Diary of Pilgrimage to the Ypres salient
April 4 to 8th 2004
I joined the Army 36 years ago today.
After the experience of last October, when time was lost finding some of the cemeteries. I had planned this trip meticulously – cemeteries and graves to find – in triplicate. Map references and daily routes planned. Nothing could go wrong (or so I thought).
As the requests came in for photos, I began to think that I might need a month and not four days.
The hotel and ferry were booked via the Internet and all was ready.
At 1 am on Sunday morning we set off. I had not slept since 8am the previous morning but expected to have an hour on the ferry.
Despite the rain our journey to Dover (200 miles) was a good one. After filing the car for the next leg, we arrived at the Ferry Terminal just before 5 am. I had an hour to relax in the car before boarding. I also used the priority (extra cost) – boarding first and leaving first plus a separate lounge. Although I declined the complimentary glass of Champagne (Barbara didn’t!). Breakfast and 15 minutes sleep and then we were off. The adrenaline must have kicked in because I did not feel tired.
We used the motorway system to get to Armentieres (too early for Mademoiselles). This route takes me up through Plugstreet and Menin. Being Palm Sunday, many Belgians are walking and cycling.
We arrive at the London Rifle Brigade Cemetery. A long thin cemetery between buildings. We pay our respects, take photos, sign the visitor’s book and move on. I always put in the books ‘ We will remember them RIP’. Then to Lancashire Cottage Cemetery – turn right just before Plugstreet. All are signposted. The local band is in the village leading everyone to church.
Lancashire cottage is a lovely cemetery – behind it are flat fields to the horizon. In front Plugstreet wood were so many died. We visit the two graves here and take photos. It starts to rain and we make a quick exit to the car. The 1st E Lancs named the cemetery in November 1914. It has beautiful wrought iron gates. On an historic note both Anthony EDEN and Winston CHURCHILL served in this area. Some two miles away a certain Cpl. A HITLER also served. Both HILTER and CHURCHILL painted local landscapes at the time.
Then on to Plugstreet memorial and cemetery. Opposite is Hyde Park Corner Military Cemetery – here is buried a 16 year old – Pvt. Albert Edward FRENCH – The War office refused his family a pension because he was under age! Eventually though his father got 5s a week. As his brother once said –‘He shouldn’t have been there, should he?’
Plugstreet (Ploegsteert) marks the bottom end of the Ypres salient. The last post is played here on the first Friday of each month at 19-00hrs. The memorial was planned for Lille but our French friends were getting worried at the amount of memorials being built (no comment except to say that the only cemetery register I found missing was in France).
I took photos of the memorial and panel four. There are three VC’s commemorated here.
We then stopped at the Island of Ireland Peace Park and Tower. Despite the problems in Ireland in 1916 – men of the North and South fought and died side by side in Flanders.
We pass La Petite Douve Farm, which is were many experts believe the last Messines Mine lies. It failed to explode in 1917 and I decide not to stop!
Then on to Torreken farm cemetery. This is a rarely visited cemetery and I soon find out why. I arrive to see a cemetery in the middle of fields and no obvious way to it. Do I knock on the door and ruin a Belgians Sunday Lunch? I walk to the drive and the farmer meets me. He speaks no English and I no Flemish. In the end we do ‘chat’, about the weather! He shows me the way. A mown path leads from his garden to a field. Luckily his Belgian Shepherd dog is caged, as it obviously does not like me. I reach the field and see the sign ‘‘Beware of the Bull’. Service above and beyond the call of duty comes to mind. I walk the mown path to the cemetery, protected by a very thin electric wire. Hopefully the bull has his mind on other things. It is though a lovely little cemetery. Set in the middle of all the fields. There is though the usual strong wind blowing. This part of Belgium is a bit like Lincolnshire. Flat, wet and windy.
Then on to Locre/Loker Churchyard (Belgium has the WW1 names, the Flemish names and the names our boys used!)
We go through Kemmel and many people are walking up the Kemmelberg (mountain! well it is 230 metres) When you are below sea level anything is a mountain.
There are walkers and cyclists everywhere and care is needed – they have right of way.
As is usual in Belgium the Loker road is closed and a slight detour is needed. The church is under repair and it has two Military cemeteries – one either side of the church. I take my photos which is difficult because the road work vehicles are all around.
We drive through the countryside to Voormezele Enclosure cemetery – It is in a village and the sign is close to it. I have now learned to drive slowly and expect signs to be anywhere. On an historic note this cemetery contains the grave of ‘Peter Pan’. In real life 2nd Lt. George Llewelyn DAVIES who J M BARRIE (Their Guardian after the death of their parents) called the real Peter Pan. I take the photos and we are off again.
This time to Chester Farm cemetery. Just before it is Spoilbank cemetery and we stop here. Across the road from Spoilbank is the Pailingbeek Nature reserve. Thankfully after four hours of driving we find a WC! The Nature reserve is well worth a visit and has some old trench workings. You walk by the old Ypres-Commines canal. I make a note for a longer visit next time. Whilst here we decide it is time for coffee. You get so caught up in the visit that sometimes you forget to eat and drink.
Then to Chester Farm cemetery. Again on the edge of fields. I do find a small error in the cemetery register (a letter to CWGC on my return). We pay our respects, take the photos and move on.
Finally for today, it is Birr cross Roads on the Menin Road. We turn right at Hellfire corner and head towards Hooge. In the distance on the hill is the RE (Royal Engineers) Grave in Railway Wood. This memorial to twelve men buried somewhere underground in the tunnels. I find the grave and have a problem. Behind it is a bungalow and the washing is out. Do I ask the lady to remove it? I decide that I can work on the photo at home instead. Buried in this cemetery is Capt. Harold ACKROYD, VC, RAMC. Also the son of Sir Oliver LODGE, 2nd Lt. Raymond LODGE. Sir Oliver was the Physicist and first principal of the University of Birmingham. His interest in psychical research after his sons death led to the book ‘ Raymond, or life and death’ He concluded that the mind survives death and tried (like so many did) to contact his son through a medium.
We made our way to the hotel in Ypres. All of today’s Cemeteries and graves visited.
The Lille gate is open again. Last October it was closed.
After no sleep for 30 hours, I collapse for a couple of hours. The Ariane Hotel is excellent (90 euros a room per night B&B).
After some sleep and a bath, I can check the photos and tomorrow’s visits. The photos look very good. I decide though that if I got a lap top, I could sort them properly.
The cemeteries where all lovely and the spring flowers were out – daffodils and tulips. The later shrubs were just coming into leaf. The lawns were mown but wet. Because of the high water table the grass is like a sponge. One can only imagine the horror of living in such a place. The wind can be bitter. At least we have 21st century comforts each evening.
After dinner we strolled through Ypres to the Menin gate. It looks magnificent and so imposing. It is a monument to all the men who fought and a memorial for those with no known grave. Virtually every man who fought on the Salient would have gone through this gate. Along with hellfire corner it was one of the most dangerous places to go through.
5th April 2004
After a hearty breakfast, we set off on another full day.
On the way out we visit Ypres Reservoir cemetery. Again the CWGC workers are tending the graves. Waiting until I leave before starting to mow the grass.
There are many concentration graves from other parts of the salient. A 19-year-old American is here – Wainwright MERRILL went to Canada to enlist. One man killed on the Somme is buried here. He lies next to his brother who was killed in Flanders. It is a beautiful cemetery and close by are the towers of Ypres cloth hall and cathedral.
Once again the Belgian roads made life difficult. The road I wanted was closed. A three-mile detour. We visited Duhallow cemetery. Two Belgian ladies are there. They are taking photos and notes – possibly a book (I should have asked!).
We take our photos lay a cross and pay our respects. A pleasant cemetery which lies between the road and the canal. It was next to an Advanced dressing Station and started during the battle of Pilckem Ridge, July 1917 (part of 3rd Ypres).
A distinguished American Surgeon visited it on 26 October 1917 – he found the conditions under which the RAMC were quite appalling. The CO had erected tents on a sea of mud and shell holes that had been filled with whatever could be found.
We then pass Salvation Corner – this is were the Sally Ann (Salvation Army) had a hut.
Then to New Irish Farm cemetery – some 4,600 graves and some Chinese labour Corps men (many of these died after the war in the clearance operation). I take two photos here and also the cemetery.
Our next is Track ‘X’ – this is a tiny cemetery in the middle of fields. The farmer ploughing close by. A mown path leads to it. Again I take the photos, pay my respects and sign the book. I can see many cemeteries from here of differing sizes. Again the spring flowers look lovely. The wind though is biting and the rain hovers all day.
We then cross the main road to Wieltje and Oxford Road cemetery.
Just before it, is the 50th Northumberland Division Memorial – this was a territorial battalion which arrived in France (units were often described as being in France when actually in Belgium) in April 1915.
Oxford Road is an ‘L’ shaped cemetery. It is protected by trees at the front and has fields at the back. For the first time today, the wind cannot get at me. The cemetery dates from August 1917. 2 German graves are here. A VC is buried here A/Capt Clement ROBERTSON VC, of the Tank Corps. The photos are taken, the cross, we pay our respects and sign the book.
Then we get ‘misplaced’. I never get lost, although at times I am not sure where I am. There are so many small roads that eventually we find our way.
We visit the German cemetery at Langemarck. The village was taken by the Germans during the first gas attack in 1915. It contains 44,292 burials It has a mass grave of 25,000. In the north wall are the remains of the massive German blockhouses.
Adolf Hitler visited in 1940 and claimed to have served here.
In the early days of the war, three thousand young German students were sacrificed here.
It has great oaks in the cemetery and everything is granite. Unlike the Commonwealth cemeteries, this is a forbidding place with a gloomy atmosphere. It is also believed that a British soldier is buried here – due to an error when graves where concentrated.
We are in reflective mood after this visit. Not much land given over to the aggressor!
An odd place but we have our coffee break (in the car).
Then we drive to poelcapple cemetery via the Canadian memorial – The Brooding Soldier. A haunting site.
At Polecapple I pick a grave of an ‘unknown’ soldier and lay a cross. I have a photo of an ‘unknown’ soldier’s grave but not from here. Only I know its location so if anyone wants a photo, which could be his or her loved one, I can send it.
I always visit Polecapple – it is the 4th largest cemetery. It is a concentration cemetery formed after 11/11/1918. It has 6,541 UK, 117 Australian, 525 Canadian, 4 Channel Island, 8 Newfoundland (they were not Canadians in 1918), 237 New Zealand, 10 South African and 36 Special memorials. Of these 7,442 graves a massive 6,231 are unknown.
It is not often visited but to me it speaks volumes for the futility and waste of war.
Here is buried, possibly the youngest ‘boy’ killed. The records state he was a month short of his 14th birthday when killed in 1915, (there are doubts as to his age). Next to him is a 47 year old.
One of the special memorials is of 27 men buried by the enemy and whose graves could not be found. Normally ‘special memorials’ have ‘known to be buried in this cemetery’ or ‘thought to be buried in this cemetery’
It also shows how dangerous the area was after the war – seven men where killed together whilst clearing the cemetery after the war. They lit a fire to cook their meal – this triggered an explosion of a wartime shell.
Privates BENTHAM, BRYNE, EYRE , LLOYD and TILLEY
Buried side by side in plot 17 row C
We move on. As we drive towards Passendale, we see the fields ploughed ready for crops and some spring veg nearly ready. A hare decided to race us – Is this were ‘hare-brained’ comes from.
We arrive at Passendale New Military Cemetery. The CWGC men are hard at work. Two minutes later we are bombarded by hailstones. I am not a happy bunny! (and neither is the Hare).
Thankfully it only last for a few minutes. The cemetery is on three levels and the final one crests the ridge overlooking Passendale. A drive of ten minutes took the troops three years and untold lives. From Oxford Road to Passendale it is a couple of miles. In 1917 it took three months and three hundred thousand casualties.
We find the graves and take photos. Sign the book and leave. The work of the CWGC never ceases to amaze me. All the cemeteries are immaculate, the stones, cleaned and repaired as needed. Memorials (and there are many) cleaned and tended. The flowers are changed from spring to summer. All have shrubs and roses that last most of the year.
There are though so many cemeteries – some small with less than 40 men, other huge. You cannot drive more than a couple of minutes without seeing a cemetery.
We move on to Tyne Cot. This and the Menin Gate are where most people ask for photos. Usually names on the memorial walls. The scale of this cemetery and memorial never ceases to leave me in awe and to affect me. It rises up the hill – from the gate are the graves, which lead to the Great cross. Beyond that the wall with. The largest military cemetery in the world. The aerial view shows a likeness to a great cathedral. German blockhouses still stand in the cemetery. There are 11,871 graves of which many are unknown. 350 were from the war. Some German graves were also brought in from outside the walls. There are two brothers – the HATT brothers from Canada.
From the cemetery you can look over the landscape and see Ypres. The Germans could see very movement below them. You can also see Passendale New Military cemetery on the Horizon.
As you look past the graves and the great cross, you see the wall with nearly 35,000 names of the missing. Only surpassed by the 55,000 names on the Menin gate.
I take photos of three graves and make my way up the gentle slope to the Memorial wall. I stop and lay all the crosses below the Great Cross. I begin to take my photos – the name and the panel. After two photos my disk is full. I change it and carry on – I walk the wall from panel 1 to 163. The wind so strong, I can hardly keep my balance. The cemetery has many people in it. Some looking for a loved one, students who have a man to find from their town. Ex- soldiers and locals pay their respects.
I reflect on mans capacity for killing. Will we ever change, will we ever learn? I doubt it but hope it will.
We leave and drive to Potijze. We find three cemeteries from the old Chateau behind some bungalows. Chateau Lawn and grounds are one and the same. Two cemeteries but actually one. One to the left of the gate and one to the right. Through a field is Chateau wood. A CWGC man mows the path, which takes you to it around the edge of a field. I take my photos and pay my respects. The cemetery is calm and quiet.
This is my last cemetery of the day. My wife sits in the car with the guidebooks, maps, and names and checks the paperwork.
After two visits in which I have visited lots of cemeteries and taken lots of photos, I think next time will be for us.
We head back to the hotel and a rest. It is only 2pm and after checking the photos we decide to get some of Tuesdays done. I check my photos and they look good, (little did I know that 45 out of the 70 taken would vanish before my eyes)
We decided to do the Menin Gate names. The showers had eased but the wind grew stronger. It took us about an hour to photograph all of the names and panels. We leave the crosses. The Menin Gate is so impressive. So many names. Men from all over the world killed in the mud of Flanders. Many had never left their hometown or village before this ‘adventure’. We walk along the Ramparts and pass the Ramparts cemetery. One of the smallest and it looks out over the moat. It has been described as hauntingly beautiful and I cannot argue with that statement. Again we return to the hotel in reflective mood. In this ‘blame’ society it is easy to find scapegoats for the carnage of World War 1. They were though men of their times. As usual politics interfered with battle plans. Allies had to be kept happy and sometimes the cost in men was high.
Back to the 21st Century – a relaxing bath, excellent food and a glass of Belgian beer.
After a day of wind and showers we reflect on how men could live in holes in the ground for months and sometimes years. The constant shelling, the snipers, the lack of food. I remember what my Sgt. told me many years ago – You fight for your friends – forget about Queen and Country. No doubt that is how the men in World War1 thought. You get the job done despite the generals and politicians. The only thing that matters is friends and survival.
The morning is given over to R&R. A walk around Ypres. Raining but not windy today.
We do some shopping – stocking up on the excellent Belgian chocolate. We walk to the Lille Gate and the Ramparts Museum – this is behind the Klein Rijsel, which is a hostelry not to be missed. They brew their own dark beer – very pleasant. We return to the hotel and the weather clears. We decide to get Wednesday’s cemeteries done today.
With the constant showers, I worry that I will not get everything done. I also have to visit Duhallow again to lay a cross. I lost it on Monday and left a blank one. Back via the detour. Then we go to Essex Farm Cemetery – probably the most visited on the Salient.
It has a VC winner and another contender for ‘youngest casualty’!
Pte Thomas BARRATT, VC
Pte V. J. STRUDWICK aged 15 years – his grave is covered with crosses, we add ours.
Also this is where John McCrae wrote his poem ‘ In Flanders Fields’. Many people believe he is buried here but no. He died of pneumonia in Bolougne in January 1918. The Essex Farm Bunker Dressing Station is still there. The front line was just across the canal. Another shower, so a good time to check out the Bunkers. 90 years on they still stand. Also behind the cemetery is the memorial to the 49th (West Riding) Division. This Territorial Division together with 6th, was one of the first to suffer a Gas attack in 1915. The two divisions suffered 1000 casualties from Gas alone. In the winter of 1915 they had 400 cases of Trench foot.
We then cut across country (not literally but on a small track), to Brandhoek cemeteries. There are three by the main Ypres-Pop road. I wait for the rain to cease and then I take my photos. This was begun in 1917 for the 3rd Ypres offensive. It was next to a dressing station. It was too small and Brandhoek New Military Cemetery was used. It is just down the lane and through a lane between houses. In this cemetery lies a man who I (and many others) believe was a truly great hero of WW1. He is the only man to win a double VC in WW1 and this in itself is extraordinary but he was a medic. He did not have to put his life at risk under fire but he knew his duty and did it. Capt Noel Godfrey CHAVASSE, VC and Bar, MC, RAMC died of wounds on 4th August 1917. The epitaph on his grave says it all ‘Greater Love hath no man than this, That a man lay down his life for his friends’. In 1915 he won his MC at Hooge. In August 1916 he won his first VC on the Somme and his second near Wieltje on the Salient. Buried near him is his servant Pte C A RUDD.
We took photos and laid a cross amongst the many already there.
The cemetery is small and neat with houses and gardens to one side. Sadly the other side has the main Ypres-Pop road.
We move on to Brandhoek New Military Cemetery no 3. This is on the edge of the village and surrounded by fields. A quarter of the graves are Artillery – many gun positions were in this area. The Jewish graves have small stones on the top. Again it was near a Casualty Clearing Station. This was an area of many CCS units.
The area we are in was ‘well’ behind the lines and we visit Reninghelst next. Again this cemetery is in a field. A family are building their new house close to the path. We smile and say hello (why is Flemish so difficult!). I walk along the mown path to the cemetery. Again many Artillery men are buried here. Two brothers from Ottawa lie here – Lts Charles Richard and John Lockhart GODWIN.
Our last visit of the day is to Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery. I visit the graves and take photos. I leave the crosses. I always visit this cemetery. It was next to the Evacuation Hospital and is unusual as the majority of graves are named. The are men of all ranks, ages, countries and creeds buried here. It is the second largest cemetery in the area. 7,332 UK, 1,131 Australian, 1,053 Canadian, 21 British West Indies, 2 Indian, 5 Newfoundland, 291 New Zealand, 28 South African, 35 Chinese Labour Corps, 233 German. There are also French graves and three Americans. Their families wanted them left in this cemetery after the war. I always stop and say hello because they are a bit isolated. One of the two nurses killed on the Salient is also buried here – Staff Nurse N SPINDLER. From Private to Major General, all ranks are here. Young men in the prime to men of 50. Many of the Chinese died whilst clearing up the battlefield and died in 1919 and 1920. The lines of headstones stretch away -–the men at attention on their last parade. So many men, so many dreams and hopes ended. So many loved ones weeping at home. Anyone seeing this area cannot believe that War solves anything. In the 20th century there was only one year when a British Soldier did not die on active service – 1968.
Once again we return to the 21st century. We are ahead of schedule and only have three cemeteries to visit tomorrow, (If only I knew!)
Although I have three cemeteries to do, plus an extra that I want to visit, they are a fair distance away. We set off looking for Dozinghem, Mendinghem and Bandagehem.
These three were next to CCS for the Passchendaele Offensive (3rd Ypres). The names came from the Tommies – many Belgian names end in Hem and so the three got their names – dosing hem, bandage hem and mending hem. After driving around the countryside for ages, I had a problem – finding hem!
The first Dozinghem was eventually found and lies at the end of a muddy lane. It is obscured from the road by woods. The CWGC gardener was there. Although sitting in his car having his break, I thought he was a she! A local student has a letter with the visitor’s book. He is putting together a detailed account of the men, with photos etc. I make a note of his address. With nearly 4000 graves, he has taken on a massive undertaking. From the great cross I can see ‘Lucs’ family farm and also the Trappist Abbey which brews excellent beer. We have driven through many hop fields today. I pay my respects and take my photos. It is a beautifully situated cemetery.
We then drive to the Abbey – sadly the beer I want is sold out. Oh well, better luck next time. There are also WW2 graves here – men who died in the retreat to Dunkirk. Two generations of British youth in one Belgian Cemetery.
There is also the grave of 2nd Lt Edward Revere OSLER – he was the Gt. Gt. Grandson of Paul REVERE. Lt OSLER was buried in an Army blanket wrapped in a Union Flag! (I doubt Paul REVERE would have been impressed by that)
We then set off for Mendinghem. Actually we set of for Bandagehem and found Mendinghem first. Yet another pot-holed track to the cemetery. It sits in fields but two houses are nearby. One so close that the lady sits in her conservatory watching us. A gale blows across the fields and I can hardly stand up.
The CCS here was staffed by Americans who apparently thought that a better name would be Endinghem. In 3rd Ypres it had 1300 beds for the wounded.
Buried here is a VC winner – Captain (acting Lt Col) Bertram BEST-DUNKLEY, CO 2/5th Lancs Fusiliers.
Also three ‘ shot at dawn’. I lay a cross on all three. Most if not all of these men had shell shock. An Officer would have been sent home but a Private ‘shot at dawn’.
They are –
Pte Charles BRITTON
Pte D GIBSON
Pte John HYDE
We then move on to Bandagehem which is actually in Haringhe!
We are on top of a windy hill and take a coffee break before facing the biting wind again.
We visited this cemetery because three men of the Royal Engineers are buried here side by side. They all won the Albert Medal when the train they were on burst into flames and being an ammunition train, it could have caused massive loss of life. Five men won the AM that day
CSM FURLONGER, DCM – buried here
Sappers FARREN and JOHNSTON – buried here
Cpl BIGLAND was wounded
Then we drive to Poperinge and Nine Elms Cemetery. A peaceful place and a lovely cemetery. Our last cemetery of this trip. We drive into Pop for a look around. As we park, there is a massive thunder storm. We decide to return to the hotel.
When I have checked the photos and made sure all that I had to do, has been done, I feel drained.
I relax for the afternoon.
In the evening we visit the Menin Gate for the Last Post ceremony. Many people are there and a Scottish College has brought a piper. The last Post is played, the exhalation and then the piper plays a lament. Reveille is played. We will remember them. Tears flow from people as they stand there. I look at all of the names. So many names, so many countries. Even the strongest person cannot stop the flow of tears.
Slowly the people move off. I find that this place continues to draw me. It is a place of tragic events but when I see the coaches of young people visiting and learning, I have hope.
The care that the CWGC men take is amazing. The graves and cemeteries well tended.
We return to the hotel.
The Ypres area is becoming a ‘tourist’ area. I am not sure how this will sit with all that happened here. I hope that it will change little.
When I visit the area, I always remember a quote ‘ 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’
Steve and Barbara MORSE