Part two of our trip to Belgium.
As we were in Bruges, and I’ve always had an interest in the First World War, I really wanted to visit nearby Ypres, an iconic location
Clare and myself decided that we’d make the journey by train on the third day of our trip, but as we weighed up the travel options we realised that it was doable but would take hours. When we mentioned this to the owner of the B&B she suggested we go with an organised tour company – Quasimodo Tours.
I was hesitant, not just because they were named after a famous hunchback, but it was a bit expensive and I was concerned it would all be a bit rushed. In the end we did opt for the tour as it meant we could relax about the travel logistics and we’d get to see more sights than if we were on foot.
After a few complications booking the night before we were picked up by taxi at 9am and driven to the pickup point – all part of the service.
The tour was extensive to say the least, lasting nine hours, we travelled around the area with our guide Phillipe giving us a constant commentary on what happened where and why. He really was excellent, with a genuine passion for the subject and a talent for bringing it all to life. We visited a lot of sights around the Ypres Salient including (thanks to Quasimodo for the info):
Langemark German Cemetery: the second largest German cemetery containing 44,000 bodies. Among them are more than 3,000 German students who died during the battle for Langemark, more infamously known as the “Massacre of the Innocents”.
Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial Wall: The largest of the Commonwealth cemeteries. Almost 12,000 soldiers are buried here and another 35,000 are listed on the memorial wall – soldiers with no known grave.
Walking through the sea of gravestones, reading the names and where they came from, the emotional impact was very strong, very moving. Especially as many I came across, seemed to come from Manchester.
Polygon Wood: two cemeteries here and two memorials. Most of the dead here are from Australia and New Zealand, but there was still several Manchester graves scattered around.
The Brooding Soldier at Vancouver Corner: Memorial to 2,000 Canadian Soldiers who lost their lives in the St Julian area during the first gas attacks in 1915.
Hooge Crater Cemetery and Museum: we had lunch at the nearby restaurant and explored the museum with its wealth of artefacts.
Hill 60 Preserved Battlefield (Messines): This was the site of vicious fighting including the detonation of two massive mines under the hill which killed 650 Germans.
Control of this strategic point changed hands several times, which can be seen by this British bunker, built on the remains of an older German one.
Ypres and the Menin Gate: The Menin Gate is a memorial to almost 55,000 men who fell during the Great War and have no known grave.
Ypres itself was completely destroyed during the war and everything we saw was rebuilt afterwards, which in itself was amazing, especially when you looked at the great Cloth Hall.
There was a blacksmiths event on while we were giving Clare the chance to buy an Ypres poppy to go with our Tower of London one we bought a year or two ago.
The Yorkshire Trench and Dugout: These are the remains of the actual trenches, reinforced with concrete to preserve them.
Essex Farm Cemetery and Dressing Station: one of the original cemeteries and made up largely of burials from the dressing station on the site. One of the youngest soldiers to die in the war – Valentine Studwick, a 15 year old from Surrey, is buried here. Dr John McCrae, a Canadian, wrote his famous poem “In Flanders Fields” here in 1915.
Phillipe also took us to the Menin Road and Hellfire Corner, the most dangerous place on earth during the war. He also showed us some recent finds, dug up by local farmers. This ‘Iron Harvest’ of shells, grenades and assorted ammunition continues to this day and is a constant danger for the locals.
It may sound a bit depressing to spend a day visiting cemeteries and it certainly wasn’t ‘fun’ in the literal sense, but to actually stand where all these events happened, hear the accounts and see the names of those men and boys whose stories ended there, was something I’ll never forget. It was fascinating, enjoyable and very, very moving. Also, when we look at issues such as chemical weapons, long-term effects for communities and war in general, there are still lessons to be learnt today from places like this.
If you have an interest in history and the subject, I’d heartily recommend it.