Ypres Salient October 2003
many people who knew of my visit to Ieper (Ypres) and the Somme asked for
information and my thoughts, possibly an article in the DFHS magazine
would be appropriate.
of World War 1 – Ypres and the Somme – A personal Pilgrimage
of us have passed through Northern France and Belgium and glanced from the motorway at the numerous memorials and cemeteries. On the
Motorway between Calais and Paris you can see the imposing Monument to the Canadian
troops who gave their lives on Vimy Ridge.
You see the signposts – Ypres ( Ieper), Passchendaele, Ploegstreet,
Cambrai the Somme and many more. Being a family Historian the names sound
familiar. Many of us say –
“ One day I will visit And take a photo of the place Grandfather or
Great Uncle is buried”.
As a student of military history, I have always wanted to visit the 1st World
War Battlefields. When I took
up Family History some 15 years ago, the trip was put back.
To many places in England to visit and not enough time to do
A free week came up in October 2003 and my wife said, “ It is about
time you went on your pilgrimage”, and so I looked at organised trips
but felt they were not for me, despite there being very good ones around.
Why not go it alone? so on to the Internet I went.
Everything booked in 30 minutes – the Ferry, Insurance (me and
the car), the hotel – I was lucky in finding a lovely hotel in Ieper
(Ypres) only ten minutes from the Menin Gate.
I found out later that this hotel is used by the tour companies and
is geared up for the Battlefield visitor.
That was the easy part over. Then started, what I can only describe as a ‘Military Campaign’ –
Where to visit, what do I need to help me get the most out of my trip,
what is in the area.
On the Internet again – downloading reams of information – museums,
Cemeteries, memorials, routes, what was open and when. I planned the week
– each day a different area – then I found that some things were open
one day and not another – back to the drawing board.
Eventually with the help of two excellent guides (Major and Mrs. HOLTS),
maps of the Battlefields and the area, I had my week planned. Al the
places that I wanted to visit, (and a day in Brugge for my ever-suffering
wife to do some shopping).
I had offered to take photos for fellow researchers, in Ieper and
As the names came in, I sorted them into cemeteries and ended up with a
Box file full of names and plans. Some of the cemeteries have thousands of
names and some just a few. Menin
Gate over 50,000, Tyne Cot – 35,000
Names, 11,781 graves of which 70% are unknown.
As many people know The Commonwealth War Graves Commission site can
supply details and reference numbers on-line.
Most of the people who contacted me supplied these numbers – (some do
not). A needle in a Haystack comes to mind.. I promise to do my best in finding and photographing the
grave/memorial or their relative.
Looking through my file I wonder what I have taken on!
To find a name on the Menin gate – With the regiment of the man, the
process can be fairly easy.
Without – The names and details are listed in alphabetical order in
Registers 1-5 – Canadian Soldiers
6-9 – Australian Soldiers
10- South Africa and West Indies
11 – Indian
12-36- Soldiers from the United Kingdom
37 – Additional names too late for inclusion in the proper order
(It has to be Remembered
that every year the remains of Soldiers are still found in Belgium.
The alphabetical list does not give the panel number of the soldier
You have to look up the regiment in the introduction to the memorial.
These are in alphabetical order and country.
There are 60 panels on each side of the memorial and once you have
the relevant information you can start your search.
The Menin gate has UK names for the period up to 15 August 1917, after
that they were inscribed on the Memorial Wall at Tyne Cot.
Members of the Australian, Canadian, Indian and South African
forces are for the entire duration of the War and they have no names on
the Tyne Cot memorial.
It has to be remembered that there are over 300 military cemeteries in
Throughout my pilgrimage two paragraphs from a book were in my thoughts.
‘It was the common soldier who carried the heaviest as the terrifyingly
vast lists of names on the Menin Gate and the Tyne Cot memorial bear
There are almost 55,000 names on the first and nearly 35,000 on the
None have known graves'.
‘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.’
With these thoughts and armed with my
names, books, maps, I started my Pilgrimage.
Sunday 19th October 2003
A bright day and we set off early (5 am) for Dover and the Ferry.
I have three cemeteries to visit on the way to Ypres.
Once in Calais, we head for Dunkirk and the E42 towards Lille.
The first Cemetery Steenwerck is just off this road.
We took some time to find it (there are two and a German One).
Finally a local pointed the way.
Not a good start and I realize that maps of each town would also
help. We walked amongst
the rows of white Headstones, so many young men cut down before their life
had begun. The Cemetery is
immaculate (as are all of them). We pay our respects, leave a Poppy, sign the visitors
book and take photos of the cemetery and the DRING grave.
Then on to Bailleul, heading towards Ypres. Again thousands of graves and We have a PATCHETT from New
Zealand in this one. Many
of the Headstones are being reset. The
local people walk in the cemetery and pay Their respects.
Again, the photo, the visitor’s book and the sadness.
I see a poppy cross and on it the words ‘ To Great Granddad, I m proud
to be A member of your family.’
I shed a tear for the first time but not the last. Then to
Lijssenthoek cemetery near Poperinghe (Pop to the lads).
Thousands of graves with some French, German and also three Americans.
Their families did not want them moved after the war.
One of the two Nurses Killed in the War also lies here. I find the
grave of a fellow researcher Ancestor and also another DRING.
Row upon row of white headstones -
the battalions on their final parade.
A Legion representing the upright figures of the soldiers at
attention – Christian, Jewish, Non-conformist, Arab, Hindu and Sikh – all stand
side by Side – Friend and Foe alike.
Poignant messages from family.
Only the New Zealand headstones do not have a message or regimental
badge – a NZ Government decision after the war.
All these young men – one is 16 from New Zealand and the oldest 38.
Line Upon line, row upon row, they stand proud. Yet 90 years later, have we Learned, the Politicians
certainly have not. Bring them here to Flanders Fields see the cemeteries
everywhere, see the headstones row on row.
Show them the memorial’s to the men with no known grave
(the majority) then would they send young men to die in foreign
fields? Sadly the answer is Probably ‘yes’.
On our way from Pop to Ypres we travel the infamous road and pass 14
Cemeteries - Shrapnel Corner
and the Menin Gate. The hotel is
all that we hoped and has 1st War artifacts and books for sale.
On a personal note – the Jacuzzi bath is most welcome!
Monday 20th October 2003 – The local area
My campaign plan gives us a day of local cemeteries and memorials to
visit. Many of the people who asked
for photos only have names on the Menin Gate or Tyne Cot.
As we leave Ypres we see a cemetery in the town.
Then To Bard Cottage – so quiet, yet by a main road. It is easy
to find – past Salvation Corner
and Essex Farm. So sad,
such a waste. Then through the
Countryside towards Tyne Cot. Cemeteries
on both sides of the road.
Vancouver Corner and the statue of ‘the Brooding Soldier’ – 2000
Canadians killed on the British left Flank in one battle in 1915 – the
first use of gas. We drive up the
slight rise towards Passchendaele – five minutes by car took four years
on foot between 1914-18. One can
only imagine the horror of marching bayonets fixed into a hail of bullets
and shells from German trenches and Strongpoints.
1917 and 3rd Ypres (Passchendaele)
The worst of all – the flooded ground, impassable but still they
fought on and eventually took Passchendaele – only for the Generals to
shorten the line in April 1918 and pull back – 300,000 casualties for
We reach Tyne Cot cemetery – ‘awesome.’ The cemetery rises up the slope and has German bunkers in it.
From here you can see all the way to Ypres.
One could not imagine a worse place to attack.
My old Commanding
Officer would have called it ‘ The perfect killing ground’.
Over 11,000 Graves of which 70% are unknown, 35,000 names on 162
panels. The stones stand
proud in the sun, a single magpie patrols the cemetery.
A Major next to a Private, a VC holder, DCM holder, MM holder
– so many decorations telling us of the heroism of these men. Some graves contain more than one man. Pals inseparable in
life and death. By the walls are the Special Memorials with ‘ He is buried
nearby or Believed to be buried in this Cemetery’ – UK, Aussie,
Canadian, New Zealanders, South African, India and some German lie
together – I shed a tear again.
The largest military Cemetery in the world.
People search for the grave or name of a loved one, they lay a
wreath. The shear size
overwhelms us. Mans inhumanity to
man, So sad.
We continue and the words of War poets come to mind –
‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on
‘Who died on wires, and hung there, one of two -…….’
And also the comedy used at the time –
Sentry:’ Alt! Who goes there?’
He carrying the bundle: ‘ You shut yer --------- mouth, or I’ll
------ come and knock yer ------ head off!’
Sentry: ‘ Pass friend!’
We visit the memorial to 12 Royal Engineers – known as the ‘RE
Grave’. On a desolate hill
it stands and somewhere below are the remains of these men buried whilst
tunneling – mine and shell craters fenced off sit nearby. Hooge Crater
Cemetery – it falls from the Menin Road and down the slope.
From a distance it looks like a battalion of men just cresting the
slope, sadly they will never reach the top.
The museum to be visited another day.
We Set off again and see the odd sight of a ‘theme park’, which
sits uncomfortably on this hallowed ground.
Polygon Wood, Hill 63 and hill 60.
We stand in the cratered land; men still buried beneath our feet.
We return to our hotel in reflective mood.
In the evening we visit the Menin gate for the Last Post.
Everywhere are the Names – 50,000 or more.
Crowds of Schoolchildren from the UK gather and elderly too.
The last post is sounded – all is silent, ‘ they shall not grow
old --------‘, Silently we think of those who died, the tears fall. The
children lay a wreath. The
reveille, I thank the buglers. My
heart aches and I shed a tear. Anyone
not moved by the scene is as hard and cold as the stone we are surrounded
by. There are no words to
express the feelings, no words needed.
Tuesday was a day off! Well a day for walking around Ypres.
It is a very pleasant small city (20,000 inhabitants). We went to see the Menin Gate in Daylight.
We realize that if every soldier had a grave – this part of
Belgium would be one large war cemetery.
At least Students are brought here to see and hopefully they will
learn and remember. For the first time in my life I feel no pride in having been
a Professional soldier. We
hear from the UK That our PM has a heart scare – no comment.
We walk around the city ramparts – every country in Europe has
attacked them in the past including Oliver Cromwell. A cemetery looks over the Moat.
We visit the ‘in Flanders Fields ‘ museum – a must for
everyone. The town was rebuilt from scratch after World War 1 as nothing
remained. They did a good
Wednesday – This was the Somme day but plans change.
My wife says that we can cancel the shopping day in Brugge. We visit Poelkappelle Cemetery – 6000 graves. It is on the high ground, Cold and windswept.
I stood in the cold and wind looking down at the grave of yet
another Unknown Soldier – the tears rolled down my face.
Then to Hooge Crater museum – very good.
Sanctuary wood and hill 62 – 2000 Graves – mostly unknown.
Sanctuary wood has the trenches surrounded by Shell holes – the
trenches are full of mud, the concrete bunker to live in is cramped, muddy
and dark. You can feel the
cold and wet – how did they Live here for years.
Shattered tree stumps are still there – amazing, awe inspiring.
Emotionally we are drained and return to the hotel for 21st
Century creature comforts.
Thursday – the Somme
An early start as we have about 200 miles of driving – cemeteries on
the way down and a tour of the battlefield.
We drive through Messines, Plugstreet and Armentieres to Fricourt
– one of my MORSE in here. I am surprised to find a ‘John MORSE’ as
well. Although I was told to always look for your own name.
Then Loos and Grenay – The village centre of Loos is closed but by
luck we find the cemetery. On
to Bethune and we toured the town without success. All my planning and no
signs are directing me to the cemetery (Definitely Town maps are needed).
We have to leave it and press on.
We jump on the Motorway and head for Bapaume and the Somme. Once there I have a few Cemeteries to do and the plan
works (well we did not get lost, although at times we may have been in a
different place to were we expected!).
I have found out that France and Road signs are not words used
We see the places – High Wood, Devil (Deville) Wood, Mametz
Wood, Sausage valley, mash valley, Thiepval wood – the names go on.
The Liverpool Pals memorial, The New Zealanders, Aussies,
Canadians. The Cemetery
were nearly every man died on 1st July 1916.
To Pozieres and thousands of names.
Then to Thiepval – unbelievable – nothing can prepare you for the
sight. It is massive – 73,000 names and a few hundred French and UK
graves next to it.What words can describe such a place – none.
We visit Thiepval wood were Barbara’s Grandfather won his DCM –
sitting in a trench in no mans land for two days and signaling – he then
rescued a Wounded soldier. He
survived the war.
The Ancre Valley on the return to Bapaume – cemeteries and memorials
everywhere. A quicker return on the motorway and then the Armentieres –
Ypres road in Daylight – cemeteries and memorials along the roadside.
So sad, what a waste. Criminal to send men to their deaths in such a
way. A sad but
interesting day ‘ We will
Friday was given over to R and R – We had achieved all we wanted too
and got the photos for other people (118) and so we had a day of
relaxation, Shopping and a pleasant walk.
As my wife had been so good in joining me on this pilgrimage and as I
was feeling guilty over the canceled Brugge day, we stopped at Cite Europe
on the way home.
I would encourage anyone who can to do this visit.
If anyone needs help in Organising a trip, I will do all I can to
help. I also have a selection
of books which may give general info on the 1st World War.
Also a PRO book ‘ Army Service Records of the First World War’
I also have postcards and Photos of various cemeteries and of course the
Menin Gate, Tyne Cot and Thiepval. I
will happily do copies.
The trip was emotionally draining but I would not have missed it.
I believe that we owe it to that generation to keep their memory
alive and if possible to go and pay our respects.
It was good to see so many students in the area.
Next time, I will find time to visit the German cemeteries.
If it had not been for Politicians and Generals – young men on
both sides would probably have been friends.
I also purchased a book
with 365 names and info of men who died – I will happily check for a
name in it. It is only for
the Ypres salient. 20
September 1917 has an entry for three SEABROOK brothers from Australia –
their Mother wrote ‘ The blow of losing three sons in one battle is
terrible and We are heartbroken’.
Steve and Barbara MORSE October 19 to 25 2003.
We will remember them