Monday, 28 April 2014

Ypres - Part Five

Final day of the holiday and it was off to Poperinge. Here’s the large, cobbled town square.

This town became an army ‘hub’ for the Ypres salient with all of the men and supplies taking the road east to Ypres. Hundreds of thousands of men passed through here but around a quarter would not make the return journey. Although within range of the larger German guns Poperinge was a relief for many men offering as it did a chance to get clean, enjoy a meal and maybe enjoy "more" besides!

However, Poperinge of 1914-18 had a darker side too. It was here that soldiers awaiting the firing squad were held. The ‘death cells’ can be visited and include an some rather moving information about a few of the poor souls that spent their last night there. The walls of one of the cells still show some of the graffiti left by those awaiting execution. In the adjacent courtyard is a post against which soldiers were stood.

It was all rather chilling and to be honest I was glad to be back out in the sunshine!

Next on the agenda was Talbot House.

This astonishing place was opened in 1915 by Army Chaplain Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton with the aim of a being a home from home for all ranks; an “Everyman’s Club” as they described it. It was a place where rank was set aside and men could simply be friends, drink tea (it was a ‘dry’ house), sing, relax in the garden away from the front line. Tubby also held church services in the loft which was converted in to a chapel. The ‘guide’ was very welcoming and even offers cups of tea to visitors!

The first part of the tour is very much like a traditional museum with plenty of very interesting information about the lives of the soldiers who visited the house, extracts from diaries and letters, etc. Some of this is even quite amusing at times! Note – visitors can make use of an iPad which senses your location and gives you a guided tour.

Some of the extracts from the ‘Wipers Times’ really made me chuckle

Here’s Tubby’s room much as it would have looked at the time.

The original piano!!

The garden.

Toc H as it was also known (‘Toc’ being the Great War era radio sign for the letter ‘T’) must have been a lifeline for many soldiers in an age when psychiatric health was poorly understood and usually ignored. Talbot House is definitely well worth a visit.

After a spot lunch the warm sunshine bathing the town square we headed to the Hop Museum. As you may know Belgium is rightly famous for its high quality beers so the growing of hops is regarded with some importance. Here’s the display of a wide range of beers from across Belgium.

Now, to be honest, the museum is packed with more information about hop farming than you can possibly take in, and it was actually rather … er … boring! Best avoided. There wasn’t even any beer you could have a taste of!!

Next went headed out to Lijssenthoek, site of a very large army hospital, or Casualty Clearing Station. The hospital became a centre of expertise in the gruesome business of patching up broken bodies, pioneering new medical techniques. During the war it treated approx. 300,000 soldiers but around 3% did not survive and were buried in the adjacent cemetery; that’s more than 10,700 burials.

It has a new visitors centre which is well worth seeing as it gives some details of how the site developed, what went on from a medical point of view, how casualties were managed, etc.

It also has a ‘timeline’ display that shows how many soldiers it treated throughout the war. Naturally the peaks are associated with major actions in the Ypres sector.

One of the displays gave details of some of the soldiers who had died on that particular day of the year. We visited on the 17th April. Printing out the details showed the following.

So we decided to find this chap’s grave.

Finally, the last post at the Menin Gate. It’s always very crowded so get there early.

That’s for my series of posts on Ypres. I hope you found them interesting.

Lest we forget.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Ypres - Part Four

The penultimate Ypres post - honest!? Another day, another Great War tour! First stop was Kemmel, a very picturesque little village and from its tourist info office you can get tickets for the Bayernwald German Trenches.

The very helpful lady in the office also suggested that we view the 20 minute video (in a cinema room upstairs) which explained some of the Great War history of the area and described the underground warfare that was taking place in the sector south of Ypres.

It was warm sunshine so a coffee at a nearby café was required before we set off for Bayernwald. The site was the property of a Belgian family who, after discovering German counter-mine shafts, uncovered and preserved the adjoining trenches and block houses. This was taken over in the late 90’s by the local authority and substantially restored. Like many German positions the site offers a commanding view of the surrounding countryside.

There are also some useful panoramic picture boards. Ypres can be seen on the horizon just above the ‘bolt’ on the top-right.

Next we headed to Ploegsteert - or ‘Plugstreet’ as the BEF knew it - for lunch and a well-earned glass of Passchendaele beer at one of the local estaminets. New to the site (adjacent to the memorial and cemetery) is the Plugstreet Experience 14-18. This is definitely worth a visit! But do check opening times.

This centre offers a series of films, multimedia displays and interactive information panels that give a very good description of how the war started and the key events throughout the war. It also gives more detail on what happened in the sector south of Ypres using a time-lapse 3D map showing the movement of the front lines during the war. The interactive touch-sensitive TV screens allow the visitor to navigate through a rich vein of mainly pictorial information about all aspects of the war. Plus it’s only 5 Euros!

Next we made a brief stop at the site of the 1914 football match, the info plaque includes a copy of a drawing made by Bruce Bairnsfather. It’s now a rather unassuming corn field but I believe there are plans to hold a commemorative re-match in December 2014.

A little further along the road is a cottage built on the site of a dugout – it was here that Bruce Bairnsfather drew his first ‘fragment’ cartoon and created the character of ‘Old Bill’.

Then we headed toward Mesen (formerly Messines) which stands upon a significant ridge – although this is difficult to see in the pictures.

Outside the church (where a young officer by the name of Adolf Hitler was treated for wounds!) is an outline of New Zealand. This a tribute from the inhabitants to the NZ forces that captured the village in 1917.

Adjacent to the map is a monument to NZ Rifleman Samuel Frickleton VC, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry during the battle.

Rounded the day off with a visit to the NZ Memorial which commemorates the achievements of the NZ division in capturing the ridge and the village as part of the attack on the 7 June 1917.

On this memorial I find the line "from the uttermost ends of the earth" particularly poignant.

I tried out the panorama function on my new phone so hopefully you can get some idea of the hill up which the Kiwis had to attack, plus how clear the view might have been for the German defenders of Messines.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Ypres - Part Three

A lot of places can be closed on a Monday (do check in advance!) so we decided to have quiet day in Ypres, enjoy it’s relaxed atmosphere and perhaps do a bit of shopping. We wandered along ramparts again and visited the Lille Gate and Ramparts War Museum.

Entrance via the ‘pub’. It’s set in mocked up ‘trenches’ with numerous display cases and notes in a variety of languages. Sorry about the dark pics – I wasn’t sure if flash photography was allowed so switched it off.

Not amazing but with an entrance fee of only 3 Euros, it’s worth a look if you have a spare half hour. Looks to be a friendly pub/bar too.

Then we strolled on in to town for a spot of lunch followed by some tourist shopping. My word but they do have some splendid chocolatier in Ypres!

The Cloth Hall belfry

The main square

Next day we went out and about; first to Polygon Wood Cemetery.

As always, meticulously cared for. Then across the road to Buttes New British Cemetery – which in fact contains a variety of British & Commonwealth graves.

The long man-made ‘hill’ used to be the Belgian Army’s rifle range. After it was captured by the Germans they fortified it significantly. As you can see in the picture below, it must have been a well known feature of the area.

Here’s a picture from the top of the Butte.

Here’s another taken from just beside the memorial to fallen NZ soldiers with no known grave.

Then we took a walk through part of the woods, it’s almost impossible to imagine it as the scene of so much hard-fought conflict.

Next we stopped at the Hooge Crater museum

This is very good (especially at only 4.50 euros entrance fee) plus it has a pleasant café! Note – coach tours like it as a stop too, so it can be busy. It has a variety of displays, some of which are literally packed with artefacts and information. Would be quite cramped on a busy day.

Then we crossed the road to the large Hooge Crater Cemetery (almost 6,000 graves).

An unusual sight here – we saw several engravers hard at work – not sure if they were repairing/replacing (as some of the headstones were clearly showing signs of erosion) or adding new details; skilled work indeed!

Next we walked about 100m along road to the open air crater ‘museum’. Lots of rusty junk amongst the trees but you can walk around the remains of what are actually four craters, detonated under German positions, with some damaged pillboxes and a few short sections of trench. Only 1 euro (via an honesty box) so worth a quick look.

In the afternoon we headed along to Sanctuary Wood cemetery.

Then on to the nearby Museum & café. We visited this about 17 years ago and seemed to recall that it was quite good. However it now seems a bit ‘tatty’ (i.e. shabby and dated). The museum contains a lot of what appears to be little more than ‘junk’ (including some that are clearly from the second world war!?) but has little or no associated information. At 10 euros each it’s expensive too and the coffee is awful. Outside there are some ‘re-created’ trenches – although they are really rather shallow with modern corrugated iron to shore up the sides.

To be honest there are much better sites elsewhere.

Further along the road is the Hill 62 memorial (Canadian). This was named as it was … 62m above sea level! It affords stunning views over the surrounding countryside – clearly why it was such an important feature in the Ypres sector.

Ypres (approx. 5 to 6 km away) is clearly visible from the summit.

We rounded off the day with a visit to the Hill 60 Memorial to the Australians – particularly their tunnelling companies.

This was originally a low rise that effectively became a hill after a railway cutting was made close by. It was another key position on the front line that was the scene of much fighting. As the tunnels beneath are effectively graves, the area has been preserved; the ground exhibiting the characteristic cratered appearance.

There are also the remains of ruined German pill boxes.