Ypres – a weekend on the Salient
The town of Ypres is an ancient town that has been at the centre of conflict in Europe for many centuries. Raided by the Romans in the First Century BC, during he 1300’s it was fortified against invasion although this didnt stop it being besieged first by the British in 1383 and much later conquered by the French during the 1690s. Over time the medieval ramparts were replaced by sturdier masonry and earth structures, to complete the defences, and perhaps because of its location in the south east of Flanders, a moat was dug around the part of the town facing France. During the Great War, this was the only corner of Belgium that remained unconquered. It was located in a Strategic postion laying as it did on the main route pf the German advance to the sea. Fighting occurred in the area on every day of the war, with on average 5000 British soldiers dying every month. Apart from 3 days early in the war, the Salient and the town of Ypres remained in Allied hands throughout.
With this in mind I visited the city with my wife and a couple of friends in July 2009. At the age then of 41, I was much older than most of those who would have made the journey in the War. Or so I thought!
There were three names battles around Ypres. In the First Battle of Ypres (31 October to 22 November 1914), was known to the Germans as the “Massacre of the Innocents” as most of the German casualties were a mixture of young inexperienced and highly trained reserves. the Allies eventually captured the town from the Germans after huge losses on both sides. In the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April to 25 May 1915), the Germans used poison gas for the first time and captured high ground east of the town (although it must be said that no land in Flanders is particularly high so a few feet in height can give a huge advantage to the occupier). The first gas attack occurred against Canadian, British, and French soldiers; including both metropolitan French soldiers as well as Senegalese and Algerian tirailleurs (light infantry) from French Africa. The gas used was chlorine. Mustard gas, also called Yperite from the name of this city, was also used for the first time near Ypres, in the autumn of 1917.
Of the battles, the largest, best-known, and most costly in human suffering was the Third Battle of Ypres (21 July to 6 November 1917, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele), in which the British, Canadians, ANZAC, and French forces recaptured the Passchendaele Ridge east of the city at a terrible cost of lives. After months of fighting, this battle resulted in nearly half a million casualties to all sides, and only a few miles of ground won by Allied forces. During the course of the war the town was all but obliterated by the artillery fire.
We travelled by Ferry from Dover, just like many of the Tommies did in the Great War, and drove through France towards Belgium. On our way from the Boat, our first stop was at the airfield at St Omer, here there is The British Air Services Memorial, this commemorates the Members of the British Air Services from every part of the Commonwealth who served on the Western Front 1914-1918
From St Omer we travelled on to the town of Bailleul. Occupied on 14 October 1914 by the 19th Brigade and the 4th Division, it became an important railhead, air depot and hospital centre, with the 2nd, 3rd, 8th, 11th, 53rd, 1st Canadian and 1st Australian Casualty Clearing Stations quartered in it for considerable periods. Its town centre today is dominated by its reconstructed belfry & Town Hall in the main square, built in Flemish style in the 1920s raplacing the ruins of the Church destroyed in the War.
As can be seen in the photo above, under darkening skies we visited our first CWGC Cemetery. As with most it contains, in addition to the many graves and memorials, the tall white Cross of Sacrifice and the Stone of remembrance. Like all of them it is a peaceful place, seemingly immune from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Here as well we came across our first unknown grave. The first of many on the Salient but, as I said before, this was the site of a medical station behind the front lines and laft largly untouched until 1918 so thankfully they are rare here. In many cases the occupant is totally unknown. In others the rank and regiment, if known, is recorded on the stone. In some cases a Nationaity is added. A name is only added if the CWGC is sure that there is no mistake.
The Cemetery also contains the grave of Sgt Thomas Mottershead VC who received his award for saving the life of his observer whilst flying an FE2b of 20Sqn, The citation reads
“For most conspicuous bravery, endurance and skill, when attacked at an altitude of 9 000 feet [2 800 metres]; the petrol tank was pierced and the machine set on fire. Enveloped in flames, which his Observer, Lieutenant Gower was unable to subdue, this very gallant soldier succeeded in bringing his aeroplane back to our lines, and though he made a successful landing, the machine collapsed on touching the ground, pinning him beneath wreckage from which he was subsequently rescued
Though suffering extreme torture from burns, Sergeant Mottershead showed the most conspicuous presence of mind in the careful selection of a landing place, and his wonderful endurance and fortitude undoubtedly saved the life of his Observer. He has since succumbed to his injuries.”
He died 4 days later. (IWM and specifically IWM Duxford take note, if you get an FE2b and display it behind structural ironwork, I will move it myself)
Our next stop was the Salient.
The town of Ypres was pretty much destroyed during the fighting, it is very sobering to think that practically every building you see within the town (and nearly the salient as a whole) was reconstructed after the war. Indeed as the British and French governments were busy arguing about what to do with Ypres, the Belgians were already rebuilding it. This process finally finished in 1967 with the completion of the beautiful Cloth Hall in the centre of the town.
Ypres was a walled town with ramparts defending most of the town as I said above. The Gate on the Menin Road was reconstructed after the war as a memorial to those who have no known grave. They are commemorated every night of the year at 2000 hrs with the famous Last Post Ceremony. This took on a particular significance for me, but more of that later.
The original Battlements have been restored and now make a very peaceful walk after an excellent evening meal. If one walks from the Menin Gate to the south you will reach the Lille Gate, which was the most used by the BEF for entering and leaving the City owing to the Menin Road being heavily shelled. Right by the Lille gate lies the Ypres Ramparts Cemetary, this is possibly one of the most peaceful I have visited. It also contains the ashes of Rose Coombs MBE who did so much to keep alive the memories of the great War when she worked for the IWM.
On the gate itself there are some old IWGC markers
Day 2 dawned wet, very appropriate considering the reputation of all 4 Ypres battles for the Mud.
The first part of the day was spent in the town centre first looking round the rebuild Cathedral, as with all houses of religion, I appreciate the architecture but don’t believe the message (although I do respect it)
Inside the Cloth Hall is the “In Flanders Fields” Museum. It doesn’t contain many artifacts, focusing instead on telling the story of the 4 battles. When we went round we have a party of English School kids with us, the were lively and noisy as you would expect but they were lead by an excellent teacher who had clearly been here before. Part of the exhibition takes in the use of Gas on the battlefield, when the kids approached he quietened them down, th tableau starts with a very loud explosion which had them all jumping, this is followed by a description of the effects of gas and some original gas masks mounted in well lit tubes.
They got the message!
On the way out there is a superb model of a house pulling an Ammo Truck to emphasise the use of animals on the front
This is/was an artificial hill formed when a railway cutting was dug before the war. It was the site of an underground battle and its here that the first British mine of the war was exploded.
The Hill was left after the war and is now run by the CWGC, Here is what remains of the crater
There is still a small amount of battle detritus laying here
On our trip round the battlefield we seemed to bump into two parties of Soldiers undergoing basic training at Catterick and as part of this they were taken on a battlefield tour, all between 17-20 ish (not much older than many who served here) they are loud and boisterous as you would expect, but they listened intently to what they were told (their tour guide was trying to show them how the lessons learned here applied to today’s wars) and they did us proud later. One party was from The Guards, the other were Gurkahs.
To the rear of the crater there was an old defensive blockhouse, literally covered in memorials
Some were very old
This one caught my eye, somehow I have no doubt it means what it says
From Hill 60 we moved onwards and very slightly upwards, which is why the place is so significant in the largely flat battlefield. Tyne Cot Cemetery is the largest and most visited CWGC in the world. It contains 12000 graves with a further 35000 names of the missing listed on the rear wall. Its situated on the site of 3 concrete bunkers, all are still present with one forming the base of the cross of sacrifice. From its location you can see the town and, becasue it is slighly higher than the surrounding countryside, it was an important defenseive position. Hence the bunkers.
As I said, its big and I just didn’t know where to start.
A stone commemorating men whose graves were destroyed in subsequent fighting, these are surprisingly common
The Blockhouse is still visible
A crew who died together?
Very sobering, one could guess that they died together in the same shell hole
The start of Day 3 took us to Bedford House Cemetery. Built on the site of a moated Chateau, it was used by nearby field dressings stations and contains 5048 Burials (including 1 VC)
The VC is Temp 2nd Lt Rupert Price Hallowes of the 4th Bn Middlesex Regt, who for 5 days inspired his men with no thought for his own safety until he was killed on 20th Sept 1915.
Nearby at Lankhof Farm, surrounded by a moat are the remains of shell proof bunkers.
At the Island of Ireland memorial, I wont say much here as we bumped into Ian Hislop and a Channel 4 film crew who were filming a piece for a program to be broadcast near Armistice Day
This just about sums it all up
Onwards to Hyde Park Corner near Plugstreet Woods
Here lies the grave of 16 year old Albert French who was the subject of a Radio 4 documentary “He shouldn’t have been there, should he”
A view into the dense Plugstreet Woods
On a very rough back road we came across the memorial to the 1914 Christmas Truce (by this time we were above the weather but below sea level!!!)
The Aptly named Mud Corner Cemetery, with another on the horizon. Plugstreet woods is dotted with cemeteries.
In the town of Poperinge there is a building called Talbot House aka Toc H, this was a rest house for soldiers. It fulfils the same purpose today and rooms can be booked, I would recommend it as a stop, the tea is good! If you had a relative who served on the Salient, the chances are he passed through here.
Essex Farm Cemetery, fames as the place the Poem In Flanders Fields was written by John McCrae, there is a memorial just outside the cemetery. Behind is a set of Bunkers that was used as a dressing station. Imagine being wounded and laying in here, the conditions are something wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
The cemetery includes the grave of Pvt V J Strudwick who was one of the youngest victims of the war at 15 years of age
On the morning of the final day, we paid our respects to a truly heroic gentleman. Throughout the visit I had tried to treat all graves as equal, irrespective of rank, country or gallantry awards. However in Brandhoek Military Cemetery lies Capt Noel Chevasse VC and Bar! To win the highest award for gallantry takes a special person, twice is beyond my description. Both awards were for tending wounded under fire. His death was no more devastating to his family than any of his comrades, his life however was beyond compare.
The Cemetery is in fact 3 Cemeteries very close to each other, like many others they are in a small hamlet by the side of a main road, over looked by the back gardens of the local villagers. The setting couldn’t be more perfect. Its worthwhile saying that the locals couldn’t have been friendlier to us throughout the trip.
Also here was the grave of one of the Chinese Labour Corps. Like all of his fallen comrades he is marked by his number and with one of two inscriptions. I this case the date of death is 1919, I suspect he died while clearing the battlefield.
I said earlier that Tyne Cot was one of the most visited Cemeteries, our last stop was one of the least visited. Gwalia. Situated set back in the middle of a field on a busy road, Its pretty easy to get to, but a bit isolated and, because its hardly visible from the road its easy to miss.
Its worth the trip and the short walk from the layby that serves as it’s parking area. Situated in an area that would have been a vast tented city, indeed it was very vulnerable to shelling and one grave holds 14 Men killed on the same day.
With isolation comes quiet beauty.
Foes buried side by side.
Lest we forget
The Menin Gate
Totally destroyed during the Great War, the gate over the Menin Road leading from the city, was rebuilt as a Memorial to the fallen who have no known grave. As such it is literally covered in names.
Every day at 8pm, a last post ceremony is conducted under the auspices of the Royal British Legion and led by Buglers from the local Fire Brigade. During the ceremony, poppy wreaths are laid by members of the general public (by prior arrangement). It is always packed, the silence is always impeccable. The townspeople of Ypres ALWAYS remember.
While we were there, as I said earlier, there were two parties from the Army garrison at Catterick. The Gurkahs and the Guards. I was a very moving moment when the marched into each end of the gate and has what appeared to be a good natured (they were seen in various bars with each other later) marching competition before the ceremony. The future of the Army is in good hands if these young men are anything to go by, fiercely proud of what they represented they conducted themselves with dignity throughout their stay in town. As an aside the town of Ypres is beautiful and the people are very welcoming and friendly and EVERY shop sells Poppies.
People from all over the world attend, this school from Australia laid a wreath
This young lad was wearing his great grandfather’s medals, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house
Finally there was a surprise in store. I have known for ages that my own Great Grandfather served on the Somme. As far as I was aware he was the only member of my family who served during the war. Having an uncommon surname (if its spelt the same way we are related, however distantly) sometimes comes in handy. As I was waiting for the ceremony I was glancing around the walls looking at the names, not expecting to find anything and to my complete surprise I found this.
Listed under the South African Infantry. As I said, the name s the same so we are related, but I am not aware of any South African family. Checking the register finds this
This cleared things up a bit, the address is in the right area to be family and I have a spouses name as well. I will have to do some digging through the family history, I am looking forward to it.
It seems odd but, discovering this made me feel better about touring round the Cemeteries, I felt an empathy in a strange way.
Before we left I placed a small tribute on the wall by his name
His age when he died, 41!
If you haven’t been, then go. If you have been, then go again. It puts everything into perspective.
It certainly beats an over hyped airshow.