On 27th-30th March 2010 I went to Ypres on a battlefield tour.On sunday 28th March I visited some battlefields and cemetaries around Ypres.
Ypres, or ‘Wipers’ as the british troops sometimes called it, was the scene of 3 major battles of World War 1.
In the First Battle of Ypres (31 October to 22 November 1914) the Allies captured the town from the Germans. In the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April to 25 May 1915) the Germans used poison gas for the first time on the Western Front (they had used it earlier at the Battle of Bolimov on 3 January 1915) and captured high ground east of the town. The first gas attack occurred against Canadian, British, and French soldiers; including both metropolitan French soldiers as well as Senegalese and Algerian tirailleurs (light infantry) from French Africa. The gas used was chlorine gas. Mustard gas, also called Yperite from the name of this city, was also used for the first time near Ieper in the autumn of 1917.
The most costly in human suffering was the Third Battle of Ypres (21 July to 6 November 1917, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele) in which the British, Canadians, ANZAC and French forces recaptured the Passchendaele ridge east of the city at a terrible cost of lives. After months of fighting, this battle resulted in nearly half a million casualties to all sides, and only several miles of ground won by Allied forces. The town was all but obliterated by the artillery fire.
After the war the town was left in complete ruins. There were arguments with what to do with the town, the british thought it should be left in ruins as a memorial to what had happened there, but the people who lived there wanted to rebuild their town, and that’s what they did.
Ypres was built exactly as it had been before the war, using the original medieval plans for the town. They did such a good job that when you look at a photograph of Ypres before the war and then today, it looks no different!
Larch Wood Cemetary
The cemetery was founded by Commonwealth troops in April 1915 and remained in use until April 1918, when the Western Front had moved away from the area. Most of the dead are from the defence of the nearby Hill 60.
After the Armistice, the cemetery was enlarged with the concentration of graves from the battlefield, smaller cemeteries in the area and Commonwealth troops buried in from German war cemeteries.
The graves of 86 people are defined as “special memorials”— that is, they are either recorded as being buried here but the CWGC was unable to find proof (headstones marked “Believed to be buried in this cemetery”) or they are known to be buried here but their exact location was lost or destroyed by later fighting (headstones marked “Known to be buried in this cemetery”).These graves all carry (unless replaced by a personalised family message) the inscription at the foot of the stone “Their Glory Shall Not Be Blotted Out” – a line from Sirach 44:13 suggested by Rudyard Kipling.
The cemetery was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens who was also responsible for the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London and the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme, France.
Hill 60/Caterpillar Crater
A German counter-attack succeeded in recapturing the hill but the British regained possession on April 18. Fighting continued until April 22.
Hill 60 was eventually taken by the Germans following a gas attack on 5 May 1915. The results were devastating. The front trenches were overrun when the forward companies were almost wiped out. Only 2 officers and 70 men from one battalion remained.
It was due to a stout defence by a platoon of the Devon and Dorsets and the Battalion Headquarter Staff of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment that a major breakthrough was prevented.
It is due to the heavy fighting for Hill 60 that 4 VCs were won during one night when the Germans attempted a re-capture.
The “Caterpillar Crater” near Hill 60, Ypres. Blown by the British on 7th June 1917.
The Germans had a strongpoint here on this spot with machine gun posts,blockhouses. These were vapourised in a huge explosion along with around 600 German soldiers.
This crater which is in “Battle Wood” at the side of Hill 60 is the result of one of the 19 mines detonated on the first day of the battle of Messines.
Essex Farm Cemetary
The burials on the site of this British military cemetery were begun by the French Army during the First Battle of Ypres (19th October – 22nd November 1914). The French Army was occupying this sector of the Allied Front Line north of Ypres (Ieper) until mid April 1915. The French war dead who were buried here were removed after the First World War and reburied in a French military cemetery. It is likely that they were re-interred in the French cemetery located in the northern part of the Ypres Salient named Saint-Charles-de-Potyze.
On 17th April 1915 the British Army extended the Front Line it was holding in the Ypres Salient, taking over a section of Front Line from the French Army east of Langemarck. The rear area behind the Front Lines and north of Ypres around Essex Farm, on the western bank of the Ypres-Yser canal, was also taken over by the British Army. Only a few days later the German Army launched an attack with gas and the Second Battle of Ypres began. Canadian field guns were brought to the western canal bank to assist with the defence of the sector by the British and French Armies.
Essex Farm was located on the western end of Bridge Number 4, also known as Brielen Bridge. The village of Brielen was a few kilometres to the west of this bridge.
It was from this time that the Canadian field artillery established a small, basic dressing station near Essex Farm to tend to wounded casualties in the vicinity. British casualties who died near to the location of Essex Farm were buried in this cemetery.
This cemetery has buried 15 year old Valentine Joe Strudwick, who is one of the youngest casualties of the great war. It is near to where John McCrae wrote his famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ after a friend of his was killed by an exploding shell.
There is an information board at the entrance to the site, which shows the layout of the trenches that were excavated. Trenches from 1915 and from 1917 were excavated. The work was undertaken by a group of amateur Belgian archaeologists, known as The Diggers. The excavations were filmed in part by BBC TV for the “Meet the Ancestors” series. The programme, transmitted first in March 2002 was called “The Forgotten Battlefield”. The position of the Yorkshire trench can be seen on British trench maps from September 1916, but the name “Yorkshire Trench” was not used until early the following year. A British dugout from 1917 was explored by the Diggers as early as 1992, but the majority of the work on the Yorkshire Trench site took place in the summer of 1998 and in April 2000.
Langemark German Cemetary
Langemark cemetery is one of only four First World War German cemeteries in the Flanders region. In the whole of Belgium there are 13 First and Second World War German military cemeteries.
The origins of the military cemetery began with a small group of German graves in 1915. Between 1916 and 1918 the burials at Langemark were increased by order of the German military directorate in Ghent.
There were 44,295 burials in this cemetery. In the middle is a mass grave holding 24,917 known men and 7,977 unidentified bodies. The cemetery was started in 1915 and added to from 1916 to 1918. In the 1930s bodies were brought into the Langemark cemetery from surrounding plots. Generally British and French cemeteries were left in their original place but the Germans were begrudged land so had to abandon all smaller burial plots and move bodies to the four main designated cemeteries. Work on Langemark continued in the 1950s and the final concentration of bodies was achieved in 1970-1972.
On 1st June 1940 Adolf Hitler visited the cemetary on a visit to Flanders. Below you can see a picture of me at the gate he was pictured walking through.
St Julien Memorial
The St. Julien Memorial is a Canadian war memorial and small commemorative park located in Saint Julien, Belgium. The memorial commemorates the Canadian First Division’s participation in the Second Battle of Ypres of World War I and their defence against the first poison gas attacks along the Western Front. Frederick Chapman Clemesha sculpture Brooding Soldier was selected to serve as the monument following a design competition organized by the Canadian Battlefield Monument Commission in 1920.
The memorial was unveiled on 8 July 1923 by the Duke of Connaught and the tribute was made by French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, former supreme commander of the Allied Powers on the Western Front. In his address, Foch stated; The Canadians paid heavily for their sacrifice and the corner of earth on which this Memorial of gratitude and piety rises has been bathed in their blood. They wrote here the first page in that Book of Glory which is the history of their participation in the war.
Passchendaele/Tyne Cot Cemetary
Passchendaele cost over half a million lives although exact figures have never been exactly known. The Germans lost about 250,000 lives and the British 300,000 of whom 36,500 were Australian. 90,000 British or Australian bodies were never identified, 42,000 were never recovered; these had been blown to bits or had drowned in the dreadful morass. Many of the drowned were exhausted or wounded men who had slipped or fallen off the duckboards and were unable to escape the filthy, foul-smelling glutinous mud, sinking deeper to their deaths as they struggled.
In total between June and November 1917 the Allies had captured a mere 5 miles (8 km) of new territory a ratio of roughly 2 inches (5 cm) gained per dead soldier.
The Germans recaptured their lost ground, without resistance, 5 months later during the Battle of the Lys, before losing it for good in late September 1918.
The name “Tyne Cot” is said to come from the Northumberland Fusiliers seeing a resemblance between the German concrete pill boxes, which still stand in the middle of the cemetery, and typical Tyneside workers’ cottages – Tyne Cots. The cemetery lies on a broad rise in the landscape which overlooks the surrounding countryside. As such, it was strategically important to both sides fighting in the area. The area was captured by the 3rd Australian Division, 1 AIF, on 4 October 1917 and two days later a cemetery for British and Canadian war dead was begun. The cemetery was recaptured by German forces on 13 April 1918 and was finally liberated by Belgian forces on 28 September.
After the Armistice in November 1918 the cemetery was massively enlarged from its original 343 graves by concentrating graves from the battlefields, smaller cemeteries nearby and from Langemark.
Total Burials 11,954, of which 8,367 are unnamed
Menin Gate and The Last Post
In 1928, a year after the inauguration of the Menin Gate Memorial, a number of prominent citizens in Ypres decided that some way should be found to express the gratitude of the Belgian nation towards those who had died for its freedom and independence.
The idea of the daily sounding of the Last Post – the traditional salute to the fallen warrior – was that of the Superintendant of the Ypres Police, Mr P Vandenbraambussche. The Menin Gate Memorial on the east side of Ypres was thought to be the most appropriate location for the ceremony. Originally this was the location of the old city gate leading to the Ypres Salient battlefields and The Menin Road, through which so many British and Commonwealth troops had passed on their way to the Allied front line.
The privilege of playing Last Post was given to buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade. The first sounding of Last Post took place on 1 July 1928 and a daily ceremony was carried on for about four months. The ceremony was reinstated in the spring of 1929 and the Last Post Committee was established. Four silver bugles were donated to the Last Post Committee by the Brussels and Antwerp Branches of the Royal British Legion.
From 11 November, 1929 the Last Post has been sounded at the Menin Gate memorial every night and in all weathers. The only exception to this was during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from 20 May 1940 to 6 September 1944. The daily ceremony was instead continued in England at Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey. On the very evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, in spite of the heavy fighting still going on in other parts of the town.