War Diaries

 

 

Ypres Salient May 2004

 

 

I believe that things happen for a reason, although after losing 48 photos on my last Ypres trip, I wondered what it might be!

I knew that I had to return in May to finish the job.  The April trip did though teach me a valuable lesson – Take two cameras. I opted for a ‘throw-away’ to supplement my digital.

As Barbara (my wife) works and always likes to join me on the visits, it would have to be a quick weekend trip.   Another drive through the night to Dover and at the first cemetery by 9am.  Then a full day doing two days works, an overnight stay, half day in Ypres and home on Sunday.  I duly booked the ferry and hotel for 15th/16th May.  The following day, Barbara received a letter from the hospital – her operation was on 12th May.   Barbara said that she wanted to go and we could put it back one week. I wasn’t so sure that she could recover from a major operation in such a short time.  I re-booked and luckily only the Ferry Company charged me for the change and then only £4.

I sorted my route and made sure nothing could go wrong.

Barbara’s operation was more extensive than we at first thought but on 21st May she insisted on coming with me.  I therefore booked a hotel in Dover for Friday night, which would make it easier. Barbara could also get a day of ‘sea air’.

We strolled along the prom and pier at Dover and the air was certainly ‘fresh’.   A good old chip supper and then to bed.

Saturday was at 4.15-am start.  On to the 6 am Ferry and a pleasant trip to Calais. I always book the priority and Club Lounge package – more expensive but much better.

Off at 8-30 France time and on the motorway to Armentieres.  Ypres is actually only about 60 miles from Calais but I was doing the Messines Ridge so a further 30 miles was added.

Through Armentieres and not many ‘Mademoiselles’ around! 

Just after leaving France and entering Belgium we visit our first War cemetery –

London Rifle Brigade – a small long cemetery between houses. Easily missed if you do not know the lay of the land.  The sun shines on the headstones.  I take my photos and reflect on all the young men buried here.  Many had never left their own village let alone England.   Then into Ploegsteert (Plugstreet) – right at the roundabout and towards the next stop.

 Lancashire Cottage cemetery - The cemetery had lovely wrought iron gates and was started by the 1st East Lancs in November 1914 – there are 229 UK burials and 23 Aussies, 2 Canadians and 5 unknown.   The cemetery was in German hands in 1918.  Here is buried Bugler Morgan Dudley, 15th Canadian Inf. aged 17 when he was killed in 1915.  The East Lancs have 84 men and the 1st Hampshire 56 buried here. Opposite the cemetery is ‘Plugstreet Wood’ which by the gunshot sounds we hear is possibly as dangerous now as in WW1.  The people in this area do like their game shooting. It is close to this area that both Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill served in WW1.  A couple of miles away a certain Adolf Hitler also served.

We set off again – To Plugstreet memorial an imposing structure guarded by two lions.  It has the names of 11,447 men killed and having no known grave.  It should have stood in Lille but the French had other ideas.  Men from battles some distance away are commemorated here.   The Belgians appreciated (and still do) the sacrifice of so many to save their country.   There is also a cemetery attached.  Opposite is the Hyde Park Corner CWGC cemetery - Here is the grave of Pte Albert Edward French aged 16 years.  As he had lied about his age the war Office refused to give his family a War pension!  Eventually his Father got 5 shillings a week.  Beyond the Cemetery lies Plugstreet Wood.

There is also a café here but as usual we are too early.

We drive on past ‘ The Island of Ireland Peace Park’ to Messines and then to Loker (Locre) and the churchyard.  As we drive there are CWGC cemeteries everywhere.   At Loker I meet a Belgian gentleman and we have a chat.  He tells me that I must stop at Mont Kemmel on my way to the next cemetery.   Sadly I do not have the time but I will visit it soon.  On our visit in April it was Palm Sunday and the roads around Kemmelberg were full of walkers. Today they are full of walkers and cyclists. It obviously has a special meaning despite only being some 300 feet high! 

One thing you do learn in Belgium is that walkers and cyclists have right of way.

We then head off towards Ypres and our next stop is Voormezeele and this cemetery sits in the village.  It is a lovely cemetery but now enclosed by houses and industrial units.

Then on to Spoilbank cemetery and the Palingbeek Nature Reserve.   This is a lovely place and you can walk along the old Ypres- Commines Canal.  There are still trenches in the woods.

This is always our ‘coffee’ stop.  We can sit with views of Ypres spires beyond Spoilbank Cemetery and the woods behind us.  Relax and reflect before we continue. The other thing that you really need after 4 hours of driving and visiting cemeteries is also there – A public convenience!

 Whilst there I decide that one day will not be enough and I do not want to finish off tomorrow and then drive home.  I phone the hotel and book an extra night.  The receptionist Vanessa has a go at me again – ‘ make sure you do not get lost again Mr Morse’.  I will never live down the fact that on my first visit, I could not find the hotel. 

We move to Chester Farm cemetery a few hundred yards from Spoilbank.  I have to check the grave here as it seems that the Row and grave number given is wrong. I will contact the CWGC on my return.

We had done well and I decided to have a drive through the area.  We drove through the woods and fields past Hill 60, Hill 62, Shrewsbury Forest, Mount Sorrel and Tower hamlets to Geluveld.   Then we meander along until we get to Perth (China Wall) British CWGC cemetery.   It takes its name from a communication trench that led from here to the Menin Road, which was shielded by a wall of sandbags – hence ‘The Great Wall of China’.   

Sadly it contains the graves of seven men executed during the war.   It was first a French cemetery before the British took it over in 1917 and was a front line cemetery from June to October 1917. The French graves have been removed.   There are some 2,650 graves of which 1,371 are unknown.

Back to the Menin Road and Birr Cross Roads cemetery – this is on the main Menin Road and has nearly 800 graves.  I wonder if I should complain as every time I visit the lady in the house nearby has her washing out.  I decide to take extra care with the photo instead.   Here is buried Capt. H Ackroyd, VC, RAMC – In 1917 he tended the wounded on the front between Hooge and Clapham Junction. He was killed whilst tending the wounded on the battlefield ‘ No greater love …..’ 

From the cemetery we can see the RE Grave. It stands on the hill across the fields in Railway Wood – below lie 12 men of the 177th Tunneling Company RE who were killed and lie buried somewhere in the tunnels below the cross of sacrifice.

Then we drive through Ypres to Duhallow cemetery – this was the site of a ADS (Advanced Dressing Station in 1917.  It was named after a South Irish Hunt. It contains some 1600 graves.  Just down the road is Essex Farm, which was also, a dressing station but its fame lies in the man who served there – Colonel John McCrae who wrote ‘In Flanders Fields’. Many people visit thinking he is buried here but he is not. He died in 1918 and is buried near Bolougne.  One grave always visited here though is that of Private V J Strudwick of 8th Bn The Rifle Brigade, killed 14 January 1916 aged 15 years.  Both Duhallow and Essex Farm sit next to the Canal.   

Our final visit of the day is the Ypres reservoir cemetery - This is a concentration cemetery. After the war it doubled in size. It has over 3,600 graves.  Here you can see how the CWGC treat all men in their care – Officer, men, German or British.

Brig Gen F A Maxwell, VC, CSI, DSO and Bar (VC in Boer War) is flanked by two privates of other Regiments.  In death all are equal.

The cemetery is only a few hundred yards from our hotel.  Once there we settle in.  Enjoy the comforts of the 21st Century and relax.    Then into Ypres (well we are in Ypres but 5 minutes from shops) and some shopping.  I also have two photos to take at the Menin Gate.

It has been a long but rewarding day. 

At dinner I see that for this weekend only – a 6 course Gourmet Asparagus Dinner - Nearly three hours later I have eaten a wonderful feast.

Sunday-

One of the good things about the Ariane hotel is the breakfast! We can go all day on coffee and biscuits afterwards.

The weather was still windy and cloudy but warm.

We set off for our cemetery visits.  At least after my disaster in April I now know were they all are.  As we leave Ypres we see a piece of waste ground covered in poppies.  

Our first cemetery is New Irish Farm - This has 4715 graves.   The plants and flowers look lovely.  The grass freshly mown.  Despite being close to a main road it is peaceful.   There are smaller cemeteries all around as well. Showing that this was the front line.  Then to Track X cemetery. A small battlefield cemetery and not often visited.  There are six new graves still with poppy wreaths on. One from the British Ambassador.  This must be the remains of the men found near here late last year. They are ‘Unknown from the Northumberland Regt). The Northumbrian Div memorial is just across the main road.  Finally these men lie with their comrades.  Not for the first time, I shed a tear.   The small cemeteries seem to affect me more.  This one had 147 graves but now 153.  

We cross the main road and into the village of Wieltje and Oxford Road cemetery which is next to the Northumbrian Division memorial.    As in all the cemeteries there are men from all nations – British, New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians and of course German.   A large stand of trees hides the main road and all is peaceful and quiet.  From the cemetery we look towards

Passchendaele Ridge.   We will take a few minutes to reach it but it took the troops months and many thousands of lives.

The Memorial reminds us that in WW2 men fought over the same ground and many are buried in the same cemeteries. 

We then drive via Zonnebeke to Passchendaele New Military Cemetery.   To me this cemetery says it all about 3rd Ypres. The cemetery gates are on top of the rise and the cemetery falls back down the hill.   2,000 men lined in parade order just cresting the last ridge before Passchendaele but never to reach the top.   From here we can see the church at Passchendaele and Tyne Cot Cemetery and memorial.   

We then drive to Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial.  When we arrive there is only Barbara and I  there.  So beautiful and peaceful.  From here you can see all of the way to Ypres.   The Germans could see every movement.    We walk around and take our photos.  The cemetery is immense, as is the memorial.   So many names.  Each with his own story.   The largest British War cemetery in the World – 11,871 graves and nearly 35,000 names.   

Men had endured horrendous conditions – not for their Country and Politicians but for their friends.   Nearly 70% of the graves are unknown.  From the memorials and graves I have worked out that there must still be 40,000 men unaccounted for. 

 One man said of it “ I paused a moment in a shell hole. In a few seconds I felt myself sinking, and struggle as I might I was sucked down until I was firmly griped around the waist and still being dragged in.  The leg of a corpse was sticking out of the side and frantically I grabbed it; it wrenched off, and casting it down I pulled in a couple of rifles and yelled to troops in the gunpit to throw me more. Laying them flat I wriggled over them and dropped, half dead, into the wrecked gun position”.  Many were not so lucky.

We had finished our visits for the day and I remember the two important paragraphs from a book –

‘It was the common soldier (Tommy Atkins) who carried the heaviest burden as the terrifyingly vast lists of names on the Menin Gate and the Tyne Cot Memorial bear witness. There are almost 55,000 names on the first and nearly 35,000 on the latter. None have a known grave’

 ‘ Yours is a pilgrimage in memory of those who passed this way.  You will tread reverently, for it is holy ground.  It is the shrine of those who won the right for us all to have a country of our own’.

 Once more back to the 21st century.   Barbara was in need of a rest.   Although later we did stroll around the Ramparts of Ypres.

We had decided that we would attend the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate this evening.  It proved to be a good decision.

A Scottish pipe band was in Ypres Town Square, followed by local people in 1914-1918 dress.   They marched to the Menin Gate. As the wreaths were laid they played a lament. As they played ‘Flowers of the forest’ tears flowed.  The last post and reveille  - ‘ We will remember them’

We return to the hotel in reflective mood.  In August it will be 90 years since this terrible war began. 

 Monday –

After breakfast we left.  We stopped at Lijssenthoek CWGC cemetery.   Like Tyne Cot, we always stop here. Barbara strolls amongst the graves as I take my photos.   It is a lovely sunny day.  The flowers and plants are in full bloom.  The majority of men here are '‘known’. The CCS was here and Remy sidings just behind.   The supplies of war being taken to the front, the broken bodies of the wounded taken back.   Here also are French, American and Chinese graves.  Some ten thousands graves – row on row. If ever there was a silent testimony to the futility of war, it is here.   Down the road is an ‘Estaminet’ with the date 1911 (Pub) – no doubt the troops used it on a regular basis. 

We move on as we make our way back to Calais.   We have one more cemetery to visit. Abeele Aerodrome cemetery.  Here we are trying to find an ‘unusual’ inscription.   It is a small cemetery in the middle of fields.  Just over 100 graves.  We find a couple of interest – one in Welsh and the one we wanted to see “ Old Pal, Why don’t you answer me” – 60692 Private J C Fern; West Yorkshire Regt killed 31st July 1918 aged 19 years.  Yet another young man never to fulfill his potential in life. 

 We have visited all of the cemeteries and retaken the photos.   Many cemeteries get few visitors if any.  The least we can do is to stop and say hello. To sign the book and thank them for giving their young lives for us.

 We will remember them. 

Steve and Barbara Morse. May 2004

   

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