.m. and then vanished. I quickly joined the crowd marching down to the Menin Gate. Others merged in from pubs and cafés as we passed to join the procession. The new arrivals hit a wall of people quite a distance from the arches – those early arrivals who knew the tactics required to score a good spot. Some squared their shoulders and wiggled in to get a closer look. They looked back to those they were obviously travelling with, who waved them forward. They called out agreement to meet up after the event. I stayed out on the peripheries this evening, where the chatter was loud and surprisingly upbeat. Some were licking ice creams, with legs dangling over large concrete walls.
Then a visiting band played a military melody, The Ode difficult to hear from the back rows. But then the bugles began their mournful notes, which floated across the sea of heads to the outskirts of the crowd. The chatter around me, out in the cheap seats, stumbled for a moment. Sadly, it quickly recovered and eventually built to its original height, to mingle with the final notes of The Last Post.
Like a line-dance mob, everyone turned and surged back down the street in a wave of chatter. Those who had pushed into the deep sea of the crowd waded out to meet up with the onlookers on the outer edges. I flattened myself against a wall as the ocean of people retreated down the street, flowing back into pubs and cafés like streams leading off a river.
I was curious about that outer-rim crowd. Visitors on their World War I pilgrimage appeared splintered into two factions. Many had eyes lit with a mix of shock but fascination, a guidebook firmly entrenched under an arm and talking non-stop with other passionistas; they are the ones who lick their lips over war statistics. Put a couple of these precious few together and they bounce statistics off one another, their faces often brandishing a confused mix of emotions after their days on the battlefields. They had finally witnessed, from the front line, what they had been devouring from the comfort of books for so long.
One day out on the battlefields I changed sides and sidled up to a couple of middle-aged women wearing matching T-shirts featuring boxing kangaroos staring out from their chests. I had overheard them begging off tromping around one of the day’s monuments in favour of some ‘time out’ in a nearby café. They looked at each other when I casually asked what brought them here. They told me they were on a six-week European tour, and part of that was their husbands’ desire to visit the battlefields. It was that Peter FitzSimons book that got him hooked, one explained. Her husband could not put it down – he still had it on him now.
They assured me it had been a fascinating part of the trip coming here to find out about the shocking war; however, they were ready for something happier they admitted, a little shamefaced. They brightened as they explained that next week they moved on to Paris and the rest of their holiday.
I had found a difference in response in my travelling as a photojournalist in other parts of the world. A large camera is often cause for pause, and questions as to why I was there and what I wanted. It was a very different experience wandering through villages like Pozières in France.
As was my usual approach, I had taken to the quiet village streets by foot, wandering around looking at the Australian flags flapping about in gardens and on the wall of the Pozières school building. I stopped a moment by the school gate, staring up at French and Australian flags happily flapping away side by side. I was noticed by the local teacher, who quickly waved out. I stiffened. Anyone hovering near a school fence with a camera in Australia was often frowned upon and sternly ordered away. Not here.
A wide smile swept across the woman’s face when she heard my Australian accent. She explained that the children were currently at home for lunch but would be back in an hour if I wanted to meet them. I was ushered inside the large school building, a quick phone call was made, and moments later local resident Yves Potard was walking down the street with an equally welcoming smile on his face.