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The Ypres Salient 2006 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

THE YPRES SALIENT 2006

Margaret and Barry Williamson

November 2006

This is an accountYpres5_(14).JPG of our stay in Ypres, Belgium over the Armistice Weekend: 9th to 13th November 2006, staying at Municipal Camping Jeugdstadion, in Ypres itself. We describe the town of Ypres and the Menin Gate, the Armistice Day Service, the Indian Memorial Ceremony (with Mrs Sonia Gandhi), cycling the front line of the Ypres Salient, our own reflections, some outstanding WW1 poetry and websites for further information.  

To see all our images of the Ypres Salient during Armistice weekend, larger size and in a slide show, click: Images of Ypres 2006.

The Town and the Menin Gate

It was an easyYpres5_(24).JPG 15-minute walk from the campsite along the moat, through theYpres5_(23).JPG Menin Gate and into the walled town of Ieper (Ypres). An alternative route took us over the moat on a pedestrian bridge, up onto the top of the ramparts, along and down a flight of steps into the Menin Gate. At the centre of Ypres is the vast and impressive square, the Grand Place or Grote Markt. Here is St Martin's Cathedral and the huge Cloth Hall or Stadhuis, which houses a busy Tourist Information Centre/shop and the museum 'In Flanders Fields'. Visit www.inflandersfields.be for opening times and prices.

There is no shortage Ypres5_(25).JPGof restaurants, tearooms and souvenir shops, where English is widely spoken (and much preferred to French by the Flemish-speaking people!) The friendly proprietor of the excellent book and map shop 'The British Grendadier' told us that Belgians are still extremely grateful to the British, adding "Ieper (or 'Wipers') is your town and always will be." He stocks a wide range of guides to the sites, cemeteries and memorials of the Ypres Salient, includYpres5_(26).JPGing a suggested 50-mile car route or a 25-mile cycle trip round the battlescape. Guided bus-tours also run.

On a 90-minute walk round the best-preserved medieval town ramparts in Belgium, we came to the Rampart Cemetery, a tiny Commonwealth War Graves site actually inside the walls, by the Lille Gate. Lest we forget.

ThYpres5_(13).JPGe Menin Gate arch was built in the 1930's by a British architect on the site of what was one the town's medieval gates. At the time of the Great War, it was just a cutting, through which the British troops marched to defend the Ypres Salient a bulge in the front line following a semi-circle of low rYpres5_(18).JPGidges to the east. The archway is the memorial to the men of the British Empire who died defending the Salient in the first two Battles of Ypres (between 1914 and 1917) and who have no known grave: 54,896 names are carved on its panels. This number does not include those who rest in 140 cemeteries in the area; nor those whose remains were unidentified and only 'known unto God'; nor the further 34,984 soldiers of no known grave who fell in the third battle (Passchendaele) and Ypres5_(21).JPGwhose names are recorded on the walls of Tyne Cot Cemetery the largest Commonwealth War Grave in the world. Amidst the throng of visitors and school parties, we stood in silence trying to take in the immensity of the loss. In total, almost one quarter of a million British men lost their lives around this town.

The traffic through the Menin Gate is halted at 8 pm every single evening, when the Last Post is sounded by Buglers of the Ypres Volunteer Fire Brigade a tradition unbroken since Armistice Day 1929, except for the period of German occupation during World War II. In fact, the custom was revived in September 1944, whilst liberating Polish troops were still fighting Germans on the other side of the town. Visit www.lastpost.be for more details.

Armistice Day

11 NovemberYpres5_(63).JPG is a public holiday in Belgium; Armistice Remembrance has not been moved to the nearest Sunday, as it has in Britain. The commemorative events in Ypres began with services in the CathYpres5_(65).JPGedral and in St George's Memorial Church at 9.30 am followed by the Poppy Parade to the Menin Gate. The outer streets were lined with parked coaches (mostly from Britain), while the inner streets were closed to traffic, to accommodate a crowd of thousands.

Of course we joined themYpres5_(79).JPG, watching the parade of dignitaries, the marching bands and choirs, the armed forces and rescue services of Belgium, Britain and the Commonwealth. Among many otherYpres5_(81).JPGs were New Zealand Maori, the Devon County Pipe Band, the Devonport Royal Naval Volunteer Band, the choir of Holy Trinity Church in Dartford, and the Buglers of the Last Post Association. We couldn't hear the speeches (in Belgian and English) from our vantage point up on the ramparts but we had a good view of the Remembrance Programme.

After the 2-minute silence at 11 Ypres5_(66).JPGam, a cascade of poppy petals fell from the roof of the arch. It had been raining overnight and they stained the steps and paths blood-red. As the parade returned to the Grand Place, the bands played splendidly: the Skye Boat Song, Danny Boy, Abide With Me, Amazing Grace, and some WWI favourites - Pack Up Your Troubles, Tipperary. The crowd broke into spontaneous applause for the Veterans of the British Legion and again as the British Police marched past.

In the afternoon, a musical performance 'The Great War Remembered' took place in the Cathedral but entrance was by ticket (12) and they had long sold out.

Indian Memorial Ceremony

On the morning Ypres5_(28).JPGof 10 November, walking into Ypres, we traced the sound of pipes to the top of the ramparts by the Menin Gate. There, by the Indian memorial (unveiled on 10 November 2002), we foYpres5_(51).JPGund a pair of Gurkha pipers of the Indian Army, practising a lament with that haunting mixture of Scottish tradition and eastern intonation which we had first heard in India itself. A few Indian officials stood around and one of them, in conversation, invited us to join the service at 5 pm that evening, to commemorate the men of the Sub-continent who had answered the call of Empire.

What we didn't Ypres5_(58).JPGexpect on arrival was a little bit of security screening (politely, in the Indian way), which heralded the presence of a very significant person. It was a pleasant surprise to find ourselves directly opposite Sonia Gandhi (leader of the Congress Party, in power in the Ypres5_(59).JPGworld's largest democracy), flanked by the Indian ambassador to Brussels.

It was a simple and moving service, illuminated by flaming torches, in which our small group gathered round the memorial stone. Our Gurkhas played their bagpipes and the Last Post was sounded by 5 buglers of the Last Post Association, just a couple of feet from us. Security was very low-key and we were able to take photographs freely. Our neighbours at the small gathering were a young Indian woman teaching at Brussels UniveYpres5_(54).JPGrsity, and an Englishman whose father had been an Officer with an Indian Regiment in the Second World War.

Pipes and trumpets spoke more eloquently that the speakers and wreathes were laid in sombre silence. How honoured we felt to be included, even to the extent of being given Ypres5_(60).JPGsmall Indian flags to wave. What memories there were of India in that scene, as the sun set ('at the going down of the sun') - the murmuring of Indian voices, the wheel of Ashoka, the saris, the hawk-like faces of Mrs Gandhi's closest companions.

A variety of services were held at other memorials at different places within the Salient on Armistice Eve - we heard of a candle-lit walk and service at Passchendaele, for example.

Cycling the Front

We exploredYpres5_(11).JPG the battle-scarred landscape of the bulging Front Line on our bicycles, riding 30 miles over 2 cold bright days. The front line (tYpres5_(82).JPGhe British lines, the No-Man's Land, the German Lines) forms an arc with a radius of about 8 miles, with Ypres at its focal point. The cycling route is a complex mix of lanes, cycle paths, farm roads, canal paths and some walking; our GPS and a map purchased from the Tourist Office were useful.

Flanders Fields lie peacefully dormant at this time of year - ploughed earth, turnip mounds, muddy cattle but the bulge of the Ypres Salient, a forward position in our front line, witnessed the murderous battles of 1914, 1915 and 1917. We passed and paused at so many sites, cemeteries and memorials, our sadness compounded by their proximity to the town, its spires rarely out of sight.

To the sYpres5_(29).JPGouth of Ypres, along the Ypres Canal bank we came to the Essex Farm Cemetery (1,185 graves). During the war, Essex Farm was useYpres5_(31).JPGd as an Advanced Dressing Station, to which field ambulances brought the wounded before transferring the survivors to a Casualty Clearing Station. The Canadian surgeon Col John McCrae worked here and in May 1915, following the death of his friend, he wrote the most famous poem of the Great War. Sadly, he was also killed 3 years later. Today there is a restored bomb-proof dug-out and a memorial to McCrae, with the verses (first published in 'Punch' in December 1915) that helped to make poppies the emblem of the Armistice: 'In Flanders Fields the poppies blow'. (Full text below)

Across theYpres5_(33).JPG canal on the Pilckem Ridge is a memorial to the Irish poet and soldier, Francis Ledwidge, on the spot where he was first buried after being killed on 31 July 1917. 'He shall not hear the bittern cry, In the wild sky where he is lain'. Above his memorial flies the flag of the Irish Republic. His grave is now in nearby Artillery Wood Cemetery, where the Welsh poet Hedd Wyn Evans also lies.Ypres5_(35).JPG

At the Carrefour des Roses, opposite the Ledwidge memorial, is a French (Breton) calvary cross in memory of the French regiments who fell victim to the German gas attack here in 1915 (the first ever use of chemical warfare). Their graves were transferred in the 1920's to the French National Cemetery, the Necropole Nationale (4,000 graves) near Zonnebeke, which was also on our route.

A Union Jack flew at thYpres5_(43).JPGe Liverpool Scottish Memorial and Cemetery. 542 members of the Scottish Battalion of the King's (LiverpYpres5_(42).JPGool) Regiment advanced from this point towards the German lines on 16 June 1916. Of these, 188 were killed and 212 were wounded. The best-known sonnet of Sub-Lt Rupert Brooke (died St George's Day 1915) would best describe this site: 'Some corner of a foreign field'.

We cycled on quiet lanes and canal-side paths, past farms and cottages, the Great War ever present. We found only one place for a break the Canada Bar for coffee decked with war memorabilia and within sight of 3 CWG cemeteries.

There is a CanYpres5_(46).JPGadian memorial at the top of Hill 62, with a grand view west towards Ypres. Below lie the Sanctuary Wood Cemetery and a Museum, with preserved trenches, an entrance fee and a bYpres5_(48).JPGar. At the time of our visit there were coaches visiting the 'museum' and a man selling rusty WW2 German helmets out of the boot of his car for 60 each. (To realise how this bizarre form of tourism was predicted as early as 1918, read 'High Wood' by Philip Johnstone in the Anthology at the end of this piece). Cycling past the crowds, we climbed the hill alone, leaving our bikes with the workmen busy restoring the access road. In fact, a lot of work is going on in preparation for the 90th anniversary of the Passchendaele Battle in 2007. From the top of the hill, for a long time on the front line, the spires of Ypres were plainly visible. Once off the hill, we fled tourists below.

At Hill 60 Ypres5_(49).JPGwe were again disappointed to meet a coach-load of noisy BriYpres5_(50).JPGtish school children, playing in bumps and hollows of the undermined woods which are literally a war grave, with French, British and German soldiers killed and buried under our feet. Much of the action here was through underground tunnels and the first British mine of the war was blown here in 1915. (Of course, we don't expect children to be sombre and quiet at all times, but a cemetery is hardly the place to bring them for recreation.)

Near the St Eloi Ypres5_(84).JPGCraters is a monument to the Tunnellers (British, Canadian and Belgian). There is a Krupp Canon, a touching tribute to Pte Joe Toms from his nephew (complete with sepia photograph) and a poem by Thomas Ernest Hulme, who served in the trenches here in 1915: 'Behind the line, cannon, hidden, lying back miles. Before the line, chaos.' A locked gate led to the craters blown here, as they can only be visited by groups who collect the key from the Tourist Office. At least that preserves the respect due to the 849 'casuYpres5_(87).JPGalties'.

Near the end of the old canal, by the site of a bridge which collapsed and was not restored, are more mine craters, used as cattle pools after 1918. This is opposite Spoilbank Cemetery, with a smaller one adjacent and three more graveyards down a path to the right - by name: Woods, DCLI and Hedge Row Trench Cemeteries. Just a few more of the 140.

At every turnYpres5_(88).JPG (and sometimes wrong turns) we found cemeteries, all immaculately kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The CWGC do a magnificent job of maintenance work, caring for the graves of those lost in both World Wars and subsequent conflicts, around the world and in perpetuity. For casualty or cemetery enquiries, go to www.cwgc.org.

Another poet and writer left a permanent mark in the cemeteries: Rudyard Kipling, whose only son John (or Jack) was lost in France in 1915, serving with the Irish Guards at Loos. John's grave was not found during Rudyard's lifetime and it was he who wrote the epitaph 'A Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God' for the headstones of those men who lost everything even their name. Kipling also chose the line (Ecclesiasticus 44.14) which appears below the cross of sacrifice on the tablet of every Commonwealth War Ypres5_(36).JPGGrave: 'Their name liveth for evermore'.

Every cemetery,Ypres5_(37).JPG small or large, is walled and gated, with a register and visitor's book. Every one has a poignant name. As we rode we passed (among many) White House, Colne Valley (45 graves, one inscribed 'Here is Now Thy Hero Sleeping'), the tiny No Man's Cemetery, Tack X, Minty Farm, Buffs Road, Guesthouse Wood, Oak Dump, and Larch Wood Railway Cutting Cemetery (by the tracks), where Margaret picked up a couple of pieces of shrapnel as she leant her bike on the wall.

All were quiet. We could not pay our respects at them all, but when we did we were the sole signatories in the visitor's book. Until, that is, we came to the largest war cemetery in the world, Tyne Cot on the forward slope of Passchendaele Ridge. It's a focal point of battlefield tours and was busy with coaches not surprising on Armistice weekend. In addition to row upon row of white headstones, the memorial wall contains the names of 35,000 servicemen missing, with no known grave, who are not listed on the Menin Gate (killed in 1917 in the 3rd Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele).

Tyne Cot was named by Northumberland Fusiliers, who thought the shapes on the ridge resembled Tyneside Cottages in fact, they were new German pillboxes, and the remains of one pillbox still stand in the cemetery. Again, we met an English school party of older children, at work with clipboards doing a survey of the ages of the men lying there. 'Hey, this one's only 16'. In addition to working out means and standard deviations, we hoped the project would cause them some reflection on the tragedy of lost youth.

Reflections

Barry writes: There should be a tolerable medium somewhere between the extreme sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of young men in 1914-18 and the present unwillingness of the majority of people (and particularly young people) to make any sacrifice for the safety of their country. The freedom for which young people fought in 1914-1918 and again in 1939-1945 against the aggression of the Germans, and the steadfastness shown against overt threat from Russia in 19451991, should not be frittered away on self-centred licentiousness.

The current threat from extremists fuelled by medieval superstition appears minor compared with the threats faced throughout the 20th century. But our apologetic response, our fear, our over-cautious reactions, all undermine our hard-won freedoms and deprecate historic achievements.

Margaret adds: In Ypres itself, we were left trying to reconcile our own feelings about respect, remembrance and the growing phenomenon of battlefield tourism and school trips. The flame, thrown to all our hands by John McCrae, must be kept alight but Philip Johnstone's poem 'High Wood', written in 1918 (see below), issues a prophetic warning.

First World War Poetry

IN FLANDERS FIELDS - John McCrae, 1915 (died 1918)

   

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

 

Between the crosses, row on row,

 

That mark our place; and in the sky

 

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

 

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

   
 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

 

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

 

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

 

In Flanders fields.

   
 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

 

To you from failing hands we throw

 

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

 

If ye break faith with us who die

 

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

 

In Flanders fields.

 

THE SOLDIER - the best known of the 1914 War Sonnets by Rupert Brooke (died 1915)

If I should die, think only this of me:

 

That there's some corner of a foreign field

 

That is for ever England. There shall be

 

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

 

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

 

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

 

A body of England's, breathing English air,

 

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

   
 

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

 

A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

 

Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

 

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;

 

And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

 

In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH - Wilfred Owen, 1917 (died 1918, one week before the Armistice

 

What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?

 

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

 

Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle

 

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

 

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,

 

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -

 

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

 

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

   
 

What candles may be held to speed them all?

 

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

 

Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.

 

The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;

 

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

 

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

HIGH WOOD - Philip Johnstone, written 1918 by a poet who survived the Great War

 

Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,

 

Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux,

 

The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,

 

July, August and September was the scene

 

Of long and bitterly contested strife,

 

By reason of its High commanding site.

 

Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees

 

Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench

 

For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands;

 

(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.

 

It has been said on good authority

 

That in the fighting for this patch of wood

 

Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,

 

Of whom the greater part were buried here,

 

This mound on which you stand being...

   
 

Madame, please,

 

You are requested kindly not to touch

 

Or take away the Company's property

 

As souvenirs; you'll find we have on sale

 

A large variety, all guaranteed.

 

As I was saying, all is as it was,

 

This is an unknown British officer,

 

The tunic having lately rotted off.

 

Please follow me - this way...

   
 

The path, sir, please,

 

The ground which was secured at great expense

 

The Company keeps absolutely untouched,

 

And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide

 

Refreshments at a reasonable rate.

 

You are requested not to leave about

 

Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,

 

There are waste-paper baskets at the gate.

Our thanks to Paul Barker for introducing us to Philip Johnstone's poem. Visit www.langdale-associates.com to read Paul and Sheila's excellent accounts of their motorhome travels in Europe, especially in the context of WWI their recent tour of the Somme Battlefield and Vimy Ridge and the Verdun Salient.

Other relevant and informative websites are www.greatwar.co.uk/westfront/ypsalient, www.lastpost.be, www.inflandersfields.be, www.ieper.be, www.wo1.be, www.cwgc.org and www.pen-and-sword.co.uk (publishers of the series of Pocket Battlefield Guides by Major & Mrs Holt, as well as Poetry of the Great War and much else).

Among the many books about the First World War, fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry, is Rudyard Kipling's 'The King's Pilgrimage' about George V and Queen Mary's tour of the battlefields and visit to Tyne Cot in 1922. Major & Mrs Holt's 'My Boy Jack' describes the search for Kipling's only son. We also used the Holt's 'Pocket Battlefield Guide to Ypres and Passchendaele' (small enough to cycle with). The novel 'Birdsong' by Sebastian Faulkes is a story of love and war that brilliantly evokes the horror of life in the trenches and the claustrophobia of the tunnels.

To see all our images of the Ypres Salient during Armistice weekend, larger size and in a slide show, click: Images of Ypres 2006.