Peter Morrell goes on a poignant journey to the World War 1 battlefields in Belgium and discovers the true horrors of war.
Standing on tiptoe, I could just about see above the sandbags along the top of the muddy trench. It wasn’t hard to imagine the fear of the wretched young soldiers about to go ‘Over the Top’ into a hail of bullets and shell shrapnel.
I had known little about the First World War other than the fact that the bloody massacre had wiped out almost an entire generation of young men between 1914 and 1918. Now, touring the battlefields of Flanders, I was literally immersed in the story as I emerged from an extremely authentic reconstruction of a deep bunker and saw the trenches that they fought in.
My wife and I travelled to Belgium in considerably more comfort than those young men, starting out on their campaign. Their task was to defend this small country from an attack by the Germany army, on its way to invade France. We went to Flanders via Calais on the P&O car ferry and had treated ourselves to a club ticket, which gave us access to a very comfortable lounge and complimentary refreshments.
Our battlefield tour started at Ieper (Ypres), a medieval town that was completely destroyed. Close to the battlefront, it had been shelled until there was nothing left but rubble. In front of the town was the Salient, a military term meaning a bulge of territory into the enemy lines. It was where some of the bloodiest battles of World War 1 took place.
Ieper is certainly a remarkable example of dusting oneself down and starting all over again. The town has risen phoenix-like; completely restored with buildings built to the exact design and specification of the 16th Century originals.
In Flanders Field Museum
The In Flanders Fields Museum is in one of these reconstructed buildings, the former Cloth Hall, where rich merchants traded their wares in the Golden Age. It is a magnificent building with high vaulted ceilings and provides a stunning backdrop for the newly refurbished museum.
With a wristband bearing a poppy insignia we not only gain entrance to all the exhibits but it also allowed us to enter our names and where we were born into a touch screen. The museum archive was then searched to see if any of our ancestors had fought in Flanders during the Great War.
The Museum tells the entire war story and how it started, from the first battles to Armistice Day. The exhibits describe how, over the four years, everything changed, from the uniforms and equipment to the industrialisation of armament manufacturing; for example 4.5 million shells were fired as a prelude to the battle of Passchendaele in 1917.
There are animated maps, videos and dark kiosks called black beacons. In these are pictures of the more gruesome aspects of war, pictures of the dead being held up for identification and of horrific facial wounds caused by shrapnel.
An animated display has soldiers of different nationalities coming to the fore, each telling their stories about the truce of Christmas 1914 when the German and British soldiers came out of their trenches to sing Carols and play football. The commanders didn’t see friendship as a way to win the war and so this never was allowed to happen again.
By now a picture was building up of the misery that was trench warfare. And getting shot or shelled wasn’t the only way to die. Water and mud kept the feet permanently wet causing trench foot, frequently leading to gangrene, as did a bite from the plague of rats that feasted on the bodies of the dead. Diseases and infection were rife and some poor souls simply died from falling into a flooded shell hole, where they drowned, pulled down by the glutinous mud.
Lijssenthoek Casualty Clearing Station and Cemetery
The full scale of the carnage was graphically illustrated at our next stop, the military cemetery at Lijssenthoek. It was next to a former Casualty Clearing Station, out of artillery range but as near to the battlefields as you could get. The walking wounded would be patched up and returned to the trenches and the seriously wounded operated on before being sent back to ‘Blighty’ but 11,000 died there, past medical help, they were buried on site.
In the newly opened visitors centre, there is a memorial section where the walls have been covered with pictures provided by relatives of some of the men that passed through this hospital.. A graph tells the story of the hospital, listing events that happened on a day-by-day basis. Most shocking was the bar chart showing the numbers of death that occurred each day. During each of the major battles of Ypres the mass of red spikes soared. These numbers are also described on an art installation of posts along the road outside the cemetery.
If you are looking for the grave of a relative then you can key in his name on a screen and be shown the exact location of the grave. Like all of the cemeteries in the region it is beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Many of the pristine headstones are simply marked ‘A Soldier of the Great War Known unto God’, there is a 15-year-old boy buried there and also Nellie Spindler, a nurse and the only woman killed in the Ypres Salient.
The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing
More poignant still are the walls of the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in the town of Ypres itself. They bear the names of 54,896 soldiers who joined the war in Flanders but have never been accounted for. That evening we took our place among the large crowd that gathers at the Menin Gate for the playing of the Last Post by the buglers of the local Fire Brigade. The ceremony has taken place every night at 8:00pm since 1927, only interrupted by the hostilities of World War 2.
As the haunting sound of the bugles echoed through the silent arched gate, it was a chilling yet emotional moment. Wreaths were laid in memory of the fallen and I am sure that many of the onlookers were struggling to hold back the tears.
@Rooms B & B
Our accommodation for the night was a complete contrast to the aweful conditions of those soldiers. We stayed at @Rooms, a luxury four star B & B, run by Nancy and Dirk, who have stylishly designed the décor. Breakfast was excellent and Nancy’s attention to detail and comfort made it a real home from home.
Talbot House in Poperinge
On the way over from the ferry to Ieper we had stopped in the town of Poperinge. This was one of the rest areas away from the front line and became known as ‘Little Paris’. Here the soldiers came to drown their sorrows and perhaps seek a little company from the ladies of the night.
In 1915 senior Army chaplain Neville Talbot sent the Reverend Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton to Poperinge to open a rest home for soldiers and hopefully keep them away from the more dubious attractions of the town. Coevoet House, was duly rented and renamed Talbot House in honour of Neville’s brother, who had been killed earlier in the year.
This became known as the Everyman’s Club, with the message ‘Abandon rank all ye who enter here’ above the front door. Officers and enlisted men could mix here, relax in the walled garden or gather around the piano for an impromptu sing song while the large kitchen dispensed endless cups of good, strong tea.
In 1929 Talbot House was purchased by Lord Wakefield of Hythe, who donated it to the Talbot House Association. These days it is a very basic B & B where you can stay at a very reasonable price. The ten guest rooms are all different and in some there are pictures by the famous war artist Kennington.
At the back of the House there is now a museum which has a statue of Tubby, describes the soldiers’ time at rest and includes copies of the troops’ amusing newspaper, the ‘Wipers Times’. The museum has just set up a system where you can tour the house with a Tablet PC and learn what life was like there in those days.
In the hallway is the original notice board which became a ‘lost and found’ source, where soldiers would post responses to request for information on missing soldiers. Services were held regularly in a chapel at the top of the house and some soldiers were even baptized. The concert piano is still there as is the library, and the kitchen is still serving hot, strong, comforting cups of tea.
The gardens are beautifully laid out and amusing signs around the house indicate it was a haven of peace for the soldiers who could rest a while and forget the troubles of war.
Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917
On the second day we visited the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 at Zonnebeke. Set in beautifully landscaped gardens, the museum is housed in the reconstructed castle of Zonnebeke. The word Passchendaele has become synonymous with the futility and stupidity of war, as in this 100 day battle to take a mere 5 miles of ground, nearly 500,000 men were either killed or injured.
Here all the last pieces of information came together to form a vivid picture of fighting in the Great War. The first part of the museum illustrates what life was like in the trenches. How if felt to be a soldier – whatever your nationality – a Tommy, a Jock or a Taffy; or those from overseas: the Canadians, the Anzacs, the Americans, the French, the soldiers from India and even the Chinese support workers.
There are also lots of exhibits and videos showing the weaponry used – the shells, some as big as dustbins, the gun carriages and the rifles. As the war progressed the weaponry changed seeing the use of trench mortars and grenades as well as gas. And the casualties were not all human, the war horses played a vital role too; more than a million crossed the Channel, only 60,000 returned.
There is a real dugout under the church in the grounds that you can still see but it is too unsafe to enter. So a complete replica has been reconstructed which lays bare the cramped and difficult conditions in which these soldiers lived. You can see the hard, wood and wire bunks that are crammed into the very confined living quarters, no wonder all the soldiers were infested with lice. There is a mock up of the first aid post, the officer’s quarters, kitchens and the less than private latrines.
From here we made our way up to the trenches where one could imagine them clambering over the top to attack the enemy lines and the true reality of this type of warfare really struck home.
The last part of the museum is a memorial, displaying collections of personal effects that have been donated by soldiers’ families as well as shells and objects that have been discovered (and continue to be discovered) by farmers in the surrounding land.
Tyne Cot Memorial and Cemetery
From the museum you can follow a guided trail and walk to Tyne Cot Memorial and Cemetery, the largest for Commonwealth soldiers in the world. Looking out over the neat rows of white headstones, stretching far into the distance, this is a place to reflect on the tragedy of so many young lives lost and to think about those that were fortunate enough to make it home. How did they recover from this appalling experience and resume a normal life?
There has been a vast amount of investment made in in the area to prepare for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War. This helped us get so much more out of the trip that we ever imagined. If you had a relative who fought or is someone interested in this momentous historic event you find the story of the Flanders Fields skillfully and respectfully told.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
From the poem ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon 1914
|Tourism Ieper – www.toerismeieper.be/en
Tourist Poperinge – www.toerismepoperinge.be/en
Visit Flanders – www.visitflanders.co.uk
Many tour operators are now offering trips to the Flanders Fields, here… is one example from Ramblers Worldwide Holidays
This article first appeared on www.aboutmygeneration.com