World War 1 Centenary concluded

This was THE day of days. We started with “Free Time” in Ypres but with crowds already seemingly gathering we decided to go straight to the Menin Gate. and pick out a prime position so we could be as close to the ceremony as possible. Waiting there the enormity of the occasion suddenly hit us.

Pictures were being taken everywhere you looked and there was a sense of pride and also tragedy as we stood there waiting for the parade to begin with people jostling around us trying to get into an advantageous position. There were people obviously inside the Menin Gate, they were also stood on the grass verges outside it and down the streets on both sides as well as up on top of it looking from their high vantage points down the crowded streets which had thousands of people stood behind barriers in them.

I recorded the parade as they went past us into the gate and felt a great sense of occasion and also a weight of responsibility as the troops marched past. As the service began there was a deep hush throughout the watching audience both inside and outside the gate. At the end of the service thousands of poppies poured through the roof of the gate and fell to the ground in silent tribute to the fallen men that we were there to commemorate. This brought a very big lump to my throat as I struggled to hold my emotions in check.

After the service at the Menin Gate we had some free time to have lunch after which we went back to join our coach to go on an optional excursion. This excursion took in a book fare in Passchendaele village, after this we were taken for a short photo opportunity at the Canadian memorial for the brave men who stormed, and took over, Passchendaele from the Germans.

We visited a memorial erected in memory of the welsh soldiers who served in this area and also Essex Farm cemetery where we saw a memorial to the West Yorkshire Regiment and also learnt it was somewhere around here where Canadian doctor John McCrae wrote his famous poem called In Flanders Fields. Once again we also learnt of the true horror of this war as we saw a headstone for rifleman V. J. Strudwick who died on 14th January 1916 at the tender age of 15.

We were also told of the origin of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance due to the inspiration of American lady Miss Moina Michael. We then returned to Ypres for the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate.

After some free time in Ypres we returned to the Menin Gate and brought a close to the day attending the Last Post Ceremony. Seeing the gate lit up as magnificently as it was in the evening gave it a new edge and impression on our conscience.

The Last Post Ceremony was also very humbling and emotional as was expected and also had a very international flavour with troops from Canada there and the music played by West Yorkshire Police Band, and also marching music from drums and bagpipes.

Tomorrow we return home from a very memorable, and extremely emotional and poignant trip. Life will always seem a little different due to this experience.

World War 1 Centenary continued

More vibrant poppies1

Poppies from around the world inside the Menin Gate

We started the day at Hooge Crator, it is a very intimate museum and café which has a very friendly atmosphere and appears to be very popular if the amount of people who were there is anything to go by.

The main visit of the day, and most emotional, was the visit to the Passchendaele Ridge and Tyne Cot Cemetery where literally thousands of soldiers are laid to rest. Walking up the middle of the cemetery looking from side to side are tragically many headstones saying A Soldier Of The Great War, Known Unto God.

When we arrived at Tyne Cot we were told about a cluster of 5 German pill boxes that stood there just below the crest of the Passchendaele Ridge. Australian troops took it off the Germans on 4th October 1917. This site got bigger in the 1920s as small battlefield cemeteries were closed down and the burials moved there, bodies recovered from the battlefields were also taken there.

It is the largest British Military cemetery in the world with 11,956 burials, over 70% of the graves are unidentified and at the rear of it is a memorial wall which carries the names of 34,888 missing soldiers.

After the visit to Tyne Cot we were then taken to see the war from a different viewpoint as we travelled to the German cemetery at Langemark. This cemetery is very simplistic in its design and is very Germanic in its appearance. It contains the bodies of almost 45,000 German troops with 25,000 of them in a mass grave as you enter the cemetery.

Next we visited Ypres Town Cemetery which was again very emotional particularly because soldiers graves were in an extension but there were also many military graves mixed in with civilian graves and there were several officers and just one Private from the army buried together here.

After this we visited Messines and went round another intimate little museum before travelling on to Hyde Park Corner Cemetery and its very impressive extension across the road. Whilst there the horror of the war hit home as it was here that we came across the grave of Rifleman A. E. French who died in 1916 aged just 16 years.

Following this visit we walked a short distance down the road to The Plugstreet Experience. Ploegsteert Wood (known as Plugstreet Wood to British forces) and the surrounding area was a frontline area from early in 1914 until the Allies broke out of it in September 1918, it was however one of the quietest areas on the Western Front and many young new recruits were sent here to gain experience before being sent to more dangerous areas on the frontline. The Plugstreet Experience is a brand new, and very welcoming and impressive museum which is very well worth visiting.

World War 1 Centenary

After a very long day yesterday travelling from Hull to Mouscron in Belgium we finally started going to visit the sites of this terrible “War to end all wars”! Our first port of call was Polygon Wood and the cemetery and  the memorial to the 5th Australian Division and the monument to the unknown New Zealand soldiers who fell there.

After an opportunity to walk round and take photos of both cemeteries and the memorials we got back on the coach we’re travelling in and were taken to Black Watch Corner, so named after the famous Scottish battalion The Royal Highlanders.

At Black Watch Corner we came across a recently erected memorial and, once again, we were given time for reflection and to take more photos. We also heard about the brave action of The Royal Highlanders that led to the recognition of their bravery that stands there today.

After a short time at that memorial we then moved on to Poperinghe, or Pop as it was affectionately known, and firstly we visited the cemetery there and were told the story of 2nd Lieutenant Poole  of the West Yorkshire Regiment who was a victim of a miscarriage of Military justice when they ignored medical advice and, due to his rank, had him shot for desertion as an example to his subordinates of what could happen.

Whilst there I also noticed 4 graves stood side by side of men from The Royal Army Medical Corps who all fell on 24th December 1916, upon asking our guide he explained to me that they had probably been trying to rescue an injured man from No Man’s Land and had fallen victim of a shell or a heavy attack.

From there we went to see “The Death Cell” where condemned men were kept before being executed by a firing squad in the yard outside, this place felt very strange because of the nature of it.

From Pop we were then taken to Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery and Visitor Centre. In the visitor centre you may explore the database and browse the hospital diaries. There are hundreds of pictures of the men buried there which are described in the information book as “faces behind the headstones”.

After this very emotional visit we then moved on to an even more emotional place as we visited The Menin Gate. Taking many pictures and looking at the columns of names of men who have no known grave you do feel a great deal of responsibility and weight of history and huge emotion.

After lunch we were taken to the village of Gheluvelt and the Chateau there where, on 31st October 1914, several British regiments were attempting to stop the German army breaking through their line and pushing on to Ypres. With the South Wales Borderers under intense pressure and retreating through the grounds of the chateau the only British battalion in reserve, the 2nd Worcester’s, were ordered forward to try and ‘plug’ the line. With only 350 men, outnumbered by 65 or 70 to 1, the Worcester’s made a bayonet charge and forced the Germans back, therefore, reclaiming the lost section, which then in turn, enabled the British line to fall back in good order.

After hearing about this heroic action, and seeing the memorial to the men of the South Wales Borderers and the 2nd Worcester’s we were then taken to the new In Flanders Fields Museum. There are many very impressive displays in this museum and having spent an hour there, due to time constraints, it was very widely agreed that 1 hour is nowhere near enough time to appreciate this museum as much as it clearly deserves.

After this we were taken back to the hotel in Mouscron.