Re-visiting some old friends on the Ypres Salient
Perhaps the only disappointing thing from ‘Cycling the Line’ was the fact that we couldn’t really spend much time looking around the places we were travelling through. This was especially true when we hit Ypres at the very end of the trip. My bike was in such a bad state I dared not do a metre more than was absolutely necessary, and as a result we missed out on a couple of areas that I wanted to visit – namely Tyne Cot cemetery and the area to the west of Ypres…Passchendaele.
So, on a business trip to Belgium this week I decided to take a day’s holiday, hire a car and re-visit some of the places we cycled to, or just missed, at the very end of our trip. I had only 1 day so decided to take in Tyne Cot cemetery, the village of Passchendaele, Polygon Wood, Sanctuary Wood, Hooge Crater, Langemark, Zonnebeke, and the Menin Road…
My first stop was the largest commonwealth cemetery in the world – Tyne Cot – with 11,908 individual graves and 34,927 names of soldiers who have no known resting place…near on 46,000 soldiers…There are many different emotions when you visit a place such as this. I was awe-struck, humbled, sad and proud all at the same time. There is a small information centre in front of the cemetery with artifacts and personal stories from soldiers that are resting in the cemetery near by. Th letters, photo’s, pieces of uniform and equipment, and medals are a stark reminder that each white stone and each name on the vast walls of the memorial represents a man; a son, husband, lover, father. And that 46,000 families were shattered when they received that telegram…‘it is with deepest regret…’ In the background while you visit the centre there is a female recorded voice reading a roll call of the officers and men that are in the cemetery. Benjamin Thomas Robins, aged 19; John Gibbs, aged 23…It is very haunting.
The cemetery itself is vast. It is a remarkable place. I walked up and down the rows of graves of men…boys I never knew, are not distant relations, but yet I found myself whispering a few words to the headstones and wondering what kind of people they were. Sitting on the steps of the cross of sacrifice (built on top of a German bunker) and looking out over the thousands of pristine white stones, I don’t mind telling you there was a tear.
Next stop was Polygon Wood, the scene of bitter hand to hand fighting. The Polygon Wood cemetery is in stark contrast to that of Tyne Cot. Tiny in numbers and the graves are not set in neat rows, but rather randomly set. This was a front line cemetery and I guess it is difficult to bury your comrades in neat and straight lines when you are being shot at and shelled! In the garden in front of the cemetery was a donkey, obviously a pet of a nearby house… I couldn’t help thinking about the common feeling of the Lions being led by Donkeys.
After a few hours visiting other cemeteries and the village of Passchendaele (including the memorial museum which is a must if you visit the area) I ended up on The Menin Road. I have strong memories of manically cycling up this iconic road, but desperately wanted to take time out to visit Hellfire Corner, Clapham Junction, Sanctuary Wood and the Hooge Crater.
The preserved trenches at the Sanctuary Wood museum are unbelievable. They are one of the few places left where you can actually get some kind of idea as to what a real trench looked like…although the thousands of visitors to the site over the years have eroded the grass and moss that originally covered the ground – it is still an eery and remarkable place, even more so as I was the only person there at the time (one advantage of visiting during the school holidays!).
So all in all a magnificent and moving day on the Ypres salient…I have taken lots of photos but am having trouble uploading some of them..I will upload them asap and link to them from here…
Photographs now uploaded to Flickr. You can see them here: