Chasing a Wallaby at Rouen

November 5, 2013 - Rouen, France

Today we have set aside to travel to Rouen by train. Yesterday afternoon I had written the names on crosses for each of our Wallabies with a known grave and on the back I had written the grave location with the plot, row and grave number from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission files. We had booked train tickets in advance and last night I collected them from the "Print at the Station" machines so we were all set to go. The weather was cold and threatening to rain but, as usual, our backpack was ready with umbrellas, jackets, cameras and, most important of all, the cross written out for Andrew Tresidder, a young wallaby from Woonona Primary School who died from wounds while at the hospital in Rouen. Breakfast was a little disappointing, not by lack of choices in the continental style but because of our distrust of coffee machines. In view of some of the horrid muck we had been served at other places we opted for hot water from this self serve machine and a teabag. That was not a good option as the water was not hot enough to make decent tea. Of course there were plenty of choices for bread and croissants so the rest of breakfast was fine. We had some time to wait before our train left so we went downstairs to a cafe and patisserie which has free WiFi so we could check emails and do other general housekeeping stuff. The lack of WiFi was proving very frustrating but at least we could have a coffee and do our chores.

We had chosen our hotel for the proximity to both the Eurostar station and to the regional railway station and in fact there was a subway entrance to the station just outside the hotel and we were soon at the station and ready to go, if only we knew which platform. The information soon came up on the board and we stamped our tickets and found a seat. The trip was very comfortable and we enjoyed our views of the French countryside as it flashed past. A small part of the journey was through towns and regions I recognised from research into our Wallabies and the misty rain and muddy, ploughed fields reminded me of some of the photographs and descriptions.  The train travelled very fast but it was still two and a half hours before we were approaching Rouen, in part because we stopped at several places along the way.

The square outside the station was wet when we arrived but at least the rain was holding off again as we tried to work out which bus would take us out to St Sever Cemetery but without the exact position marked on the bus maps that seemed to limit our choice to a taxi perhaps because we had already decided that would be the simplest approach. We asked one of the taxi drivers if he knew the place and then climbed in for the drive. After a quick circle around the square we seemed to head off in the right direction as I remembered it from several days ago when I had a chance to consult google maps and after a drive through the traffic of the suburbs we were at the cemetery gates and the taxi was off back to town.

From the entry area the military section of this communal cemetery was obvious and we walked up toward the memorial wall and French flags. We could see markers for Plot N and we were after Plot A but the layout was confusing so we consulted a couple of workers who scratched their heads, consulted one with another and went off in different directions to look but without any success. I headed off toward the back rows thinking that if Plot N was here near the memorial then Plot A was probably near the back wall. I soon saw a marker with A30 on it so went back to thank the workers and we were soon standing in front of the grave of Andrew Tresidder who had died at a base hospital in Rouen several days after he was wounded. We placed one of our Wallabies crosses on his grave and photographed the marker before lifting our heads to remark on all the graves here. I suppose because there was at least one base hospital here there would be many that died of wounds that were buried here. The CWGC normally has a niche with a bronze door somewhere on their sites where there is a Cemetery Register with a description of the cemetery, a map of the plots and a list of all the burials including personal details. The niche also has a Visitors Book and I entered my details, the grave we were visiting and a short sentence about why we were visiting. Reading through other entries makes you realise how many people come to visit from the local area as well as from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. They are often visiting the grave of a family member but also a number of people come just in remembrance of the sacrifices made by these men and women and as a reminder of the carnage of WWI. On this occasion we had time to walk around and note the different countries, ranks and branches of the services all here together. Death is no respecter of rank or privilege and the original Imperial War Graves group made an early decision that there would be no organisation of the graves by rank. It was especially noticeable here, far from the front lines, that the graves were in no particular order except perhaps by date of death.

We walked back to the caretakers office at the entrance to see if he could tell us where we might get a bus or a taxi. There was another chap in the office as well so we said "bon jour" and waited politely while they chatted. The caretaker then looked questioningly at us and Margaret explained our need for a taxi or a bus. That led us into a four way conversation about Australia where I was almost completely a bystander. I could understand some of the discussion but not really participate whereas Margaret held up her end of the conversation with many nods of approval from the frenchmen. After the exchange of pleasantries the caretaker rang the taxi company for us and said we should wait in the office where it was warm.

There was  bustle of activity as a hearse arrived along with some officials and family and I got a little chance to speak English to the funeral director (I think that's what he was) before they went out to officiate at the burial. When our caretaker came back and the taxi had not yet arrived he rang them again and then he and Margaret continued the smalltalk in French. I could only marvel at how easily Margaret fell back into some of the phrases. The caretaker was very pleased to have someone to chat to so I left them to it while I went out into the cold to make sure a taxi didn't just look down the street and go away again. After the third phone call and after the family from the funeral had left Margaret walked around the back of the caretaker's office to where the burial was being finished by the labourers. Soon after she came back to say they had just finished lowering over the grave the whole marble slab (an elaborate edifice with three slabs of tapering size), using a small crane on the back of a truck. She led me around to see where they were brushing up a bit of dirt but I wouldn't have known which grave it was apart from the pile of flowers larger than most of the other graves around it. All inside the space of an hour.

I think the caretaker made a fourth phone call before a taxi eventually arrived and we thanked him profusely before climbing in for the trip back to town. A slightly different route to begin with which worried us a bit but soon we were on the same roads heading to the railway station and when we arrived the fare on the meter was the same as we paid for the outward trip. Our wait for the cab had used up a lot of the time we had thought we would use by finding the cathedral but instead there was just time for a sandwich in the French style. A baguette filled with ham in this case that we shared between us, a coffee and a chocolate eclair each. I bought a second sandwich to take on the train and Margaret chose a fromage blanc with fruit.

Our train  ride home was through the darkness so it was difficult to know where we were and with the ride so smooth it was often difficult to tell if we were waiting at a station or travelling at 90 mph. Back at the hotel we thought we would try the hotel's very fickle internet connection down in the so called "business lounge". We had no luck with that but while Margaret went off to ask the night manager I went into the darkened breakfast area and discovered that as it was just over the (closed) cafe downstairs I could connect to their free WiFi so we both sat for a little while to get mail and send some emails before calling it a night.


Entry in the visitors book at St Sever Cemetery
The CWGC Register entry for our Wallaby
Placing our Cross of Remembrance
The grave of Andrew Tresidder
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