Up
Days  1 - 2
Days  3 - 5
Days  6 - 8
Days   9 - 11
Days 12-13

 

 

 

 

Days 9 - 11:

With our guide Tom Morgan, whom we found through his website Hellfire Corner, we traveled from Dover to Calais - to Ypres, Belgium - to Vimy, France and back through Calais and Dover.  Tom's knowledge and easy nature provided insight to both of us even though we were at different levels of knowledge on the World War One battles of Ypres (1914, 1915 & 1917) and Vimy Ridge (1917).  This was not as much a military history journey as one of remembrance, understanding and impact.  Lauren's background in finding Indian Artifacts as a girl came in handy as she was the one who found some relics at Vimy Ridge.

With Tom Morgan, we left England from Dover.  The cliffs at Dover were, perhaps, the most impressive sight encountered during the entire vacation.  The Castle was started by the Normans around a Roman Lighthouse, still visible in the center of the enclosure.

Our first stop was Poperinghe - both an embarking point for the front and  a rest and relaxation town for the troops on rotation from the front.  Talbot House was founded by a British padre to provide a place where all ranks could relax and leave the war behind.  The gardens are as they were between 1914 and 1917.

Ypres (pronounced Eper) was a major focal point for the British (meaning the Empire - Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia)  forces during WWI.  There were major campaigns in this 15 mile long front in 1914, 1915 and 1917.  The battles were to keep the Germans from gaining the city and from flanking the extreme left of the Allied line.  The city was kept from the Germans but totally destroyed by the war - there were no buildings left.  About a third of all British casualties were suffered here.  Over 350,000 British Empire soldiers died in this strip of Belgium (of whom almost 150,000 were never found) and perhaps an equal number of Germans.  It is almost featureless - what are called ridges are slow rises in the landscape - all the vegetation was destroyed creating a sea of mud - trenches, mines, poison gas, machine guns - all the horrors of modern war.  It was also a place where unmatched feats of personal and group heroism were displayed.  It is a testament to what humans can bear and achieve.  If there is a cauldron of  what "western man" is -  in one place - that place is Ypres.

Ypres was totally restored, brick by brick in the 1920s from original plans and drawings.  In itself it is a monument to the will to return and rebuild - as well as the value of the German reparations actually paid Belgium. It is the only place you can visit a 14th - 17th Century city that is only 75 years old!

The most impressive Commonwealth War Cemetery (of the over 100 near Ypres) is Tyne Cot.  It lies on the site of three German "pill boxes" taken by the Australians after several weeks of fighting over a little more than a thousand meters. The main cross of sacrifice is built on the command bunker, the other two are still there among the graves.  Along the wall surrounding the back and sides are names of over 26,000 Australians who are still missing.  Australia asked the Commonwealth War Graves Commission not to split up their names among different monuments so a suitable one had to be found.  This cemetery, marking the Australian victory was considered appropriate.  The grave of the hero of Tyne Cot is shown on the right - he successfully captured two of the pill boxes, but was killed just before capturing the third (15 feet from the entrance) - his mates completed the task.

Ypres holds a special ceremony each night.  After the British built the Menin Gate, upon which the names of the 54,000 British missing are inscribed, in the 1920s the Belgians herd the bugler blow "Last Post.."  So enraptured by the tune, the setting and the gesture, the Fire Department has done this each night since.  The Nazi occupation forbade this practice during WWII, but upon the DAY the Germans left, the Belgians again played their thanks to the British soldiers who died saving their city.  To hear a recording of the Belgians playing Last Post under the Menin Gate take this link.

We spent two nights as guest of Charlotte and Dirk Cardoen-Descamps who run Varlet Farm Bed & Breakfast.  Their home and working farm is on an important part of the 1917 battlefield.  20 meters east from their house was the original farmhouse which was fortified by the Germans and successfully taken by the Naval Division during Passchendaele.  Besides a delightful breakfast, Charlotte gave us a tour of the relics her family finds as it works the farm.

   

The attack avenue for the New Zealanders during Broodseinde in 1917 hardly slopes and it cost thousands of lives to take.  The Canadian memorial at St. Juliaan marks where the Canadians stopped the German attack after the first use of poison gas in 1915.

 

John McCrae, from Canada, wrote the famous poem "Flanders Fields" here.  He worked as a doctor in 1915 in these bunkers which were just 50 meters behind the canal along which the trenches ran.  For more on John McCrae follow this link

Inside Hill 60 are both German and British Miners.  They would burrow under the trenches and then blow up parts of the enemy lines.  The pond below is the result of one such attack.  The only defense was to counter-mine which meant fighting was taking place below the ground as well as on top.

Much was summed up for me at Hooge.  The Cemetery is laid on the avenue of attack for a British counter attack during the 1915 battles.  The objective was a house on a small rise.  The stones tell the story.

The German Pillboxes still stand today as does one section of Canadian Trench.  The bunkers are cow barns today and the trenches, though actual, have filled in through neglect by the current owner. (During the war, the metal sheeting - which is British and of the time period - would have been wood)

Sunday, as we traveled to Vimy, we passed the "Hyde Park" area of the British lines.  This is where the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 broke out.  Today there is a small cemetery and a monument for those in this sector who are still missing. (and yes, I was jealous over the hordes of bicyclists all over the Belgian and French roads.)

Vimy Ridge was a battle in 1917 where a wholly Canadian Corps captured an important part of the German line in France.  It was the first time Canadians had been entirely responsible for an entire operation.  It was a major victory.  Today, it is part of Canada, the French people having given that land to them in remembrance of  Canadian sacrifice for French freedom.  The park is staffed by Canadians who compete for the positions.  One figure overlooks the German side of the ridge complete with slag heaps from French coal mines the Germans had controlled for 3 years.  This is why the attack was necessary and the victory important.

   

The battlefield is divided into two parts.  One part is undisturbed from the battle - i.e. it has all sorts of undetonated shells, mines and grenades.  The grass is controlled by sheep which, if they nibble on anything volatile,  merely become lamb-chops.  (silly French!)

The second is a restored section of the actual trench line.   The pictures are from the German Observation Trenches looking 25 meters over to the Canadian Observation Trench line.    Although the wire was close to the walkway, if you looked at the gopher mounds (they also became gopher-bits occasionally) you might find some relics.  Lauren found a British shrapnel ball that way.

   

Going back to Dover, we stopped to visit Calais for a cup of coffee.

 

 

 

   

 ©2002-7  A.G. Hollinger  All rights reserved.