Prompted by the arrival of Armistice Day in this 100th year since the start of World War 1 we visited the Flemish town of Ypres (Ieper), at the heart of commemoration of the war for many British and Commonwealth countries because of its position close to some of the bloodiest battles of that war.
This blog post has emerged in two parts. There is the tourist report of Ypres itself and one of the Commonwealth war cemeteries as part of my “Life in Belgium” series.
But this was a very moving experience and I was reflecting on why in particular this has such a different effect on us compared to other military history we see all over Europe, whether it be castles or ramparts or the Waterloo Battlefield close to where we live.
Ypres unveils itself slowly. Coming in to town it is a typical Flanders market town with its solid brick houses set into gently rolling West Flanders farm landscapes. It has the expected grand square with a gothic looking town hall and church spires.
There were many groups over from the UK and other countries but the town was not too busy on a chilly November morning.
However a visit to the “In Flanders’ Fields” museum in the town hall brings the whole scene into a sudden sharp perspective. In the museum are the photographs of the town as it was in 1918 after it was the centre of no less than five major offensives of the First War. This left it ruined and deserted by civilians. Everything we could see on the streets around us has been reconstructed since then.
Winston Churchill, then Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, suggested at the end of the war that the whole town of Ypres should be left as a permanent memorial to the dead. But in a triumph of human resilience the residents of the town started moving back to their homes and farms the first winter after the end of the war and started rebuilding which meant that Winnie’s idea had to be scaled back to a memorial and the town’s major buildings were rebuilt to match their heritage.
There were great views from the bell tower of the town hall which showed the layout of the town’s old street pattern and way out across the Flemish countryside. Old juxtaposed with new in the form of windmills out in the industrial areas.
From this high vantage point there is also a clear view of the main centre of memorial for the city, the Menin Gate. The town had historic outer walls and the gate towards the Menin Road was where many troops left the town to travel to the front. So it was chosen as the site for the main memorial after the war. From a distance it is a relatively flat, plain structure built into the restored ramparts.
On it are carved the names of nearly 55,000 men whose bodies were never found.
Then up on the ramparts there was a field of memorial poppies which had been left by visitors. Written on each was a personal message, many of them to lost relatives.
By the time we got to that point we were feeling overwhelmed and extremely subdued. For me I think it was the way the names were listed regiment and country. This means you can really see just how many men were missing from one area. For me it was the Norfolk and Suffolk regiments that I looked for but it could equally have been Surrey, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Australian states or Canadian provinces.
From Ypres we decided to head outside the town to visit the largest of the actual war graves in the area at Tyne Cot, a low hill about 10km from Ypres, close to one of the other most evocative names of the period – Passendale.
Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth war grave and is particularly significant for Australians and New Zealanders. The cemetery was originally created for a few hundred graves in an area captured by Australian and New Zealand troops in 1917. After Armistice in 1918 many other graves were consolidated there, with nearly 12,000 now on the site. Of these almost two thirds are unknown, identified only by their country and the words “Known unto God”.
As if that were not enough Tyne Cot is the memorial for the missing names that could not be incorporated in the Menin Gate memorial due to lack of space and because the New Zealand memorial is here. From the cutoff date of 15th August 2017 at Menin Gate to Armistice Day a further 34,000 men died without their bodies being found, an incredible number.
We were there in the late afternoon as the sun began to set over this most poignant of locations bringing a sharp highlight to the shapes of the graves. The spires of Ypres were just visible on the horizon.
We drifted home in quiet reflection. But in the following days I was still mulling over what we had seen. As I said at the start of the blog nobody with an interest in European history can miss the military history that surrounds us. Belgium is a really special case, the anniversaries of WW1 and the Battle of Waterloo made it one of Lonely Planet’s best in Travel 2014.
But within this setting the First World War memorials and commemorations just seem to be different. It seems that the huge loss of life in the fixed trenches with only small gains on either side somehow established the “the pointlessness of war” as a concept, especially as this war could be attributed by many to an imperial game rather than a war of liberty or values. The emergence of the War Poets and other writers who were not afraid to tell the story of the horrors tells us that values were changing.
And from these different attitudes to war came a different attitude to the dead, lost because of the failings of the leaders and the murderous nature of the new weapons of 20th Century warfare. In individual 19th century battles the numbers of dead were enormous – 65,000 killed in one day at Waterloo alone. But after WW1 we put up war memorials in every town naming the men who died individually and at Ypres there are no statues of generals, the memorials carry the names of every man, there is a grave for every un-named soldier. And like the war memorials at home they have a location through their regiments which in those days were locally based.
I didn’t have any relatives that I know of in the First World War dead, our histories haven’t turned up the family stories that we saw on the poppies in Ypres. So which entries at the Menin Gate left me blinking back tears?
The Army Cyclist Corps, the London Cycling Battalion. Two of the smallest entries on the memorial. There were cycling regiments in various forms in most of the armies with the British having 14 regiments by the start of the war. They didn’t see much service at the front because they were valued as couriers and support troops, but clearly they were close enough for many to be killed and lost around Ypres. Belgian cycling troops were represented in the photographs in the Museum.
Of course it’s personal because they were identified as cyclists. But it goes deeper than that. I know the role that the Cyclists’ Touring Club played in recruitment of these soldiers throughout the war, encouraging active cyclists “to do their duty”. One of my private hobbies while I was CEO of CTC was to wander to our archives and seek out historical references in our 130 year old library of CTC magazines and I have read many of those articles that were actually written by my predecessors. Whenever I could I went to the annual service at the Cyclists’ War Memorial at Meriden, a very special place in the history of cyclists at war. When it was unveiled in 1921 over 20,000 cyclists came to the service.
But having been exposed to that history I just could not walk away from those memorials at Ypres without thinking “what would I have done?” As someone who recoils from modern warfare I feel deeply uncomfortable about militarism and wars as a symbol of nationalism. It is challenging enough to wonder whether I would have fought at that time in that culture. But to have played a role in sending people from our club into the war is unimaginable. It hit me with force that day in Ypres as I saw the names of those missing men and it still plays on my mind as I write this.
The battlefields and memorials of Flanders are an interesting and thought provoking visit. I am sure we will return, as will the questions.
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