I have had this desire to travel to Ypres for quite a while, and no doubt it had a lot to do with my passion for history, and in particular World War I history. One of the reasons that Ypres (actually probably the only reason) is that it was the sight of a number of battles that raged near the end of the war, and also because of an iconic picture of soldiers marching along wooden boards through a skeletal forest across a muddy terrain that had been blasted to smithereens.
However, I’m not sure why Ypres and the Somme stuck in my mind so much considering that there were a multitude of battles along the Western Front, it is just that these two seem to be the most famous of them. With the battles of Ypres the goal was to attempt to break through the lines (as pretty much was the goal of every battle on the Western Front) so that the allies could attempt to capture the Belgium ports that the Axis powers were using as bases for submarines.
Anyway, before I continue, I will post a video from a Youtube Channel that deals exclusively with World War I, namely for those who are interested in finding out more (not that there is any small amount of literature on the subject). While this particular video only touches on one of the battles of Ypres, it is more of a sample of what you can expect from this channel.
As for this post, I won’t necessarily be going into too much detail on the battle itself as it really has more to do with my visit. That will no doubt be for another time (and possibly even another place, namely my other blog).
Since I had a car I decided that a hotel just outside of the city was the way to go, namely because I didn’t have to worry about attempting to navigate narrow streets in an unfamiliar place (even with the help of Google Maps). However, the problem was that it meant that in the morning we ended up driving into town, namely because the bus was unreliable and it was a little too far to walk. It was a little late when we arrived so we simply got our room (and the hotel actually felt more like a traditional motel back in Australia) and dumped our bags. Well, my brother stayed behind to play on his computer while I made my way down to the bar.
It was here that I met a gentleman from the Netherlands, which is something that is always fun to do because it means that I get to learn more about a place than I would if I were simply wandering around doing touristy things. He had decided to spend a week wandering the World War I battlefields, even though the Netherlands had remained Neutral throughout the war. However, what was interesting was learning the extent of his historical knowledge, in particular the golden age of the Dutch, as well as the fact that for quite while they had been a republic. However, after the Napoleonic Wars, the monarchy was restablished (which was a little surprising because I would have suspected that after two hundred odd years it would be impossible to find somebody with Dutch Royal lineage).
The other thing that I discovered was that the reason that the Dutch speak much better English than either the Germans or the French is because all of the American movies are in English, which means that are exposed to it to a greater degree than those elsewhere. Mind you, I found a similar thing in Belgium, particularly when I went into a cinema in Antwerp and asked the lady behind the counter, in French, whether the movie was in English, to which she bluntly (but rather politely) requested that I speak English because her French really wasn’t all that good.
Realising that leaving the car at the hotel was not an option we decided to drive into town, and fortunately found a parking spot that wasn’t located in an area where we had to return every two hours to pump more coins into the meter (not that they use meters anymore but I assume you know what I mean). So, after leaving the car (and praying that it would be there when we returned, and that I would be able to find it as well), we walked into town to be confronted by a huge arch – the Menin Gate.
The Menin Gate (to the Missing) is a memorial to all the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died during the various battles of Ypres, and the size of the gate does make you appreciate the human cost of this one part of the war. Seeing the memorial, and reading the names, has a much greater impact than simply reading figures and numbers that are outlined in the various books. Also, every night at 8:00 pm there is a ceremony, The Last Post, that is performed, and has been performed every day since the end of the war. The only time that it wasn’t performed was during the German occupation during World War II, at which time it performed at the Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surry. However, even before the town had been liberated, and while there was still fighting in the streets, the ceremony was reinstated.
There are a few videos of the ceremony that can be found on Youtube, and every so often there is a special one (though the one we saw wasn’t one of those). The following is where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police participated:
Our next stop was at one of the antique shops that you find scattered about the old battlefields to begin our tour. We ended up going into the wrong one, namely because there were two along this street. It also turned out that our tour was during the afternoon, which meant that we had the morning to spend wandering around the town. This particular antique shop had a rusted vickers machine gun in the window (most of the antiques are rusted), and one of the reasons that you find so many is that after the war much of the equipment was simply left behind. Also, the region is still, after 100 years, covered in unexploded shells, and farmers are still digging stuff up (and collectors are still going out into the fields to see if they can dig up anything interesting).
After a coffee we decided to visit the In Flanders Fields museum, which is located inside the old town hall. To say that the museum was sobering is an incredible understatement. However that doesn’t necessarily mean that the museum was bad – by no means – it was awesome. It was just also incredibly emotional. The thing about the town hall though was that it was one of the few buildings still standing after the war (though it was it a pretty terrible state) – pretty much the rest of the town had been flattened. All of the buildings that you see today were built after the war.
That wasn’t the only museum we visited here because after that experience (and I am sure to write about it later, time depending of course) I found another museum. Where as the In Flanders Fields Museum was established by the local government, this one was built in a cellar underneath a pub. The great thing about this museum was that the owner simply said that as long as I bought a beer I could go down into the museum. That definitely was an offer that I couldn’t refuse. As I mentioned, it was in the cellar – sort of. It was actually set up like an underground World War I bunker with three rooms, each of them with a different theme. Oh, I should also mention that next door was another cafe, but this had a completely different theme – cats. It sort of brightened up the day a little.
As was also the case, I wanted to check out the Cathedral, but it seemed as if this wasn’t going to happen since the doors were locked. As such, having a bit more time to kill, we wandered around the town a bit more, found a church that wasn’t closed, and also had lunch at a cafe that claimed to be really old. At this time they seemed to be setting up for a market day, though it wasn’t your typical market because the town square happened to be full of rides. However, it was time to begin to tour so we made our way back to the shop.
Through the Fields
A part of me really wanted to see some World War I trenches, however after the war ended the last thing anybody wanted to do was to leave the trenches as is – especially since it was prime farm land. However, parts of the Western Front had been presevered, either as gifts of land, or simply not being used for any other purpose. The first place we visited was Hill 61, a place where the Australians bored underneath the German lines, placed a huge amount of explosives, and detonated them. The whole story is the subject of the movie Beneath Hill 61. The hill, and the resulting crater, are still there, as well as a couple of German Bunkers. The main reason was that the land was purchased to preserve the site (though I later discovered that the Germans also built their bunkers so well that it is almost impossible to remove them).
After wandering around the crater, and checking out the bunkers, we jumped back into the van and headed across to Bayernwald. The story behind Bayernwald is that it is private property, and some time after the war some children were playing in the forest and fell down a hole. Upon rescuing them they discovered that there was a perfectly preserved series of German Trenches, bunkers and all. So, we wandered inside and had a look through the trenches. This was a bonus because the original trenches that hadn’t been buried and ploughed over, had either been destroyed by the elements or blasted apart during the war. Mind you, since the discovery, there has been some attention to trying to preserve these trenches.
Our final stop was the site of the Christmas Day soccer match. Okay, it wasn’t our final stop because we went and saw another crater, however this site is famous because it is the site where, during Christmas, when all of the commanding officers had gone home to spend time with their families, the soldiers decided that this whole war think was a load of rubbish, and that the people in the other trenches weren’t actually all that bad. So, instead of shooting at each other, they all piled out of the trenches and began to take out their frustrations on a soccer ball. Mind you, the generals were apoplectic when they returned to discover that the soldiers had decided to make up, and immediately ordered them back into the trenches on pain of court-marshal.
Back into Town
So, after the tour we returned to the hotel to freshen up, and then spent some more time wandering around town while waiting for the Last Post to begin. One of those treks involved wandering into a local bar off the beaten track, which raised some eyebrows, particularly since it is clear that we weren’t locals. However, they still served us, and afterwards we went back to the market square where the party was in full swing. It was here that we decided to grab a bite to eat (and another delicious Belgium beer).
As for the Last Post, you do need to get their early because the crowds do start trying to get a good spot around about seven. I would recommend finding a spot on the southern side because if you stand on the northern side you miss some of the action. However, instead of describing it I’ll simply post another video.
The next morning, before heading off, we paid a visit to the Yorkshire Trenches, which is hidden away in an industrial zone. Okay, they aren’t authentic, but it is another memorial, one of many that you will find scattered across the country side (and in fact as you travel through the area you can’t help but notice the huge number of grave sites). However, there was one last thing left to do – I was out in the country, and in the Northern Hemisphere, so that night I jumped into the car, headed out of town, and looked for the Big Dipper.
Further photos form Ypres can be found on Flickr.