Another early start on the 10th as we tried to get out of Lens and head north (and across the border) to Ypres. Getting out of Lens wasn’t particularly easy or pleasant…but we got there in the end and headed out into the country, which, thankfully was largely flat. We passed through some sites of famous battles: Neuve Chapelle, Aubers, Fromelles, Ploegsteert, Messines (with a most wonderful Irish memorial on top of the ridge) and Wijtschate..the nearer we got to Ypres, the more memorials and the more cemeteries we passed..a true sign of the horror of the 3 huge battles that were fought here during the Great War.
Just outside la Basee, Steve got a puncture, but thankfully it was a quick fix…my bike seemed to be doing ok and I was doing my best to nurse it through these final couple of days. However a couple of miles down the road I also got a puncture…another easy fix hopefully but it was not to be. My tyre kept going down and I kept pumping it up – I had to keep as much air in the tyre as possible to keep the pressure of the badly damaged rim (remember the lack of spokes…) It lasted until a couple of miles outside of Ypres but I got another puncture…
We walked the last couple of miles into the main town. Ypres itself is a wonderful place…it is similar to Verdun in some respects with its large walls and ramparts.. The cloth hall is one of the most impressive buildings I have ever seen, especially as it was largely destroyed by artillery fire. Walking through Ypres to the north we passed through the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing - what an amazing piece of architecture. With almost 55,000 names of soldiers who fought and died on the Ypres battlefields but do not have a know grave it is as sad as it is breathtaking.
Designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, this memorial combines the architectural images of a classical victory arch and a mausoleum and it contains, inside and out, huge panels into which are carved the names of the 54,896 officers and men of the commonwealth forces who died in the Ypres Salient area and who have no known graves. This figure, however, does not represent all of the missing from this area. It was found that the Menin Gate, immense though it is, was not large enough to hold the names of all the missing. The names recorded on the gate’s panels are those of men who died in the area between the outbreak of the war in 1914 and 15th August, 1917. The names of a further 34,984 of the missing – those who died between 16th August, 1917 and the end of the war, are recorded on carved panels at Tyne Cot Cemetery, on the slopes just below Passchendaele.
The Menin Gate is not a memorial tucked away in some remote part of the town, remembered now and then. The Menin Road is still an important thoroughfare and traffic and pedestrians pass under the gate as part of the daily life of Ypres. In this aspect alone, Remembrance is kept very much alive in Ypres, but there is more.
Every night of the year, without exception, policemen close the road to traffic at 8.00 p.m. and then stand at the salute while buglers from the Ypres Fire Brigade play “The Last Post”. This happens whatever the weather and there is always someone there to watch. The people living near the Menin Gate often open their doors and stand on their doorsteps to join in this daily act of Remembrance in honour of the young and brave who came from all over the world to die in the defence of their town.
Our hotel was not in Ypres ( I couldnt get a room for lest than 200 quid – something to do with Remembrance Day!) but in Menen, which for me was great because it meant an opportunity to cycle down the infamous Menin Road via Hellfire Corner and past the Hooge Crater. We continued to walk (I had a puncture remember) as we thought the hotel wasnt too far out of Ypres, but it soon turned out it was almost 10 miles, so we stopped and tried yet again some emergency puncture repair action on my poor old wheel. To say it was a pain in the arse is a huge understatement. The design of my back wheel makes getting the tyre back on after a repair a real mission – so much so that in the course of trying to lever the tyre onto the rim caused more punctures…twice. And broke 2 plastic tyre levers. Tensions and tempers were rising but the damn wheel was not going to beat us – we finally got the wheel back on and flew down the menin road to our hotel. It was a Best Western and probably the nicest hotel we had stayed at on the trip..
Next morning (11th) we rose early and rode back down the Menin Road to Ypres. We arrived at 10am and there was already a crowd gathering at the Menin Gate. We were in good time though and made sure we got good positions. The Remembrance Ceremony was fantastic with the Last Post being played at 11am followed by a minute silence. Standing in the shadows of that great memorial, hearing the haunting tunes of the last post, and seeing the huge wreaths being laid by various dignatories of the UK and the Commenwealth was an amazing, humbling, emotional experience…we had done it. We had cycled the line and got to Ypres for Remembrance Day…
For The Fallen (Laurence Binyon)
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.