A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world.’ Sir Winston Churchill
If you live in the south of England it is possible to visit Ypres in a day.
Ypres is a small town in Belgium which, during the First World War, came to epitomise the British will to resist the power of the German army. Five battles were fought around Ypres and the town never surrendered. Over 300,000 thousand soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth still reside there in Commonwealth War Graves, and there are another 90,000 soldiers who have no known grave.
Ypres occupied a strategic position, preventing Germany's planned sweep across the rest of Belgium. By October 1914, the much battered Belgian Army broke the dykes on the Yser River to the north of the City to keep the western tip of Belgium out of German hands. Ypres, being the centre of a road network, anchored one end of this defensive feature and was also essential for the Germans if they wanted to take the Channel Ports through which British support was flooding into France.
During the first battle of Ypres in October 1914 the Allies halted the German Army's advance to the east of the city. The German Army eventually surrounded the city on three sides, bombarding it throughout much of the war. The second battle of Ypres was fought in April 1915. The third battle in 1917, often called Passchendaele, was a complex, five-month engagement. The fourth and fifty battles occurred during 1918.
When you visit Ypres in a day you will find the town centre looks as though it has been undisturbed for centuries. It has been said that in November 1918 a soldier on horseback could see right from one side of the town to the other, such was the total destruction after four years’ of shelling. You have to get really close to the magnificent Cloth Hall to see where the new stones were built on the originals.
I started visiting Ypres and other European battlefields by adding a few days to continental holidays, so gradually became familiar with the places and what they have to offer. Although the battles were fought nearly a century ago there is so much to see. You could spend months walking all the battlefields and still not see it all.
You can easily visit Ypres in a day if you live reasonably close to the Euro Tunnel. We did such a trip when we lived in Hartley Wintney. We filled a 52-seater coach and set out at 6am, arriving at the Euro Tunnel by 7.30 to catch the 8am train. Planning a detailed itinerary can be tricky – you have two choices.
Either you can visit a few places and do them well, or you can visit lots of places superficially. We decided to focus on a few sites and give people time to take in the atmosphere. Our timings just show what you could do – check the opening times once you have a firm date.
The Menin Gate
We arrived in Ypres town centre at 11am, and had 30 minutes to walk around the magnificent Menin Gate memorial, which bears the names of more than 54,000 officers and men who have no known grave. The site of the Menin Gate was chosen because of the hundreds of thousands of men who passed through it on their way to the battlefields.
If you can stay into the evening you can witness a very moving ceremony. At 8pm every day the traffic is stopped ant three trumpeters from the local fire brigade sound last post.
Flanders Fields museum
We next visited the ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum in the magnificent Cloth Hall. The museum was named after the immortal poem by Colonel John McCrea: ‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place.’ Redesigned in 2012, it tells the story of the battles around the Ypres salient, using state of the art technology and presentation techniques.
Time for lunch.
1 o’clock and time for lunch! The Cloth Hall is surrounded by many cafes and restaurants, so there is plenty of choice and, on Saturdays, there is an excellent market.
By 2.30 we were back on the coach, leaving Ypres along the Menin Road for the 15-minute drive to the privately-owned Sanctuary Wood museum [Hill 62]. There are two unforgettable things here - you can walk in a series of preserved trenches which really bring home what the conditions were like. And view hundreds of stereoscopic photos which show the true horror of the battlefield and modern mechanised war.
Tyne Cot cemetery.
4pm quickly came and we boarded the coach again for the 20minute drive to the Tyne Cot cemetery, where the casualties of the fighting around Passchendaele are buried. This imposing cemetery, modelled on an English country garden, is the largest Commonwealth War Grave in the world, with 11,871 burials and the names of a further 34,888 soldiers who have no known grave. Looking along the rows of perfectly maintained headstones you cannot fail to be moved.
As we were walking along the path to the new Visitor Centre we were surprised to hear a female voice reading out names. The names of the missing are read every few seconds on a continuous speaker system.
Ypres's other attractions.
Ypres is a very interesting town offering varied visitor attractions. The superb ramparts date from many eras, evolving from the early middle ages via huge Burgundian works to the vast complex of ramparts, bastions, moats, islands and advance fortifications constructed by Vauban, the great French military architect.
We left Ypres late afternoon and had included time for people to do some shopping at the superb City Europe shopping centre, before catching the 9.30 pm train back through the tunnel. We finally arrived back in Hartley Wintney some time after 11pm, after a very tiring, emotional and moving day.
This is what you can do in just one day. If you can spare more time and stay in one of Ypres’ many hotels, you can organise varied itineraries, taking into account your personal interests. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is very well organised and can help you trace family members who died in the salient.
More to come.
This is the first in a series of articles about battlefield tours. Other articles will explore The Somme, Vimy Ridge, D-Day, and Arnhem. Please contact me if you would like any further information about Ypres or any of the other European World War sites. If I can’t help from personal experience, I should be able to point you in the right direction.
Tony Bray, Edinburgh