We departed the ferry at Calais on a bright sunlit morning with a short drive to our hotel in Ypres, the central location for the five days of our Grand Tour.
The Battlefields of France and Flanders are many and varied and hold a huge number of moving and terrible stories. Covering them all in three days would be extremely difficult, in fact impossible. Even so, I felt confident that the chosen route and subjects selected would give everyone a good understanding of the four-and-a half years of hostilities and carnage that took place from August 1914 to November 1918 in The Somme, Passchendaele, Ypres and Arras.
Once at the hotel, the group dispersed to settle into the well-appointed rooms to freshen up for the evening meal. Tonight we dined privately, most of the group choosing an atmospheric restaurant in the main square of Ypres, close to the magnificent Cloth Hall, A four-course meal including the national dish of Belgium and coffee was well received by all. After the meal we all took time to explore the historic sights of the beautiful and well-lit town centre before taking the short walk back to the hotel, passing the cathedral and St George’s Memorial Church.
After a hearty breakfast, we departed on our first day, which commenced with a drive to Albert, making our way towards the site of Battle of the Somme. Our first visit was to the underground museum under the magnificent church in the town centre. We then visited Lochnagar crater, a massive crater at La Boisselle, which was the result of a mine being blown at 7.28am on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. With a depth of 90 feet and a width of 330 feet it certainly leaves a lasting impression on one’s mind.
We went back into Albert for lunch then off to the Memorial Park at Beaumont-Hamel. The park was presented to the Canadian government by the French nation in perpetuity and has now become a lasting memorial as well as being a physical example of the trenches both British and German. Here I gave a full commentary as we walked through the exact ground taken on that fatal 1st July by so many who never came back. The park is an ideal location in which to ponder the significance of the Battle of the Somme.
Thiepval Memorial could be seen from the park at Beaumont-Hamel, and we next made our way there past the Ulster Tower and across the River Ancre. The imposing memorial, along with the British and French cemeteries left a lasting impression on many that day.
We halted briefly at a number of other locations of note. We enjoyed a well-earned cup of tea at the Ulster Tower, which is an outstanding memorial to the Ulster Division. We also saw the Australian memorial at the Windmill, deeply engraved into the history of the Australian army, the Tank Corps memorial and Mucky Farm.
After a very long day, we made our way back to Ypres, our hotel and dinner.
The next day we were based in the Salient of Ypres, our first stop being Essex Farm, where the medical officer, Major John MaCrae MD tended the injured and was the author of the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. He was later promoted to Lt Col and sadly died of pneumonia in 1918 in a base hospital on the French coast. Bravely, one of the guests recited from memory the very moving words to everyone at the very place they had been written by Maj MaCrae:
From Mc Crae’s poem came the use of the poppy by the Earl Haig fund, which is prominent in the nation’s annual Remembrance in November.
On our way to Tyne Cot Military Cemetery, the largest British military cemetery in Europe, we stopped at Langemark Cemetery, here are buried thousands of Germany soldiers of the Great War. We passed the ‘Brooding Soldier’ a magnificent memorial to the Canadians who were attacked by gas, being used for the first time by the German army at Sint Juliaan.
Tyne Cot Cemetery was our next call, here over 11,000 soldiers lay at rest. No matter how many times I visit it never fails to impress. The long curved wall with the names of the 30,000 missing inscribed is a beautiful backdrop to the Cross of Sacrifice. As one looks towards the front of the cemetery, the sloping ground going into the distance it makes one realise the difficulty encountered by our troops in capturing this position. The view across the ridge lines that were fought over during the Battle for Passchendaele are easily seen from here.
Our next stop was the chateau of the Passchendaele War Museum. The Chateau was rebuilt after the war as was Zonnebeke. This museum gave everyone a better understanding of the conditions encountered and the equipment used by all sides 100 years ago.
Lunch was followed by a walk though Polygon Wood to see the bunkers and the Butts Cemetery. On the route back we pass Black Watch Corner and Hellfire Corner along the Menin Road, passing Hooge Crater, which had seen so many battles from 1914 to 1918.
We ended the afternoon with a visit to the ‘In Flanders Field Museum’ in the Cloth Hall in the main square of Ypres, here very well-presented displays use modern technology to explain the war.
Dinner that evening was early and turned out to be a group event with much talk of the day. Everyone thought that the meal was of a very high quality. Following dinner, we attended a ceremony at the Menin Gate. The last Post is played every evening at 8 o’clock, and is often witnessed by at least a thousand people. We were lucky that night as a choir from Wales sang a very moving piece and a solo piper played ‘Flowers of the Forest,’ which echoed around the high-vaulted ceiling of the memorial. All our guests found the short service very moving.
In the morning we departed for our visit to Vimy Ridge, to discover the Battle of Arras. The weather was wonderful, not a cloud in the sky, such a glorious day to see the huge towering white memorial with its beautiful statuettes, standing so high on the ridge line with the blue sky as a backdrop.
We departed en route to the Museum of the Great War at Peronne, located on the River Somme, it was most informative, well presented and holding many interesting exhibits.
After lunch, we made our way to Delville Wood, visiting the South African Memorial and huge cemetery. The South Africans were told to hold the wood for a week; they went in with more than 4,000 and came out eight days later with less than 1,000 men. The South African nation has built a memorial in the wood that tells the story of the Great War, WWII and other endeavours undertaken by the South Africans worldwide.
High Wood and the New Zealand memorial looking towards Flers was our last call.
The drive back to Ypres through the green fields with small neatly-walled British cemeteries along the ridge lines reminded everyone on the coach what had occurred here and the sacrifice of so many.
One thing I always notice when I visit is how quiet it is once the cities and towns are left behind. There are few people about and the silence is almost deafening. The scars of war are still there after 100 years. In 1919 an anonymous British Officer visited the battlefields, where he observed that nature had already camouflaged the devastation, writing:
“Yesterday I visited the battlefield of last year. The place was scarcely recognisable. Instead of wilderness torn up by shell, a perfect desolation of earth without a sign of vegetation, the ground was a garden of wildflowers and tall grasses. Nature has surely hidden the ghastly scene under a veil of many colours. I was particularly struck by a cross to an unknown British warrior, which stood like a sentinel over the vast cemetery of the fallen of last year’s battle, now hidden under dense vegetation. Most remarkable of all was the appearance of many thousands of white butterflies which fluttered round this solitary grave. You can have no conception of the strange sensation that this host of little fluttering creatures gave me. It was as though the souls of the dead soldiers had come to haunt this spot where so many fell. It was eerie to see them! And the silence. Not a sound, not even the rustling of a breeze through the grass."
The next day we made our way back to Calais. Those with me on the tour had experienced some moving moments and left with many memories of what occurred here 100 years ago.
There are many places remaining in France and Belgium where evidence of the war still exist, whether it is trenches, such as at Newfoundland Memorial Park, grown-over shell holes as at Vimy Ridge, the massive cemetery at Tyne Cot and the huge crater at Lochnagar, our group thought the Menin Gate ceremony was the most significant experience of the tour.
The five days on the battlefields present a good foundation to the history of the Great War, enabling better understanding of the events. Many have remarked that following the tour they have been able to re-read or pick up a book about the war and fully understand it much better than before.
Tony Clatworthy Battlefield Tour Guide