A Trip to Ypres
In October, 2004 I found myself on a business trip to Europe, and ended up in Brussels on a Thursday evening with a free day on Friday. So Friday morning I decided to be adventurous and headed out to Iepres, or Ypres as it was known during the war years. In the First World War Ypres, “Wipers” to the troops, was heavily defended by the allied troops. It had little strategic value, but it did protect part of the channel coast. It had more emotional importance because it represented the only part of Belgium that was not occupied by the Germans. There was very heavy fighting in the area around Ypres, the Salient, with the Germans on three sides, controlling the high ground. There were millions of casualties in the four major battles that took place in this area in the 5 years of the war. Two battles are significant to Canadians. The 2nd battle of Ypres in April 1915 which was the first real test of Canadian troops. This was where the Germans used poison gas (chlorine) for the first time on the Western Front against the French and Canadians. Approximately 2,000 Canadians were killed, 2,500 wounded and 1,500 taken prisoner (including Billy Brooke, a Huntingdon native). The 3rd battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, had even higher casualities in 1917.
Over the course of the war, the city was completely destroyed by German bombardments, but was occupied by the Germans for only 1 day1. The cost, in terms of lives, to protect the city was tremendous, and the British consider this to be sacred territory. The residents were evacuated in 1915 and until 1918 the city was populated only by Commonwealth troops. There are dozens of cemeteries in the area and after the war Winston Churchill tried to buy the city to make it into a “Zone of Silence”: a memorial to the Commonwealth troops. This didn’t happen, and the city was rebuilt. The British did build a memorial in Ypres, on the site of the old Menin Gate. It is a memorial to the Commonwealth troops who died on the Ypres Salient between 1914 and 1917 and had no known grave.
I had no plan, other than I figured I could get there by train, so I headed out from Brussels early on the Friday morning. I had one connection to make, and unfortunately my initial train was a bit late leaving the station. The train took us through downtown Brussels, which is a curious mix of century old architecture mixed in with glass and steel towers. Because we were late leaving Brussels, I missed my connection for the Iepers train in the little village of Denderleewg. There are two nice things about taking the train over airplanes. The first is that if you miss the train, another will follow an hour later. The second is that if you have an hour to kill you don’t have to stay at the station, so I headed onto Denderleewg, a nice little town. The church, which is supposed to be quite beautiful, was just a bit too far to walk to, so I wandered in the downtown area. The streets are all brick, the houses small and they all have multi-hued slate roofs. Everything is spotless. It was cold and damp, and I only had a light jacket, so I stopped into a bakery and had coffee and pastries. The pastries are pretty impressive, I’m sure that every bite I took had enough calories to tide a family of five over for a week. I rationalized it by saying that I don’t put sugar in my coffee! I can’t think of anyplace I’ve ever been where such decadence is so common. I have no idea how people in Belgium keep so thin. Every second shop is either a chocolate shop or a bakery. They were all decked out in Halloween decorations, which I thought was strange, since I tend to think of Halloween as more of a North American custom. I wandered back to the station and caught the train to Ypres. I got a good view of the Belgium countryside. Many small farms grow corn, which is locally called maize. Lots of cows, some sheep and almost every farm had geese in the yard. A lot of horses, some big Belgium’s, but a lot of smaller breeds as well. There are a lot of willow trees, many more than I am used to seeingl.
At Ypres it wasn’t hard to find my way to the center of town. The spires from two of the most famous buildings in Ypres, the Cathederal and the Cloth Hall, stand above all else and make great landmarks. These are buildings that date from the 12th century, were completely destroyed in the first war, and then rebuilt in their original image. Both are very impressive buildings. I wandered through town, going through St. Georges Church, built by British soldiers as a memorial to their comrades, and then walked around the Cloth Hall. The Cloth Hall was rebuilt with mostly new material, since the existing remains were mostly rubble.
(Clicking on the pictures below will bring up a larger version. Thanks to Chris Wight for enhancing some of the larger images).
Ypres is an ancient walled city, and the gate is the main east/west entry into the city through the walls. The memorial is a covered archway with a bridge over the moat that surrounds the city. Inside, and on the stairwells on either side, there are panels for the names of the 56,000 soldiers, approximately 6,983 Canadians, without known graves. It took me quite a while, but I found the 4 names I was looking for, 2 from Huntingdon, Quebec (John Moneypenney, Peter McNaughton), 1 from Ormstown, Quebec (John Orr) and 1 from Ottawa (Arthur Plet, uncle of my brother-in-law). The enormity of the structure and the lists of names that seem to go on forever are quite imposing. Even the Belgium children that run or cycle through the gate on their way home from school become quiet until they have left the memorial. When the memorial was inaugurated in 1926 the Brigadier who gave the opening speech addressed those that had no grave to mourn and said “he is not missing, he is here”. After a few minutes at the memorial it is easy to understand how right he was.
I did take pictures of almost all of the panels with Canadian names, so if anyone is interested they can contact me and I will do my best to find the appropriate photo
I had originally intended to go to the Menin gate, and then out to one of the cemeteries in the area, but a place I stopped in convinced me to take one of the tours. In the end it was the right thing to do, I saw a lot more than I would have otherwise.
The first stop on the tour was a place called Essex Farm Cemetery, about 8 km outside of Ypres. In 1915, during the 2nd battle of Ypres, this was a forward aid medical station. The cemetery, like many at the time, was started as a place to bury soldiers that did not survive the care at the station. The site sits on the bank of the Ypres canal, and they have restored the surgery and aid stations that were built into the side of the canal to protect them from artillery. These are small, cramped and dark. I can’t see how the doctors could have effectively worked in those conditions. The cemetery has two main points of interests. A young lad named Strudwick is buried there. He was 15 years old and one of the youngest identified casualty of the war. The cemetery has changed a lot since 1915, and the crosses they used in 1915 have been replaced by the white Portland stone monuments, the poppies that grew wild are replaced by roses. There is a small rise outside the surgery where a Canadian doctor sat on the back of an ambulance and wrote “In Flanders Fields” in memory of a friend that had just died and been buried. There are 1,200 graves here, 9 of which are Canadian soldiers. Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, the friend of John McCrea, is buried here, but the position of his grave was lost. Helmer is commerated on the Menin Gate.
We headed from there to Tyne Cott cemetery, which is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world. There are 11,871 soldiers buried here, 70% of which are unidentified bodies. The cemetery also has a wall of names of those that died in the Ypres Salient after 1917 that have no known grave, an extension of Menin Gate. The cemetery is immense, but I finally found the grave of Arthur Cairns, a Huntingdon man who died in the mud of Passchendaele in 1917. He is one of 966 Canadians buried in Tyne Cott, one of the 414 identified by name.
From Tyne Cott we went to the Canadian Memorial for Mount Sorrel, which interestingly is nowhere near Mount Sorrel. The memorial is not that impressive, but the view of Ypres from there certainly is.
Our last stop was at a small private museum at Hill 62, in what was Sanctuary Woods during the war. The owner returned to Belgium following the war and regained his land. Although there is a lot of controversy over when the trenches were built, the stated position is that he kept the trenches intact and amassed an incredible collection of artifacts. They are not cataloged, or identified, and are kept in piles, some exposed to weather. He has an incredible collection of photographs, many of which have ever been printed in books, and some of which are quite grisly. It is possible to walk through the trenches and see the conditions that soldiers had to live though then. He has also preserved shell holes so you can see the damage that the German artillery would inflict, and better understand why so many bodies could not be identified.
Throughout the tours of the battlefields and cemeteries there was the sober realization that this was indeed a sacred place; the blood of many young men of all nationalities was intermixed with, a part of, the soil I had trod over.
When we got back to Ypres, I picked up a few things for my wife (\Belgium chocolate, so I would be in the good books for a few days) and wandered the town. I had dinner at a small outdoor café. It was still quite cold, but they had heaters in the outside area. Sitting outside is a matter of self-preservation. There are no non-smoking areas in restaurants in Belgium, and everyone seems to smoke. So I sat outside. I had a wonderful meal, with some coffee and a waffle for desert. Then I went back to the Menin Gate for the Last Post ceremony.
The Last Post is performed every night at 8:00. It is played by members of the Ypres Volunteer Fire Dept. and is done in remembrance of the Commonwealth troops that lost their lives defending Ypres from 1914-1918. It has been performed nightly since 1928, with the exception of the years that it was occupied by the Germans during the second war2. The crowd started to form around 7:15 and by 7:30 there were several hundred people waiting. At 7:55 the police blocked off traffic on either side of the bridge, symbolizing a “stop of progress” to remind us of the past. At 8:00 four trumpeters and a piper marched to the center of the eastern arch. The trumpeters played a "Call to Attention". An official then came out and explained that this is a Remembrance Service and he would appreciate quiet. The Trumpeters then played the “Last Post”. A girl then came out and read the fourth stanza from Laurence Binyon's poem, "For the Fallen":
“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old
This was followed by a moment of silence. The piper then played a lament. Three groups of schoolchildren placed wreaths of flowers down by the walls in one of the alcoves. The Trumpeters finished off with the British version of Reveille, symbolizing a new beginning and the ceremony was over. It was really quiet poignant, and I’m glad that I stayed to see it. There were quite a few of the schoolchildren in tears at the end, so there is hope that a day spent with the ghosts of war is not lost on them.
From there it was a dash back to the station for the last train back to Brussels, a few hours of sleep and to the airport for the trip home.
You can see some of the other photos (without explainatory captions) from the links below:
If anyone would like higher resolution photos, or some of the unpublished ones such as the individual panels on the Menin Gate, please let me know.
Anyone interested in more information on Ypres and the Menin Gate would be advised to pick up a copy of "Menin Gate and the Last Post" by Dominiek Dendooven (ISBN 90-5508-051-9).
1: October 13, 1914. The city was retaken by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) the following day,
2: From May 20, 1940, shortly before the city fell, until 6 September 1944 when Allied troops retook Ypres..
3: Written in September, 1914, this stanza is inscribed on many war monuments worldwide.