VISITING THE GRAVES OF UNKNOWN SOLDIERS
Did you have a good trip," I was asked. I wasn't quite sure how to answer because the word "good" just didn't seem appropriate.
"It was an edifying experience," I replied because my trip to Flanders was more of a homage than a holiday.
I spent three days visiting the battlefields, museums and cemeteries which punctuate these Belgian flatlands near the border with France and the epicentre of a four-year war in which millions of men lost their lives.
The most telling part of my trip was to Tyne Cot Cemetery which stands in the middle of a battlefield that was reduced to a sea of mud and where 500,000 soldiers from both sides were killed or lost in the Third Battle of Ypres.
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The cemetery, immaculately tended, contains the remains of nearly 12,000 soldiers, almost entirely from the British Empire, and nearly three-quarters of them unknown. The gravestones simply read: "A soldier of the Great War".
Standing in the cemetery, you can look out at the patchwork of Belgian fields which slope towards Ypres, nearly five miles away. On a clear day, it's quite easy to make out the spire of St Martin's Church and the top of The Cloth Hall in the market square.
Behind me, on a ridge in the distance, the church at Passchendaele can be clearly seen. On October 4, 1917, the soldiers from the British Empire were told to break out from their front line and take the ridge at Passchendaele. General Haig believed the objective could be taken within 48 hours but a month later, the soldiers had still not taken the ridge and thousands of men had already been lost.
Eventually, the ridge was taken but the Germans pushed back the Allied soldiers to almost where they started from.
To stand on the very ground where men lost their lives in the most horrific and indescribable circumstances was an emotional experience. We spoke in whispers as a mark of respect. I now read John McCrae's poem, In Flanders Fields with reverence. I inwardly salute Wilfred Owen's poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est.
We stayed in Ypres, a classy market town which was reduced to rubble during the war due to constant shelling by German artillery.
Since then, the town has been rebuilt exactly the way it was before it was razed to the ground. Even the magnificent Cloth Hall in the main market square has been faithfully reconstructed and has now been turned into an interactive museum which gives you an insight into what happened and why. There are even clever holograms of soldiers' personal histories to bring their experiences alive.
A short walk from the Cloth Hall is the famous Menin Gate, an imposing monument which was built after the war to honour the dead from the British Empire. It contains the names of 55,000 soldiers carved in the stonework of those who have no known grave. Each night at 8pm, including Christmas Day and New Year's Day, The Last Post is played as a mark of respect.
In nearby Poperinge, a small town which was about eight miles behind the front line, we visited Talbot House, a Georgian home which was taken over by the Allies as a place of rest while the soldiers were on leave.
It was run by a larger-than-life Australian-born vicar called Tubby Clayton who provided a refuge for the men before returning to the front. There is a garden, reading room, and even a small theatre. When it was decided to have a small chapel, it was suggested to put it in a crypt underground to protect it from being shelled. But Tubby was having none of that – he deliberately put it in the attic of the house where it can still be visited today.
Another cemetery visited was at Lijssenthoek which was originally next to a casualty clearing station so the names of the dead are recorded on each gravestone. Most of the men are under 25, many of them only 17 or 18 years old.
Another museum which is highly recommended is at Passchendaele where you can walk through a reconstructed trench and even smell the chlorine or mustard gas which was used for the first time at Ypres in 1915.
The best way to visit Flanders is by coach because there is no airport or main railway station nearby. After crossing on a ferry from Dover to Calais, the journey time is only about 80 minutes.
There are many packages available from coach operators in the Bristol area. Visit the website, www.findacoachholiday.com to find out more details. If you want to find out more about Flanders and places to visit, then visit the website, www.visitflanders.co.uk.