As 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.
Battlefields of World War 1 – Ypres and the Somme – A personal Pilgrimage
Many 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, Thiepval, Arras, 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 everything.
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 the Somme.
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 thirty-
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 though.
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 the area.
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 witness.
There are almost 55,000 names on the first and nearly 35,000 on the later.
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 nothing.
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 row,……..’
‘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 job.
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 together.
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 remember them’
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