You may remember several months ago I re-visted some places in and around the Ypres Salient, specifically to the north around Passchendaele, as we hadn’t had much time to properly visit some of these areas during our Cycling the Line trip in November 2009.
Well, today I was able to get back to the Salient again, and this time spent a bit of time in Ypres itself, and then I headed south to have another look at some other areas of interest, most notably Hill 60 and Messines.
I started the day in the town of Ypres. This town is mostly famous for being almost totally destroyed, and the images of it’s once great Cloth Hall in ruins are pictures that all of us have seen. Today the Cloth Hall has been rebuilt and is truly magnificent. It also houses the fabulous ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum which walks visitors through how Ypres and the surrounding region was affected by the War. Ypres is a lovely town, with delightful shops, and plentiful parking and it is always nice to see the odd UK number plate in amongst the cars parked in the main square! Walking up the hill towards the Menin Gate there are 2 shops of specific interest, both on the left hand side and deal in battlefield tours and books, militaria. I visited Salient Tours, unfortunately the battlefield tour I wanted to go on was not running today, however as I looked around the bookshop I noticed they has some copies of my Military Cross book – so I duly held an impromptu book signing ‘event’ (I use the word event in its loosest possible sense)…!
Onwards to the Menin Gate, which is quite possibly the most remarkable and awe-inspiring memorial in the world..ever. It has the thick end of 58,000 names of soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth that died in and around the Ypres Salient during WW1, but have no known grave. The scale of this building needs to be seen to be believed, and the endless panels filled with names of the missing soldiers is very sobering.
I then got in the car and drove south and soon came upon a couple of CWGC cemeteries known as ‘The Bluff’ (Hedge Row, 1st DCLI, Woods). They are quite remote, set smack in the middle of acres of farm land, but Hedge Row cemetery is quite unusual because all the grave stones are set in a circle with the cross of sacrifice in the middle, and they all have the inscription ‘known to be buried in this cemetery’ on them, as well as the usual name, regiment inscription. This is because this part of the front endured almost continuous shell fire from March 1915 until August 1917 and all this shell fire kept churning up the graves that were in this area…the men were known to be buried here, but, the bodies were all destroyed or moved. Standing in this cemetery today, there was not a sound, completely quiet. It is not often you get complete stillness in life these days, and it was fabulous. So fabulous that I took some video with my camera – when I get home I shall upload it to share.
Next stop was Hill 60. I have been wanting to visit for a while, and I was not disappointed. The preserved area of this battle is remarkable. The 2 craters can be seen easily and the whole area is riddled with big (some deeper than me – 6ft plus) shell holes. It is a landscape that shouts at you, it is chaotic, angry and tangible. Bunkers still remain, their reinforced concrete twisted and contorted from the shell fire they endured. Even 90+ years on you can quite easily envisage the complete bedlam and chaos that would have been going on in this area when those mines were let go and the artillery rained down on the defenders. It is a truly amazing place, and a must for any visitors to the area. One thing that struck me was how small the area actually was. It is not really a hill, more an over-spill of land from the nearby railway cutting, and it can be measured in hundreds of metres..it is not big at all, which would have only concentrated the effects of all those shells and explosions.
From the chaos of Hill 60 I drove to the peace island of Ireland which is a beautiful monument to the Irish Divisions perched high upon Messines Ridge. I remember this ridge well, it is on top of a bloody steep hill, and I remember cursing the whole of Belgium as I pedalled up to it, and everyone in the world who had said Belgium was ‘flat’. It isn’t. Fact.
Last main stop on my mini tour was the British Cemetery at Messines. This again is perched up on the top of the ridge. It is a large cemetery with over 1500 graves, however only 577 are identified. A testament to the frightful result of (what was then) modern mechanised warfare, and the continued battering this area of land had over 3 years of fighting. By this time of the day the light was fading and I needed to head back. The day had been beautiful and sunny, and as I sat on the steps of the cemetery, high on the ridge looking down to the valley below, watching the sun slowly disappear below the horizon, I was reminded of the immortal poem from Laurence Binyon:
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them”.