Ypres and Passchendaele
Note: The Eagle eyed folk amongst you might note that I am publishing Day Four before Day Three. Whilst Day Three did see me visit more sites around the Somme including the monument and museum to the missing fallen of the Somme at Thiepval, it mostly focuses on heading to the battle of Agincourt. I wanted to post an article ready for the 100th anniversary of Armistice on 11 November 2018. Day Four of this trip sees me riding to and around Ypres and Passchendaele and it felt fitting that writing up that day should be my focus for this next post. I shall return to the Somme and Azincourt in my next post. (But here are a couple of preview pictures)
I awoke to find a brighter, drier looking day with the sunlight pushing through the curtains hinting at the prospect of a much more pleasant day’s riding. However, inspection of my kit showed that it was only slightly drier than when I went to bed. I would certainly be putting on some wet shoes and loading equipment into still damp panniers. I was pinning my hopes on riding in the warm in order to get things dry.
I went downstairs to the breakfast room where Richard had laid out a good spread of continental goodies. I tucked in. Richard joined me for a short while and we chatted briefly. I had made the assumption the evening before (after he had told me that he had come to running the B&B after leaving the British Army) that his problems walking were a result of action. He told me this morning that he was suffering from M.S. and that as a result they were now looking to sell up in France and move back to the U.K. to be closer to family. I was at a loss for the right words but wished him well; he struck me as the sort of person to be able to make the best of situations.
Fully loaded up on pastries I returned up the rickety stairs to the ‘Peacock’ room. I gathered all my soggy kit into my damp bags and carried them and my newspaper filled shoes down to the front door where I squelched my feet in, and gathered and loaded up the bike.
I left Heuchin continuing in the direction I had arrived. That seems like an obvious statement but it’s not always true that you find an overnight spot quite so perfectly on the planned route. The first mile or two can often involve a bit of doubling back to get underway.
For 4 or 5 miles the road climbed slowly up the valley which proved to be a nice warm up of my slightly heavy legs. My planned route had me diverting onto some quiet roads just a mile or two into the start of the day; however the “main” (single carriageway) road I was following was fairly empty. The wind was behind me and I had got a good speed going. I took the snap decision to stay on the good tarmac and keep my legs spinning. I normally regret these decisions quite quickly; but not today.
As I approached the roundabout at the summit of the hill I met a couple of cyclists in full touring setup also approaching the top but from the opposite direction. We exchanged smiles and waves knowing that we had all finished our climbing for a while. Across the roundabout I applied my brakes and pulled over. Laid out in front of me were the last few miles of France. There was a lovely long straight downhill road to make the most of but I wanted to take in the view before I sped down the hill.
The next few miles shot by. It was 10 miles that were almost entirely downhill and they ticked past quickly. There were a couple of sections where I followed side roads to cut a corner or two but I mostly stayed on the main routes through Isbergues and Saint-Venant until I reached Haverskerque where I met back up with my planned route.
I was not only off the main roads now but before long I was off the roads entirely as I joined a foresters track through the centre of the Forest Nieppe. The going was slower, especially as I found myself steering around large numbers of suicidal game birds. It was quite pleasant to be completely away from traffic for a while none the less. Slightly less pleasant was the short shower that greeted me as I entered the forest but it had finished before I left the woodland.
The next few miles were a mix of quiet country lanes with occasional forays onto busier (but not busy) main roads on the way to the pretty border town of Bailleul. It was getting close to lunch hour but the town was looking quite busy and I fancied somewhere quiet to stop.
A mile out of town I chose, as is my wont, a random corner next to a Maize field to hunker down on and have lunch (which I had clearly picked up somewhere on the way but cannot for the life of me now recall where).
Back underway I soon crossed the border into Belgium. I didn’t know exactly where the border was, but coming into the village of Dranouter I recognised from the road signs that I was no longer in France.
After briefly taking a wrong turn that started to take me up a steep hill I doubled back to the junction at which I had gone in the wrong direction. It was at that point I properly noted and understood the system used in Belgium to mark cycle routes. Rather than a system of numbered routes as is used in the U.K., Belgium numbers its junctions. Each junction is assigned a (seemingly) random number and then direction signs point you in the direction of the next junction numbers. Looking at my maps I realised that they were marked with these numbers and as such I could simply follow them. The system appears to work beautifully. Once I worked it out and could see the numbers I was due to head to it proved easy to follow the network. The steep hill I had started up was one approach up the Kemmelberg. One of the classics of Belgian riding its cobbled track from the village is one of the main cycling climbs of Belgium but I was done with pavé.
As I rode around the side of the Kemmelberg hill the skies darkened and the heavens suddenly opened. It was just as well I had skipped the opportunity to race downhill on the cobbles. My shoes had just about finally dried off after yesterday’s non stop rain so this wasn’t welcome. Fortunately there was still a good stretch of downhill into the village of Kemmel from my approach and straight ahead of me was a church which looked open and welcoming. On entering through the porch I soon realised that the current focus of the church was a display of the story of the Irish Army who had been based in the town. It was a fascinating display and kept me occupied for just a little longer than the downpour lasted outside.
With the skies clearing, though the roads quite wet, I headed North East out of Kemmel and soon came to the first Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery of the day at Kemmel Chateau closely followed by another at Godezonne Farm.
I wasn’t much farther on again when I came to the small Elenzwalle Brasserie Cemetery at a cross roads near Voormezele. Although all of the CWGC cemeteries have been created to a relatively standard set of designs and layouts, everyone has a different story to tell. Notable at Elenzwalle were the graves of men from the British West Indies Regiment; a stark reminder that this was indeed a World War and many men from all of its four corners came to this corner of Europe to fight and die.
The other side of Voormezele came Spoilbank and Chester Farm. I came to Spoilbank first. It contains the remains of 520 men (125 unidentified). A further 420 men (all bar 7 of them whom are known) are buried at the next cemetery at Chester Farm. Chester Farm gave another reminder that in the end we are all as one. A handful of German men are buried shoulder to shoulder with those they were fighting. Futility but togetherness at the last.
To give an idea of how close these cemeteries are located I only need to say that they sit in opposite corners of the same farmers field. There really is no escaping the past in Flanders. And nor should there be.
Spoilbank and Chester Farm were related to fighting at ‘The Bluff‘ in 1916 and it was to that battle field that I was headed next. Using my new found knowledge of the Belgian cycle route signs I decided to follow the numbers rather than the route I had planned in advance on the maps I was carrying on my handlebars. I am glad I did as this alternative route took me through what is now a very peaceful and beautiful country park and open woodland. It is hard to picture the horrors that occurred here 100 years previously. Were it not for the lines on the park marking the locations of the front lines of the fighting it might be possible to never realise the significance of the location. I was taken by how close the battle lines were; the markers were barely 50 yards apart.
Leaving the parkland I saw some more signs to ‘Hill 60’ – I had spotted a few back in Voormezele – and very soon found myself at that location. Hill 60 was the site of fighting between December 1914 and April 1915 when it was claimed by the Germans, and then again through 1917 and 1918. Fighting was severe and at very close quarters. Mines were used to detonate trenches with brutal consequences. The whole hill has been left to nature as a memorial and graveyard.
Whilst I had been struck by the proximity of the trenches at The Bluff, they had nothing on Hill 60. To say that they were less than a stone’s throw apart would be inaccurate. Most people throwing a stone here would send it well beyond the trenches opposite. In the picture below the Allied front line is clearly marked and visible. The German line can be seen marked on the boards of the next, slightly lower, platform.
Leaving Hill 60 I had almost a whole two miles before the next memorial I would stop at. A short diversion from the road went to ‘Canadian Hill 62‘ (I didn’t find Hill 61). A monument and memorial, though not a cemetery, the hill is a beautiful and peaceful site. I sat for a while on one of the many benches and ate some food whilst looking over a short few miles to get my first glimpse of the town of Iepers.
Leaving the sanctuary of Hill 62 I continued on a bumpy concrete farm track before joining the cycle path next to a main road and then heading across a motorway before coming to the monument to The 1st Battalion of the Black Watch at the appropriately named Black Watch Corner. Here on 11th November during the first battle of Ypres, the British Expeditionary Force faced some of the fiercest fighting of the war to that point in their defensive fight back to the coast. On 13 August 1914, 1,062 officers and men of the 1st Battalion Black Watch had set off for France. By the end of the fighting here on 12th November, a mere 91 days later, only 111 were left alive.
Black Watch Corner sits at the South West of Polygon Wood which was to see further fighting during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. It was into the Wood that I now headed. The wood itself is now another beautiful and peaceful place, although I did spot the remains of at least one concrete bunker hidden in amongst the trees. I rode along the west side of the wood and then turned east to follow its northern edge.
Almost at the opposite corner of the wood from Black Watch Corner I came across two very differently sized cemeteries opposite each other.
The smaller Polygon Wood Cemetery was created at the time of the fighting. It contains “only” 107 commonwealth graves (plus one German casualty) including 60 men from New Zealand. The graves are laid out in the more haphazard manner of those cemeteries that were started during the actual fighting.
Across the road opposite is the larger Buttes New British Cemetery. This cemetery was made after the armistice with graves of men brought from around the area to this single site. 2,108 men are buried here, of whom only 431 have been identified. The neighbouring memorial to the men of the 5th Australian Division built on top of the butte provides a high up view across the whole cemetery. It gives a view not usually afforded in similar cemeteries. The cemetery is solemnly beautiful. The multitude ordered lines of white headstones contrast well with the light green of the grass of the cemetery and the irregular dark greens of Polygon Wood beyond.
A short way further on and I rolled downhill into the village of Zonnebeke. The village was one of the main locations of fighting during the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele and was abandoned and destroyed during the war. Some of the battle site has been reopened as a peace park and Museum. I rode into the park and stopped to visit the smaller museum located in an old farm house. However whether it was fatigue, or expectation of what I thought might be here, I was rather underwhelmed. The park has a series of small peace gardens dedicated to the various nations who fought here but they didn’t seem that well thought through or maintained.
With still some miles and sites to cover and a deadline to meet in Iepers, I passed by the Museum. I am told it is very good and maybe one day I shall return, but for now I wanted to push on. I wasn’t far from Iepers but that lay a couple of miles back West from Zonnebeke and I still wanted to complete my pilgrimage by heading another couple of miles East. I found and followed the disused railway line; now a peaceful and lovely footpath and cycleway. Back in the war this was the ‘Road to Passchendaele’. In the mud and mayhem of the trenches and fighting, the railway line was the most reliable way to (and from) the front.
A short while later, using a combination of the old line and then the main road, and I made to the furthest point of the day and to the village with the beautiful name and its terrible associations. Unsurprisingly perhaps Passchendaele village itself was something of an anti climax. Like so many such villages in the region it was totally destroyed during the war. Whilst the village has been rebuilt and is pretty enough it does, naturally somehow lack the character that a naturally evolving settlement gains and somehow you can tell that there is something missing; something still dead in the cobbled streets.
Opposite the church on the main square a notice board shows the “church” as it was at the end of the war. It was just a pile of rubble. The only indication that this particular pile of bricks and mortar was the church being the sign erected next to it.
I took a final spin around the streets before heading back to the old railway and then on and into Iepers proper. However I still had one more place to visit on the way. It involved only a short deviation from the railway line and up a little rise. I pulled in to the busy car park and locked the bike up; but didn’t feel the need to take my panniers off and secure my kit. Maybe that was foolish but it just didn’t seem required.
A visitor centre on one corner of the site tells the story of the fighting that occurred here and some of the stories of the men buried here now. It seems all part of a scheme to slowly prepare you for what is to come. Leaving the visitor centre a pathway takes you around the North edge of the site. As you walk along looking over the low surrounding wall you slowly get to take in the size of what lies inside. At the North West corner you can get a real feel for the scale and then, halfway along the western wall, is the gateway that provides access to Tyne Cot Cemetery.
Tyne Cot, or the Tyne Cottage was so named by the Northumberland Fusiliers. The farm was a German defensive position near the railway level crossing. It was captured in 1917 and started to be used as a dressing station and subsequently began its existence as a cemetery. After the armistice the cemetery was expanded as bodies were brought beck from around Passchendaele and reburied in Tyne Cot.
In total just under 12.000 men are buried here making it the largest commonwealth cemetery from any war. Only 3,605 of the graves contain identified men. At the rear of the cemetery the wall forms a memorial for some 35,000 men who’s bodies were never found and identified.
The sheer scale of seeing so many burials and so many names should be over whelming but the site is so beautiful and so full of life from the living who were visiting and paying their respects.
As well as the size of the cemetery there are some additional differences that help to tell the tale at Tyne Cot.
Three of the concrete German block houses were built into the layout. Two of these are in the Western end of the cemetery surrounded by graves and trees.
The third of the structures was built into the base of the Great Cross at the centre of the site. A small ‘window’ gives a glimpse of the original structure.
I spent some time wandering around the cemetery. Reading the names of the known and looking at the long lines of graves of men “Known unto God”. After reading just some of the lists and lists of names of the missing. I found a quiet corner near one of the block houses to rest up for a while and to take it all in before I set off again.
Tyne Cot is so large that it is hard to really grasp. It is only with travelling around the area of the Ypres Salient that you begin to get a fraction of the true impression of the horrors that occurred here.
I returned to my bike and followed the road in to Iepers. The last few miles of the day were largely uneventful. Approaching the town centre from the direction of Passchendaele brings you through the Menin Gate. I stopped beforehand to admire the gate from the outside and to take an ‘arriving at Ypres’ selfie before riding into the town through the iconic structure.
Like the wall at the rear of Tyne Cot and at Thiepval in The Somme, the gate lists the names of those who died with no known grave. Some 54,395 names are inscribed on the Gate’s walls. The names are those who died up to and including 15 August 1917. The 35,000 names at Tyne Cot are those who died on the Ypres Salient with no known grave between that date and the end of the War. Between the Menin Gate and the wall at Tyne Cot are listed roughly as many names as the total population of Hastings where I live.
My hotel for the night was slap bang in the centre of the town and easy to find. The entrance was down a side street from the main square. I checked in, locking my bike safely in the deliveries area, and went to my room to freshen up and get changed. The room was excellent and directly overlooked the main square. For some it may be too close to the centre but I was quite looking forward to that after spending the previous three nights in quiet locations. I showered and polished off the so far uneaten remains of my lunch before heading out.
I had a bit of time to spare before the main event of the evening so I went out to explore the town and the funfair setup in the square. With a pocket full of change I put a 50 cent coin into a grab machine and immediately walked away with a little soft toy Seagull. Wipers the gull and I continued walking around taking a look at the town. Although, much as is the case with other such towns in the area (see Passchendaele above) the town was very badly damaged in the war and much of it has been rebuilt, it still manages to maintain a bit more of a sense of place than some other similar towns.
At about 19:15 I made my way back towards the Menin Gate. By a very strange quirk of fate I had discovered that one of my old University friends also happened to be in Ypres on the same day and so we had agreed to meet up near the Gate ready for the nightly Last Post ceremony. The ceremony, which has taken place here every night since 11 November 1929 (with the exception of the years of the Second World War), was incredibly moving. It should undoubtedly be a part of the itinerary of anyone visiting the area of Flanders and The Somme. A number of groups and individuals (some clearly of a military background; others maybe not) laid wreaths at the Gate. Bookending the ceremony the buglers of the Iepers fire brigade service played the Last Post and the Réveille as they have done for almost 90 years now. Long may they continue to do so. I hope that so long as the Gate stands (and hopefully beyond that too) this pure act of daily remembrance continues.
After the ceremony Alison and her group invited me to join them for a meal and a beer or two. It was a lovely end to a long and emotional day.
As I said goodbye to them at the end of the evening I took one more walk around the square which was now closing down for the night. The lights turned off stall by stall and the hubbub and music of the arcades was carried off in the breeze until a dark calmness was restored. I sat on a bench for a few minutes allowing everything that I had seen today to sink in before retiring to my hotel room.
At the start, and indeed at the planning, of this trip I had wondered of my own motives for visiting here. I am not aware of any family members who fought here in the Great War but I understood now that this was not the reason for my coming. I wanted to get a feel for myself, to whatever level I might be able to do so, of the events and destruction that occurred here 100 years ago. In coming here to Ypres and Passchendaele and also to The Somme I had increased my understanding of how Terrible this war was and was even more assured of how important it is to bury nationalism and secularism and any other such unjustifiable causes of conflict. We are one world. One people. A visit here was really helping to reinforce that. Coming here wasn’t about ‘celebrating Britain’ or any such rubbish. It was about placing a value on living in harmony and understanding. That may be a futile desire of mine but it would be the true legacy of these men, of all flags and nations, who perished in Flanders Fields.