As a finale to outer trip, we headed back to Belgium from Amsterdam with a plan to visit some of the battlefield sites and cemeteries of World War One. I have done a battlefield tour sixteen years ago when I first joined the Army, and have ever since, especially in recent years wanted to go back. Now this is not a complete tour, we missed out much of what can be seen, however we only had a day and a half left, and so tried to make the most of it.
We first headed to Leper/Ypres, and the Menin Gate, where we arrived fir the daily service of the last post. Last time I was here, I was in uniform and part of the ranks of soldiers stood on parade. This time I had a tourist perspective, and a poor one at that. Even though I could see little of the service I could still hear and take in the moment with the crowd. Whilst the ceremony on, I drifted away reading some of the names, regiments and places of the fallen on the walls around us. Even though this memorial remembers some 50,000 plus who died on the western front, there were many names from all over the world such as India, Australia, New Zealand, Nepal and Canada. This certainly helped to remind me that this truly was a world war.
After the ceremony we took the time to walk around and read each of the slabs with name after name listed on them. Its a beautiful monument to the fallen, in the place where many soldiers would have passed through on their way to the front. It’s also fantastic that there is a daily service in memory, it’s seems everyone is too busy for anything these days, so it nice for the Belgians to still continue this important tradition.
That night we had a walk through the town, looking at the churches and other buildings and statues, there’s plenty to see, but as usual we were happy for a quick look and then return home to the van. We parked next to the train station on a parking lot with lorries and coaches, so felt relatively safe, although there was still a bit of noise to deal with.
The next morning we set off for the Hill 62 museum, again I had been here before however again it was good to be reminded of the places. This is a small museum spread across a couple of houses and then a quite extensive trench system that was left in place by the local farmer on returning to his land after the war. Seeing the corrugated sheeting held in by pickets, reminded me of building trenches when I was in the army, although I’m glad I never had to use one for real, as even today it looks horrible.
There is not much information attached to the items at the museum and for much of it you need to deduce what it is. Luckily I have a decent enough knowledge after ten years in the army and reading too many books, so shared this with jess as we walked around. One of the most interesting aspects were the photo rolls that they have on display showing all manner of pictures of the war. Some were horrific in their honesty and others gave a look into daily lives in the trenches san the local cities.
We wandered through the trenches, avoiding the torrents of water running through them, and even took a walk into the tunnels using the iPhone for light, as I said it’s all pretty grim. It would be nice in one section to have some sandbags put in place to show how this place would have looked during the war, rather than just the shell of what was left behind. More information boards would also help solo tourists, as I said we were fine, but I’m sure many people would not understand, so something explaining about the construction process, the reason for the trench layout, trench and weapon features or stories from soldiers who served there would all make this museum more open to tourists.
Next we headed to Tyne Cot cemetery. We first walked around the visitor centre, which explains about the soldiers that caught and died here and the development of the cemetery to what it is today. Outside you see the cemetery and the white headstones that form neat rows, one after the other. There are two pillboxes that break up these stones, leftovers and reminders of the battles that took place on this very spot. I liked the fact that they had left these in place, it a poignant reminder of the reality of war that took place here. The head stones themselves are also testament to this, and the amount is shocking. War is such a waste of life, and that’s the feeling I carried around with me throughout these cemetery visits.
We came across a headstone of a VC medal recipient, and wondered what they had done for the honour. As well as this was the numerous ‘A soldier of the Great War’, nameless graves for the fallen. At the rear of the cemetery was another wall inscribed with names of fallen soldiers. It was clear to see the difference in lives lost between the infantry regiments compared to the support regiments.
Following this visit we went to the Langemark German cemetery, a complete opposite to the fresh white headstones of the Commonwealth cemetery. The centre of this cemetery is home to a mass grave of some 35,000 soldiers. Around this are some of the names, listed on black. There is a decidedly ominous feel to the cemetery, as each head stone is black and laid flat, each carrying multiple names. Again there are a few pillboxes left in tact, showing this to be another site of fighting during the war.
I understand that this is the cemetery of the enemy, but I still find it a shame how ghastly it looked in comparison to the commonwealth. Yes the deed done is horrific, starting a war that cost millions of lives, however I know that most of the dead would have just been normal people, mostly the young and students in this case, and under normal circumstances could have been friends with their opposite number. In death, with the tone and layout of the cemetery they are still painted with a broad brush of being evil.
This was the last place we visited, with this trip and the World War One history we encountered in the Dolomites, it’s been great to do some battlefield tourism. I used to read and watch anything war related, I couldn’t get enough. Over time this has dissipated, although the interest is still keen and I hope I can visit sites in France on a future trip. Maybe a chance to visit some of the World War Two sites?
Well as I have been saying, this is the last entry on the blog as far as my big year trip around Europe is concerned. We have just over a month in the UK to visit family and friends, and after this we will be moving to Croatia where I will be working as a dive guide! So the blog will go on, although it will be more water based for a while, so might make a nice change.