Trip to WW1 Memorials ;Belgium 2015
In Flanders Fields
They say “things” go in threes. The Gremlins were certainly counting during the couple of days prior to our cycle trip to Belgium, around the WW1 battle sites.“Thing”1. Two days before the off, one of our number managed to injure her shoulder by waving to someone across the road! What she was waving is unclear, but the injury was sufficient for her to have to pull outof the trip. Fortunately the hotel was understanding and no cancellation fees were incurred.“Thing”2- one day prior to the off, we discovered the ferry company had mistakenly cancelled one of the three vehicles we had booked for the crossing from Dover to Dunkirk. When this was pointed out to them, they advised that the 12.00 o’clock sailing was now full and this “extra” car would have to be squeezed on the 2.00 o’clock sailing – and oh, there’d be a £5 admin fee!! We graphically indicated what they should attempt to do with this £5, but had to accept their suggestion that we should arrive early in Dover in the hope they could get all three vehicles on the 12 o’clock.“Thing”3. On the very day of our departure, the 7a.m. BBC News bulletin announced that all Ferry crossings to Calais had been suspended due to the discovery of a WW1 bomb. Traffic was being diverted to Dunkirk!!
However, the sun shines on the righteous, so we had a trouble free drive to Dover where Chris was able to flutter her eyelids at a bored young Ferry Company assistant who let her car onto the 12 o’clock with our other two cars. (At least I think that’s all she did). Derek, who’d travelled down by train, met us on the ferry and being an intrepid touring cyclist, was organised to cycle from Dunkirk to our hotel. So now our party of 10 was complete.
We were cheerily greeted at the Flanders Best Western Hotel in Ieper, and our rooms and bike storage were quickly organised. We all commented on how efficient and friendly our reception had been, not realizing at that stage that this was very much the hallmark of the hotel. Really superb in all respects.
That evening we walked into Ieper (Flemish name; French name -Ypres; Wipers to the British Tom), to witness the Mennen Gate ceremony. The monument itself has the names of thousands of fallen soldiers carved on its walls and ceiling, the impact of which is immediate and truly humbling
The ceremony has been held every evening since 1929, except during WW2 when Belgium was occupied by Germany. On our evening, the ceremony included the laying of wreaths from 10 organisations and families from all over the UK and one from Canada.It was particularly touching to see youngsters laying tributes to their long lost relatives.
Monday, was our first day of cycling and we set off to the north of Ieper in bright sunshine. Our plan for the week was to blend cycling with visits to the various memorials in the area.
To this end Barry Newman had thoroughly briefed us on the complex course of the war in the Flanders, and our first visit was to Essex Farm – a battlefield-dressing centre that quickly became a cemetery.
It was here that John McCrae wrote his poem “In Flanders Fields”, which led to the poppy being synonymous with WW1. This, together with the sight of so many names on so many immaculately kept headstones was a sobering experience. Our next stop was a few miles further north at a recently discovered dugout, of a Yorkshire regiment.
Although this reconstruction is highly sanitised, it gives a good idea of the extent and conditions in these trenches.
Our itinerary for the day then lead us along deserted lanes and cycle paths to the “Butterland” polders where we discovered to our alarm, that the teacup symbols on our map was absolutely no guarantee to there being an open cafe′ or any other source of nourishment. We were very much in Fenland like country and although sunny, we found ourselves battling a stiff, cool wind. Food and hot drink became an increasingly popular topic of conversation, so it was with some considerable relief when, seemingly out of nowhere, a perfect café materialised. By coincidence we had a this stage reached a ‘cut off’ point, where we could foreshorten the ride, but buoyed up by an excellent lunch the vote was to press on against the wind with the planned route.
This took us over an area that the Allies flooded to prevent the advance of the ‘Hun’, and then on to the “Dodengang” (trench of death) at Diksmuide. This is one of the major WW1 sites – a complex and extensive system of trenches, accompanied by detailed exhibition halls.
Our last stop for the day was at the ‘Studentenfriedhof’: a German students cemetery. It is here that thousands of German University students are commemorated following their deaths in battles at the beginning of the war. In comparison to the British Commonwealth graves, this German cemetery appeared very stark.
We completed 56 miles on this first day, which meant that with visits, lunch and the wind (nothing to do with lunch), we arrived back to the hotel at about 7 o’clock, in time for dinner at 8 o’clock
On day 2 of cycling, we completed the ‘Legacy Route’. This is a prescribed route to the East of Ieper, and follows the battle lines around Passchendaele The Passchendaele museum is extensive, and in itself really justifies a full day, but with riding and other visits to make, we had to limit our stay.
There are so many cemeteries and memorials around Flanders that we quickly learnt to ignore our itinerary and ride respectfully by. Again the weather was bright and windy but as with yesterday, we found ourselves on dedicated cycle paths or quiet lanes with no potholes. When we did meet cars, drivers were confusingly courteous towards us.
Graham and Barry taking advantage of the communal
latrine in an underground bunker in the Passchendaele museum
Conscious of our near miss of a lunch stop yesterday, all eyes and tummies were on early alert for a hostelry, but even so, the only ‘pub’ we could find didn’t serve food. In desperation we made a charge into a nearby Spar shop where rolls were made up for us. We then returned to the pub to eat them.
Interestingly, this pub had a glass partition that isolated a smoking area. The lady proprietor twice retreated behind the glass for a drag, and sat there to all appearances like one of the ladies one can see in shop windows in Amsterdam or Brussels – or so I am told.
Towards the end of this ride we came to ‘Tyne Cot’ cemetery (named by Northumberland Fusiliers, who saw a similarity between the German Pill boxes of the area, and typical Tyneside workers cottages.
This huge cemetery and memorial to the missing, commands a broad rise in the landscape, and was strategically important to both sides.We completed 36 miles on this day. ———————————
We set off on Wednesday morning with some trepidation, as our route would lead to the south of Ieper and up to ‘Hill 60’ and the Messiness Ridge. We needn’t have worried however.
Although this rise was undoubtedly significant to the military, it was no challenge to us hardened cyclists. This area is famous for the tunnelling exploits of Commonwealth Sappers in 1917. 22 Long tunnels, some over 100ft deep, were dug towards German lines and packed with explosives, which were detonated at 3.00 a.m. on 7th June. The explosion was said to rattle teacups in Whitehall. The attack was a success and has left 19 huge mine craters, such as the one at Hill 60 .Yet again the roads and paths were ideal for cycling and the numbered junctions made navigation easy .
Lunch, which had become an ‘all consuming’ topic, was taken in the town of Messen (or Messines in French). The café chosen had an attractive appearance from the outside and, shall we say, a certain Gallic charm on the inside – we were after all just 2 Kilometres from France. After lunch, we made a quick visit to the Messen Museum and headed for the challenge of the day – the Kemmelberg.
This hill is a 160 meter steep climb, and came as a bit of a shock to the system after all the flatish riding of the past couple of days. Not surprisingly this hill was the site of an important battle in WW1 and was taken by the Germans in 1918.
Lunch, the wind and the hills had taken their toll on all of us by the time we reached the villiage of Kemmel , and the vote was to cut out a hilly loop which would have taken us past the British underground headquarters. We decided to take a pleasant meander back to Leper and, because we were all tired, Chris decided to have the first of her slow punctures. We pumped her up and completed 41 miles this day.
On our last day, we decided to cut short our planned ride so that we could spend the afternoon looking around Ieper itself. We set off early from the hotel and headed west to Poperinger, known as ‘Pop’ by the British Tommy. On route Chris decided to have her second slow puncture, but with that mended we still arrived in Pop by late morning.Pop was maybe 6 miles from the battlefront, and was a place of R&R.
It was here that Talbot House (Toc H) was established as an “every man” club by the Reverend “Tubby” Clayton. The idea was to provide a place of quiet respite for all ranks, away from the Pubs and Streets frequented by rowdy soldiers .
We watch an enactment of entertainment of the time, and enjoyed a cup of ‘free’ coffee/tea -on offer as a reminder of the welcome given to the troops (mind you we had to pay to get in!).We made a quick return to our Hotel, completing just 27 miles cycling this day, but spent our last afternoon enjoying the sites of Leper.
Throughout our trip Barry (our historian ) had been giving regular briefings on the course of the war , and the significance of the sites we had visited.
Our last evening was exam time, to see if we’d been listening. We had been warned – this was the night of THE QUIZ!!! Serious stuff, requiring a few beers in preparation.
Belgium is certainly a cycle friendly country with a superb network of smooth paths and quiet lanes. What Belgium lacks in potholes however, it make up for in cobblestones in the towns and villages.
Like Hieneken beer, cobblestone vibrations reach the parts you didn’t know you had. This was our first attempt at an overseas adventure, and it turned out to be an excellent trip thanks to everybody’s relaxed and friendly approach. So, well done folks-where shall we go next?