I’ve just returned from something I have always wanted to do: a tour of WW1 battlefields and related heritage sites. My guide – an old friend who will soon qualify as an official battlefield guide.
The inscription you see above – Their Name Liveth For Evermore – is found in every large British and Commonwealth cemetery. The sheer number of cemeteries and graves you see as you pass through Flanders is at once incredible and depressing: most of the soldiers were very young – teens, twenties. This one is Tyne Cot, one of the largest, just outside Ypres.
Ypres in West Flanders (Belgium) sat at the top of the 450 mile Western Front – the line of German and allied trenches that faced each other (as little as 50 metres apart) from the Channel to Switzerland. Holding Ypres meant preventing Germany taking over the Channel ports, and better supplying itself as it cut off supply to the British army. Holding Ypres was everything.
In every cemetery a sword points downwards – the larger the sword (as here in Tyne Cot) the larger the number of soldiers commemorated there. Vast as Tyne Cot is, most of the soldiers are named on a large wall, rather than buried in graves of their own. Battlefield tourists milled around when we were there, huddled somewhat in the cold and damp. Most are Brits: Flanders (and the Somme, further south) are where the British and Comonwealth troops did much of their fighting in WW1. We encountered a coach party of British school children – many visit – including a very knowledgeable young boy who knew all about British flying ace and national hero Albert Ball, eventually shot down by the Red Baron’s squadron. It turned out the lad was a descendant of Albert Ball’s younger sister.
This sad looking soldier atop a column – bowed head – represents the large loss of life suffered by Canadian soldiers when the Germans affected the first ever gas attack. The impact of the chlorine gas was devastating – but it was a dangerous thing to unleash, subject to the vagaries of the wind. The Germans couldn’t capitalise, but for the remainder of the war the possibility of gas terrorised both sets of troops.
There is a major German cemetery in the vicinity. It looks very different to the allied ones – spare and particularly bleak, among the trees. The gravestones lie flat, and there is a mass grave. There are photographs of Hitler visiting this cemetery during WW2, entering through the same stone arch we did. He fought in this area during WW1, at the same time as Churchill did. A thought that has intrigued many is whether or not the two of them looked out at each other across a field.
Essex Farm – troops named the locales after places back home – was a field-station for wounded troops. The Canadian military surgeon John Macrae operated in hellish conditions out of the (eventually) strengthened bunkers you see here, situated alongside a canal that separated the two sides. There he wrote In Flanders Fields, later published in Punch, that became one of the most famous war poems, and instigated the poppy as a symbol of the war. It is the most haunting and moving of poems. Have a read:
There’s a 15 year old buried in the Essex Farm cemetery – unusual even for WW1, but by no means unique…
The ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ypres, is very moving. It’s been held every night since the monument opened in 1927 (apart from during WW2). The last post is played, and school children lay wreaths, followed by a minute’s silence.
This genuine WW1 Vickers machine gun has, apparently, been in the window of a shop just off the Menin Gate a long time. A sign hanging off it reads: Not for Sale.
You can see below what a beautiful central square the totally rebuilt Ypres possesses; the large building is the cloth-hall, with cathedral protruding from behind. A plaque on the side of the cloth-hall say Polish troops were the first to liberate the town at the end of WW2.
St George’s church is a remarkable and lesser known site of commemoration. It was built after the war as a Protestant place of worship for Brits visiting to remember their kin who had fallen. Almost every inch of wall space is taken up by plaques on which schools, in particular, remembered their War dead.
The memorial you see below is to the brave New Zealanders who fought and took the Messine Ridge. In this remarkable action, the British took one year to tunnel and plant more than 20 massive mines under German gun emplacements on this ridge of vital strategic importance. When the bombs went off, it famously rattled the windows of No. 10 Downing Street. Ten thousand German troops were instantly incinerated. The ridge was taken – considered a great success in an otherwise static trench war of attrition.
The bomb craters exist to this day:
My ever inquisitive guide beckoned me to a ploughed field on the walk back up the hill from the New Zealand memorial. A quick scoop of the hand revealed what you see here: barbed wire, shell casing (endless examples of these) and what we think was a shell timing cap (determining when the shell exploded: in the air to scythe down troops, or on impact to shatter a target such as a bunker). This constant raking up of WW1 metal is known as the ‘iron harvest”.
In the field shown below took place the famous Xmas truce, when German and allied troops played football together. It was frowned upon by the hierarchy, and didn’t repeat. But a strange “live and let live” culture did prevail up and down the lines of trenches; put simply, if you don’t bomb us, we won’t bomb you. Again, this was enforced from the lower ranks up, and was a surprise to the hierarchy when they found out.
Also below is a rare reconstruction of a trench – in this case German trenches. These were much better constructed than the allied equivalent (as indeed, were German bunkers and German barbed wire). Walking along the trench begins to give you an idea of what life there might have been like – minus of course the bombing and shooting, the hunger, disease, rats…
A place to visit off the beaten track is the house run by The Reverend “tubby” Clayton, in Poperinge (near to Ypres), known as Toc H (signal terminology for the name of the building – Talbot House). He set up a place of refuge for off duty troops to unwind – read books, pray, and just have a cup of tea on a comfy armchair or in the garden. Rank was left at the door, meaning Generals could (and did) talk to Privates. Clayton was honoured for his efforts.
One man received even higher honours. Noel Chavasse received the highest bravery award – the Victoria Cross – for rescuing and treating wounded soldiers under heavy fire. He did so on two separate occasions, receiving the VC twice. He is one of only three men to achieve this in the entire War.
Do take a trip to Ypres, or the Somme. You don’t need to be an expert in WW1 – and as you can hopefully see, the experience is unique and rewarding, at the same time as it is dark and saddening.