We stayed at Varlet Farm, with its bed and breakfast accommodation, recommended by Charles Page, my history of photography lecturer from Queensland College of Art, where I studied photography in 1989/1990. Charles had stayed at Varlet Farm in the winter of 2009/2010 while working on his WWI centenary photography project Memories in Place.
The farm and accommodation run by Dirk Cardoen with his daughter Barbara, is in the heart of the Poelkapelle and Passendale battlefields. In a chance meeting with Dirk last Sunday at the Drum hotel in Passendale, where we shared a couple of fine Belgian beers, we learned that there still exists today on his farm a tree that had survived the horrific battles of WWI. This is Dirk’s story.
The original moated farm circa 1747 was owned by a wealthy family in Bruxelles, but the tenants working the farm left for France in the face of the
German invasion and never returned. The farm was occupied by the German Army until the Royal Naval Division captured the ruined farm on 26 October 1917, but it was retaken by the Germans in April 1918. It was eventually liberated by the Karabiniers of the Belgian Army on 29 September 1918.
In 1920 Dirk’s great grandparents, the Van Deynse-Baute family, came to the farm with their five children, one of them Dirk’s grandmother Helene Van Deynse. Helene was born in 1906 and was about 14 or 15 when she arrived at Varlet Farm. The family bought the farm in 1928.
Dirk says his grandmother told him that the place was full of very large rats when she arrived, no doubt attracted to all the human remains from the battles. The original farm was about 80 metres from where Varlet Farm buildings now stand and Dirk has recently discovered three cellars under the old site, two belonging to the original stables and one to the house.
When a young man his grandmother showed Dirk the tree that she says was the only live thing on the farm when she arrived, a young oak sapling. It still stands about 300 metres behind the Varlet Farm buildings today. Before we departed for Lille on Monday morning Dirk took us to the tree which grows on the edge of a pond, and leans at a 45 degree angle. Unless something is done to save it, it may well topple over. That would be such a shame given that almost nothing was left alive after those awful battles that raged over the Belgian farmlands one hundred years ago. How the family must have nurtured this tree!
While we stood at the site of the cellars Dirk had discovered he pointed out the neighbouring farm where his father had lived. His parents were neighbours who met in 1940 but because of WWII couldn’t get married until 1947. Barbara tells me that Helene, Dirk’s grandmother never married. So a little mystery there, no doubt connected to WWI and its aftermath.
To this day Dirk and other local farmers are still uncovering live shells from WWI. When they do they call the local authorities who record and collect the shells. From where we stood at the tree Dirk showed us the tower in nearby Poelkapelle where twice a day at 11.30am and 4.30pm the live munitions found are detonated and destroyed, in a pit 10 metres deep, with a limit placed on the size of the ordnance destroyed at any one time.
Dirk also told us that it is estimated that sixty percent of the shells fired never detonated due to the soft and soggy quagmire that existed in 1917 – there was nothing hard for them to hit in order to explode. When you think of the devastation of Ypres and the surrounding farms and towns like Passendale and Poelkapelle with only forty percent of the ordnance fired, it is unconscionable what would have occurred had they all exploded on impact and the further loss of life that would have been incurred.
Dirk and his family have created a museum of sorts in the barn with WWI artefacts found on the farm since the war. Today Dirk grows potatoes, leeks, garlic and cabbages and because of the farm’s location in the centre of the long ago battles he meets people from all over the world like us who come to pay homage or research their ancestors war service.
By the way, Dirk makes a lovely apple cake with which he welcomes all visitors who stay at his farm. Bookings can be made at: firstname.lastname@example.org