Belguim and France World War 1 Battlefields Tour

We began our journey with a drive across three countries, starting in the rolling hills of Buckinghamshire we travelled on through Kent and onto the Eurotunnel at Ashford with very little in the way of disruption.

Being on the Eurotunnel was a strange experience, like being in a car on a plane in a tunnel and in just 35 minutes you arrive in another country.

After a reasonably short drive through a largely agricultural/ industrial area of France you end up at the Belgium border. Belgium was a nice, quiet agricultural country from what I saw of it.

The houses seemed to be mostly detached chalet bungalows, with no two alike, all had immaculately tended gardens and their own individual style.

Due to the World Cup quite a few houses had Belgium flags on display and we saw flags on car wing mirrors and in shop fronts. The chocolatiers had all created World Cup related figurines and the supermarkets had the Belgium team photo on their checkouts.

Our hotel in Ypres (Ieper) was very reminiscent of ‘Allo ‘Allo and it wasn’t a surprise to see a plaque on the wall remembering how the hotel protected members of the resistance during the second world war, it just had that vibe about it.

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I had an un-renovated room but I’m so glad I picked that one. It overlooked the In Flanders Fields Musuem which on the outside had a cathedral look to it. Ypres is a quiet town, the hotel shut its doors at 8pm and everything was closed in the town by midnight, so don’t expect to be partying.

After checking into the hotel we went to The Passchendaele Experience. An interactive musuem with recreated bunkers, uniforms, munitions and information of the battles in the area.

There were various parts you could interact with from smelling toxic gas and a 100-year-old tin of meat to trying on a ‘Tommy’ helmet and cloak or a German helmet and armour-plate.

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I have to say the gas was bad but nothing compared to the meat, beware of signs telling you to smell strange boxes!

The ‘Tommy’ helmet was heavy and the cloak was warm but it was nothing compared to the weight of the German helmet and the uncomfortable feeling of having an armour-plate on your chest.

I could feel the restriction in my breathing and needed help getting it on and off my shoulders due to the weight, it didn’t even cover my vital organs. I can’t imagine what it was like to try to run in it with a 30lbs pack on my back and a gun in my hand being shot at, I could barely manage standing for an awkward photo!

It’s good to have interactive parts in a museum, it gives you a better understanding than just reading endless notes on walls and staring at map after map. Reading about how heavy the kit is tells you nothing, trying to pick it up and struggling tells you everything you need to know.

The museum had statues showing the uniforms of the different armies, there was a section on helmets and headwear that had been found in the area along with guns, shells and bullets. It was really comprehensive.

Then you file into the mock-up trenches, first underground of the museum and then out in the sunlight. I can’t imagine being trapped underground like that, it was bad enough in the safety of the well-built museum let alone the make shift nature of the war zone trenches.

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From there we went to Tyne Cot Cemetery, one of the largest and our first experience of the World War 1 cemeteries, I understand there are 1000 in total.

Most cemetery’s have a carved stone at the entrance inscribed ‘Their name liveth for evermore’.

 

We walked through row after row of gravestones reading the names, I think there were 11,000 graves there and the back wall was further inscribed with names that didn’t have graves. You really begin to grasp the size of the loss.

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We went back to the hotel to get ready for the ‘Last Post Memorial’ which is held daily at 8pm at the Menin Gate. We got there around 7.45pm but were at the back so we couldn’t see exactly what happened.

The whole experience was incredibly moving, standing under the inscriptions of 56,000 names of those who were lost during the Great War but whose bodies were never found to grant them a military burial.

The next morning we went into the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres (Ieper). Again this was interactive, you have a poppy bracelet to wear and on entering the museum you put in your personal details and at certain points you can scan your badge and read about someone from the war who is linked to you in some way.

The idea being someone your age, or someone who comes from your area has a story in the database and they assign 4 stories to each person. At the end you scan your bracelet and you can print or have emailed to you the stories that you were assigned.

From there we went to the Hooge Crater, which is actually 4 craters that are now filled with water. A fun park has been built behind it so now the area is filled with screams of fun from the roller-coasters, stark contrast to the screams of 100 years ago.

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The musuem was a bit of a repeat of Passchendaele but not as in-depth. There was an opportunity to see the remainder of original trenches which looked very unsafe compared to the ones we had walked through, but they are 100 years old so its understandable.

 

Opposite the museum is the Hooge Crater Cemetery, small by the size of some we saw but no less moving. At the entrance to the cemeteries you will find a metal door containing a log book of the graves and reference numbers. I sat and flicked through the book, finding the details of a man from a town 15 miles from where I live now.

Some had in-depth details of their bravery under their names, others just listed the names of their parents and their address for cross referencing. It is interesting if you get the opportunity to stop and look at a couple of the books.

From there we drove onto France. In France we saw very little in the way of visual markers for the World Cup, strange considering the French footballing legacy. A few shops had a little display or a few flags but that was about it.

I decided to join my friends on this trip quite late on due to job hunting but I’m glad I did. Its been inspirational. I’ve sat in the back of the car and watched miles and miles of fields fly past the windows. It’s made me think a lot about my life, how can you not when faced with cemetery’s on almost every road?

Life is a complicated, we don’t always get our fair share or the things we deserve. Good people suffer whilst those who cause pain and hurt often live a charmed life. I’ve learned a lot about myself lately, changing has been hard but coming on this trip now was the right thing to do.

Its made me realise you need to make the most of the opportunities you are given, you can’t wait for your life to start and you can’t relive the moments you cannot change just as you can’t hold onto the people who don’t want to be there.

Cherish people for what unique qualities they bring to your life and don’t leave things unsaid, you never know if you will get the chance to say it again.

Most importantly enjoy the small stuff and look around you, you never know what might be important in the future or what treasures you will find.

Driving along winding roads, fields either side, poppy’s interspersed with crops you feel like the road goes on forever. You stop at one memorial after another, the wind whistling through you hair and you almost hear the voices of the men who died in those fields 100 years ago.

There are seemingly endless names on tombstones, some only marked with ‘A Soldier Of The Great War’. I wonder if they are looking down on us. Day after day streams of people walk by having their own conversations and I wonder if they listen in and laugh.

The world has changed so much. Yet I feel humbled in the presence of such bravery and unimaginable suffering.

We don’t stop at every cemetery, the ones we do I don’t read every name, there are too many and I don’t have the time. I want them to know it is nothing personal, if I had the time I would stop and thank them all. I look for family names and stop to say a silent ‘hello’ to someone who shares a name in kind.

Some of the sites we visit and read about are 100 years to the day almost of the battle and it helps you connect a little bit more.

Almost every road in this area of France has a cemetery, varying in size or some marker of what went on in the now rolling green fields. I wonder what the people who live around here think about having people stop almost daily in their town just to look at the graves and memorials. Often the memorial is directly adjacent to houses and you park in front of them to gain entry.

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There is a tank memorial opposite the remains of a windmill held by the Australian troops, what seems like the only high ground for miles. The importance of the high ground vantage points is clearly evident everywhere we go as the land is mostly flat and even now there are few buildings more than two storeys high.

Every road has mile after mile of agricultural land, some contain high growing crops and it would be easy to hide from plain sight at eye level. Well while the crops are there anyway.

We have all seen the photos of the battlefields, bare mud, barbed wire, trenches and mine traps.

Every place we visit has a sign ‘Warning, persons enter at their own risk.’ They are still finding un-exploded munitions and war remnants to this day in the fields.

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At the Lochnagar Crater, the largest man-made crater in the world, there was a cross marking the spot where the remains of William Nugent were found in 1998. He was re-buried in a military cemetery in 2000.

The crater was formed on the first day of the battle of the Somme 1st July 1916 with the detonation of a huge mine under the German front line. The mine contained 60,000lbs of ammonal creating the 300 feet wide by 70 feet deep crater, 6380 men were lost that day.

Around the edge of the planks people have had commemorative name plaques added. I happened to stop beside the plaque commemorating Edith Cavell.

A nurse who was executed as a traitor during the war for treating soldiers from both sides. Her name featured in The Crimson Fields BBC1 drama earlier this year. Her plaque reads ‘I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’ I believe those were her last words, not a bad lasting legacy.

At the Thiepval Memorial and Anglo-French Cemetery a man sat on a scaffold tapping names into the walls while school children completed history projects from the memorial record books.

Thiepval is the largest of the commonwealth memorials, containing 72,000 names of the men who fell at the Somme who have no known grave.  The cemetery element is small compared to others I have seen.

The French crosses were marked with one word ‘Inconnu’ French for ‘Unknown’, and they are made from a mottled stone unlike the allied graves and their smooth sandstone.

I imagine the field lined roads to one horse towns to be quite creepy at night. I wonder about stories of ghost soldiers coming out to continue the battle night after night.

Of slain men once more walking the fields under the cover of the moonlight lost, cold, alone and longing to be back in England with their sweethearts. Unaware of the years that have passed and their love lost to time and death.

The French love of absinthe must have produced some great ghost stories over the years. I make a note to myself to try to read up on them on my return.

This part of France is so quiet, the little towns we pass through often only have one shop and one bar/ restaurant and mostly they have been closed. I’m not sure of the French opening times when it comes to shops, they didn’t make any sense to us, bakeries closed at lunchtime so there is nowhere to get a sandwich!

We finished our trip with a stopover at Amiens on the way to the port. The Cathedral is lovely, even though I am an Atheist I do love a trip to a religious place of worship, I find the architecture is often exquisite.

It’s funny how religion is supposed to help the poor and yet they spare no expense on building lavish places to worship in. How many lives could have been saved by building a less lavish place of worship?

But then we wouldn’t have such fascinating architecture, I am a particular fan of sculptures and gargoyles and the intricate craftsmanship that go into them. If you like cathedrals The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett was turned into a TV drama and they built Winchester (I think, sketchy memory) Cathedral as part of it. The book and TV show were both brilliant and interesting. But I digress.

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At this time of year the cathedral has a light show at night where the statues at the entrance are lit up in changing colours, from the pictures I saw it looks amazing, and as it is a relatively painless journey a place to visit in the future.

The part of Amiens where we parked had a lot of university buildings reminiscent of the design and layout of Oxford.

As a side note if you plan on doing the trip I would advise you to read up in advance on the museums as the content will overlap to a degree so pick the ones you choose carefully to avoid too much repetition.

The same with the cemetery’s, whilst all are moving experiences they are largely the same layout and design and unless you are looking for particular graves you are unlikely to visit all of them.

Some memorials have little or no parking and some are a trek across a field from the car park so flat comfortable shoes are a must.

It’s not easy to find shops and cafes open during the day so its best to take snacks and drinks with you as most memorials have no facilities to speak of. The little towns you drive through often have nothing open during the day so it might be a while before you find somewhere open.

 

Don’t forget to charge your camera, our trip was only 4 days but I took over 300 photos, but then I love taking photos. Helps me remember where I’ve been!

To the school children who left poems on the graves at Tyne Cot Cemetery, keep writing, some of what I read was truly moving and very beautiful.

I wanted to finish the post with an inscription from a grave stone that bared no name but touched me nonetheless. We will remember them…

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