A Sombre Trip to Ypres.

When I was a teenager my father told me a story.

I must have been around 13 and learning about the First World war at school. I couldn’t quite grasp how devastating the war must have been on the families of England and how so many young men lost their lives in a needless war that was more like a mass slaughter. It really wasn’t something that I could connect with growing up, as I did, in a peaceful (mostly) time.

So my father told me this story.

My Grandmother’s (on my father’s side) maiden name was Blackman. She had two uncles, they were twin brothers, who signed up to join the army a few months after the war started.

The Blackmans’s signed up along with some of their friends from the street, a story that was repeated throughout the country.

“It’ll all be over by Christmas” was the phrase often used. Men signed up in their thousands thinking it would just be for few months then they’d be back home.

A London recruiting office at the outbreak of the First World War.

They would have had to have passed a medical examination which wasn’t as stringent as you may think. In the chaos of early 1914 with millions of men wanting to sign up, a blind eye was often turned to official standards. Examinations could be brief and hasty, allowing many underage or unfit men to slip through into the Army.

New volunteers would have also had to make a solemn promise to do their duty. In a ceremony led by recruiting officers, new soldiers swore an oath of allegiance to the King upon a Bible.

But, with so many men eager to join up, the process was often rushed. Sometimes men were asked to recite the oath simultaneously in groups to speed the process up.

The Blackman brothers would then have spent months in basic training, learned military discipline, drill and how to fight with rifle and bayonet and were then shipped off to the first battle of Ypres.

They didn’t last for more than a few days before being gunned down by machine gun fire.

I’ve never been too sure how much of that story was true and how much may have changed over the years but it was, sadly, a very common story throughout England and the other allied countries during the opening battles of the First World War.

On a rainy Sunday morning in early March I left Bruges and made the nearly two hour train journey to Ypres to find out more about the battles that my great, great uncles lost their lives in.

The station was quite deserted on this particular Sunday morning and we walked into town toward the Cloth Hall where the first museum we wanted to visit was located.

Ypres was mostly destroyed during the First World War as it stood in the path of Germany’s planned sweep across the rest of Belgium and into France from the north.

After the war the town was extensively rebuilt using money paid by Germany in reparations. The main square, including the Cloth Hall and town hall, were rebuilt as close to the original designs as possible.

Our first port of call in Ypres was the In Flanders Fields museum. An incredible and thought provoking museum housed in the Cloth Hall in Ypres.

One of the most documented damaged buildings of the First World war undoubtedly has to be this one.

Soldier in the ruins of Ypres, looking toward the Cloth Hall.

The tower of the Cloth Hall was used as a lookout tower by the British army, it was bombed repeatedly by German artillery in order to stop that.

Painting of the Cloth Hall burning.
Ruins of the Cloth Hall.

After the war the Cloth Hall was rebuilt brick by brick along with the rest of the town, this was paid for by reparations from Germany.

In Flanders Fields museum was an amazingly moving experience and I found myself holding back tears several times.

I also learnt many things about the war that I didn’t know before. I’ll make a separate post on this museum at a later date.

A short walk away from the Cloth Hall and In Flanders Fields Museum is the Menin Gate war memorial.

The memorial honours the fallen of the Great War whose bodies were never recovered.

There are thousands of names inscribed here and it is heart-breaking knowing that these people had never been found.

I’m not ashamed to say that I held back tears here too.

The lions that sit outside the memorial are replicas as the originals were donated to the Australian War Memorial by the Mayor of Ypres in 1936. 

The lions guarding the gate now are replicas presented by Australia in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Australian ANZAC army serving in Flanders during the First World War.

Even today remains of missing soldiers are still found from time to time in the countryside around the town of Ypres.

This happens when buildings are constructed and foundations need to be dug or roads have to be built and digging takes place.

Any human remains that are discovered then receive a proper burial in one of the many war cemeteries in the region.

If the remains can be identified, the relevant name is removed from the Menin Gate.

This doesn’t happen very often though.

Everywhere you go in Ypres there are military cemeteries and war memorials.

While waiting for a bus to take us to the next museum we found ourselves next to another huge military cemetery. This is Menin Road South Military Cemetery.

The sheer scale of how many cemeteries there are to the first world war dead really is astounding.

A lot of the regimental markings on these graves are for British soldiers but I also saw graves for Canadian and Australian soldiers too.

The battle of the Menin Road Ridge took place near here in 1917. It’s difficult to imagine how it looked at this time as it now so well built up.

The bus never actually came.

After checking Google we found that the bus we needed only turned up once every 2 hours so we opted to take the 45 minute walk instead.

We walked along the road past freshly ploughed fields and wintery looking bare trees. It was horrible to think that these fields that we were walking past were once the site of such horrific scenes of death and destruction.

When looking at the fields you can still see signs of what happened there. The ground is uneven and raised in certain spots and there are strange, circular ponds that are actually shell craters.

From above some of the fields can show damage caused in the war like the one below.

After walking for nearly an hour we came to our next museum.

This was the Hooge Crater Museum.

It’s a privately owned museum which has on display a lot of objects that have been found in neighbouring fields.

I’ll make a separate post about this museum at a later date too.

Across the road from the museum is the Hooge Crater cemetery, another huge military cemetery. As we were on a tight schedule I didn’t get a chance to visit.

Hooge Crater Cemetery.

Next door to the Hooge Crater museum is a replica trench park which also shows some of the heavy artillery shells which have been dug up from fields in the area.

You see, twice a year in this area of Flanders a thing called the metal harvest takes place.

Farms planting, and later in the year sowing, the fields always dig up bullets, shell casings, unexploded bombs, bomb shells, rifles etc. The farms then take these and leave then at the side of the road to be collected by the army for safe disposal.

Some of the tractors used on the farms in this area have be fitted with armour plating underneath for the safety of the farmers.

Some of this detritus of war ends up in museums around the world, some just gets left behind.

The trench park was closed for winter and would not be opening until a week after we were back in England, which was slightly bothersome.

The park features a lake created from a huge shell crater and there is also a recreation of trenches and how they looked.

Around the park were these twisted bits of metal holding up the fences.

These bits of metal are from the First World War and were probably found in a metal harvest. They were originally used to hold barbed wire fences so they are still being put to good use, there has probably been thousands dug up.

More than a million miles of barbed wire was laid on the Western Front alone between 1914 and 1918.

Nearing the bus stop we noticed another memorial. This one was dedicated to the King’s Royal Rifle Corps Battalions.

The car park behind it is for the Bellewaerde theme park and the Bellewaerde water park.

Where the parks are now once stood the Hooge Chateau which was requisitioned by the commanders of the British 1st and 2nd Divisions as a suitable place for their headquarters.

The Chateau was completely destroyed during the latter part of the first world war. It was probably easy to spot from above that it was being used as a base of operations due to the fact the the generals and officers parked their cars right outside.

At one point there were several small columns around the monument which are now gone, these can be seen in the picture below probably taken in the 1930s, long before the theme park was built.

The inscription on the memorial commemorates officers and men from fifteen battalions of the KRRC who died in Flanders ‘in the cause of liberty and justice‘.

Our bus back to Ypres wasn’t due for a while so I took a look into a field across the road.

I checked the map of the area that showed where various battles took place in the First World War that I was given by the nice lady on the till of the In Flanders Fields museum and I could see that I was looking at the area in which the Battle of Messines took place in 1917.

There were 3700 casualties in the battle and over 700 dead.

It seems just like any other field.

While waiting for the bus I took a few moments to reflect on everything I had seen. Menin Road seems like a rural road like any other other but it’s history is something that should be remembered and the millions of people who died should never be forgotten.

I thought about the Blackman brothers and the devastating effect the war must have had on my family and it finally all made sense to me.

This time I didn’t attempt to hold back the tears I just let them flow.

Visiting Ypres gave life to the war stories and movies I’ve seen an read and gave it a more human face, especially knowing that somewhere near where I was standing two of my ancestors met their end.

As I wiped away another tear from my cheek I thought about how Ypres has such a sad story to tell but also an incredible story of recovery and regeneration.

As we headed back to Ypres station on the bus I took this photo of a field where one of the biggest battles took place in 1914.

There are odd little holes that have become small ponds and small hills throughout the landscape.

Even after more than one hundred years later Ypres still bear scars of the First World War.


3 responses to “A Sombre Trip to Ypres.”

  1. The 1st World War Battlefields are a sombre reminder of life a hundred years ago. The Menin Gate is very poignant isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It certainly is. I’m glad I made the journey to see it.


  3. Thank you for your moving account of the horror of War I but it is a horror of any war we must not forget!


    Liked by 1 person

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