1917 Centenary Tour Report & Gallery - April 2017
Tour guided by Dr Bruce Cherry & tour report by Shaun Bartlett
After an early start and continental breakfast, our Eurostar from London to Lille arrived mid-morning and we were met by our driver, Tony. Our Guide, Bruce Cherry then began to explain in detail what we would be seeing over the next 4 days and we set off to our first stop, the Hyde Park Corner cemetery on Ploegsteert (Plugstreet). Bruce explained in detail the mining offensive on the Messines Ridge where 19 mines were detonated. The joint explosions are still among the largest non-nuclear explosions of all time. We also learned the tragic story of W&L Crossley, twin brothers who had joined the army one after the other and whose graves lay next to each other having passed on the same day. We enjoyed a light lunch at the café at the memorial before continuing towards Messines.
Our next stop, the Irish Peace Village memorial to the Irish, featured a 110 foot high tower. As part of the design the inside of the tower is lit up by the sun only on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Walking through the back of the village to the New Zealand memorial a football pitch appeared and Bruce discussed the truce of Christmas day football match, which is more than likely nothing more than a myth. As we saw later that day however, Messines museum has a large statue outside commemorating the event.
In the church of Messines, Bruce led us down the crypt to explore an exciting piece of history. The church, a casualty clearing stating during WW1 would see German soldier, Adolf Hitler, nursed back to health when injured during WW1.
After a brief stop at Spanbroekmolen British Cemetery we made our way to Hill 60 where we had our first experience of just how much the landscape had changed during the mining attack. The ground, virtually untouched since the war is littered with huge divots and craters that photographs just cannot do justice. Recent work to make the site more accessible showed us just how close the front lines were from each other, in some instances just the width of a road. The Caterpillar crater, now filled with water showed us just how much of an impact the explosions caused.
We headed on to our first hotel for a one night stay at the Novotel in Ieper, where, after a quick shower we met for a drink in the bar before heading out to what would be an extra special Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. Usually a 15 minute ceremony, we were treated to a 75 minute Anzac day commemoration.
The highlight of the ceremony was the return of the Menin Gate lions which had not been in place for 81 years. The lions, broken and damaged during the war, were recovered from the devastation and in 1936 they were gifted by the Burgomaster of Ieper to the Government of Australia as a gesture of friendship and gratitude for the sacrifices made by the Australian nation. Since then, they have stood guard at the entrance to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, where they have been admired by visitors from all over the world. The lions will return to Australia on Armistice day, 11th November 2017.
A later than usual dinner was then enjoyed on the Grand Place opposite the Cloth Hall in Ieper, where the Flemish stew was a particular favourite. The rain that we avoided all day began to pour as we left the restaurant but being just 5 minutes from the hotel made this bearable.
Our second day began with breakfast in the hotel and some enjoyed a walk around beautiful Ieper before we departed for our first stop at Sanctuary Wood Cemetery. The coldest part of the whole tour arrived next as we took the steps up to Hill 62. With black clouds looking very ominous, we departed to our next visit at Glencorse Wood. This was a great spot to see the battlefield close up. Seeing for miles we could appreciate the battle that occurred in this spot during WW1.
After a failed attempt to get a warm drink, which seemed very much needed, we headed on to Buttes New British cemetery, where there had earlier been a special ceremony for Anzac Day. 1,700 or the 2,100 isolated graves here are of soldiers who could not be identified. In contrast, Polygon Wood cemetery, situated on the entrance to Buttes Cemetery had just 100 graves, 60 of which are known to be soldiers from New Zealand. The random layout of these graves, unlike many of the uniform ones we saw showed us that these were hasty burials for the fallen under sniper and shell fire.
It was now time for our first museum visit of the tour in Passchendaele. Unfortunately for us, most of the schools in Belgium seemed to have chosen this day for school outings. After some manoeuvring around them we managed to get round this fascinating museum in good time. The highlights of the museum included going underground to see what life would have been like for soldiers. Wooden and chicken wire beds, buckets for toilets and little to no light were extremities the troops had to acclimatise to.
There was also an expertly created trench line that we were able to walk through and poke our heads over to see what we would have seen had we been on the front line, avoiding the snipers of course. With so much to see after the museum stop, lunch was mainly purchased in the local delicatessen and eaten on the coach to our next stop.
Approaching Tyne Cot, the only indication of the sheer size of the cemetery were the amount coaches outside. Again the school trips had followed us, but in amongst the other visitors it was easy to get lost in your own thoughts. Bruce led a few to some particular graves to share some stories whilst others walked through the graves themselves. I personally walked past and looked at each of the 165 slate panels of names only to later be told that these were just the names of those who couldn’t fit on the Menin Gate.
A quick stop at the St Julien Canadian war memorial and park allowed for some photos of the Brooding Soldier. This commemorative central feature of the park is a memorial to the Canadian First Division soldiers and their defence against the poison gas attacks along the Western Front and was a design selected following a competition by the Canadian Battlefield Monument Commission.
There was still so much to be seen before our 75 minute coach ride to Arras. The first being one of the 13 German military cemeteries in Belgium at Langemark and the second, the Welsh memorial park featuring a dragon standing on druids stones and beautifully crafted benches.
Our final tour related stop of the day was at Brandhoek cemetery to see the grave of double VC & MC winner Noel Chavasse. He was the only soldier to being awarded a VC twice during WW1, one posthumously, and was the son of the Bishop of Liverpool.
A quick restroom, beer and chocolate shopping stop was needed and Poperinge was the chosen destination. Full of history, and the town where most of the British troops were billeted during the war we spent half an hour here, where some even visited the execution cells. Well stocked up, we headed to Arras.
After checking in to Hotel de l’Univers for our 2 night stay, we met for dinner in the hotel restaurant. The food was nice, if not a little slow and after a long day being in the hotel meant for a slightly earlier night.
Day 3 started slightly earlier at 08:45 and the dark rain clouds seemed to be chasing us throughout the morning. We stopped first at the Neuville St Vasst German cemetery, a completely different type of cemetery to the Langemark cemetery we saw the day before. There, graves were in marble and laid on the ground, here, crosses fill the landscape for as far as the eye could see. Each cross bore the names of 4 German soldiers and it total there were a staggering 44,833 graves situated here.
Stopping next at Cabaret Rouge Cemetery the rain had started to win and to save us from getting soaked we quickly moved on to the Ruins of the old church of Albain Saint Nazaire. Built in 1505 the church was listed as a grade A historic building in 1908 but during fights of spring 1915 it was destroyed and left in ruins. The sun had begun to shine again by this point and was the perfect spot for a group photograph.
Travelling in the coach up a rather steep hill we arrived at Notre Dame De Lorette. From the top of the hill you could see the advantage the German army had by occupying this area as the surrounding slopes made it easy for them to push back the advancing troops.
The new memorial, added in November 2014, features the names of 580,000 soldiers from all sides who fought in this section of the battlefield. Names of British, German, French, Irish, Canadian, Australian, South African, Indian, Belgian and even Russian and Romanian prisoners of war are all listed here. A truly unique memorial.
Opposite the memorial is the world’s largest French military cemetery. In total, the cemetery and ossuary remember more than 40,000 soldiers as well as holding ashes of many concentration camp victims. The lantern tower, standing at 150 feet has a beacon of light, revolving five times each minute and the ray of light from the beacon covers a distance of about 45 miles.
After a visit to the church and chapel of rest & ossuary we headed over to the Café for a hot drink before heading to our next stop at Vimy Ridge.
Although reinforced and made bigger, the tunnels beneath Vimy Ridge gave a great insight in to what life on the front line would have been like, especially when the lights were switched off. Our guide, Bronwyne, explained the events of April 9th 1917 and the subsequent battle of Vimy Ridge and seeing just how close the observation trenches were to each other was really quite astonishing.
On the drive to Arras we were able to see the Vimy Ridge memorial from quite a distance and the closer we got to it, the more breath-taking it became.
Unveiled in 1936 this impressive memorial features the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were lost. The saddened figure of Mother Canada overlooks the ridge and whilst we were in attendance, huge black clouds were rolling in, but equally the sun was shining where we were and it made for some brilliant photos.
Said clouds were getting a little bit close for comfort so we quick marched it back to the coach and within a minute or so, a huge hail storm began. We made it to a small local café for Jambon and fromage baguettes and a hot chocolate and as luck would have it, the hail stopped as we were finishing our lunch.
As an added bonus, Bruce decided to walk us through a wooded area to show us the German defence lines and pillboxes. Still standing, clearly the Germans were not planning on leaving in a rush.
Before heading back to Arras there was time for one more stop in Monchy, the town where the famous War Horse was served and we also learned the fascinating story of the Monchy 10. For 11 hours, 10 men held back the Germans, who would have literally walked in to Monchy and taken over if it wasn’t for their bravery.
At 5pm we arrived at The Wellington Tunnels in Arras for our tour. Our guide whilst very pleasant spoke so quickly at times it was hard to understand, but none the less it was interesting to see what the troops from New Zealand had achieved when tunnelling under Arras and how the survived in these subterranean conditions.
That evening we dined out in Arras at l’ambassade where the French menu proved a little tricky. Our coach driver Tony tried to help us but there was a bit of a language break down. We did however manage to get it sorted and when the food arrived it was thoroughly enjoyable.
In the blink of an eye, the final day had arrived but there was still so much to see. We began by visiting Agny cemetery, the resting place of war poet PE Thomas where Bruce read one of his poems.
Our second stop of the day was probably to the most isolated places that we had been throughout the tour, Cuckoo Passage cemetery. Sat on a hill almost on the Hindenburg line, you can’t imagine too many visitors coming here. Just 53 identified casualties rest here.
After a tour of the Bullecourt museum and the centre of Bullecourt, we headed to the Digger memorial. This memorial remembers the 10,000 members of the Australian Imperial force who were killed and wounded in the two battles of Bullecourt in April & May 1917.
Discussing the battles of Cambrai at Flesquieres Hill British Cemetery was a little noisy. A museum is being built after a farmer found a tank, almost fully intact, buried in his field. The museum, due to be opened later this year will be situated directly next to the cemetery.
Running low on time, we headed in to Cambrai for a quick bite to eat before heading to Lille for our train. As the stop was much shorter than anticipated, we managed to fit in one more stop, the memorial to the Scottish 9th division and adjoining Point Du Jour cemetery.
Arriving at Lille in plenty of time, we said goodbye to our driver Tony and we all headed back to London. Arriving at St Pancras we said our goodbyes. The rain that we had managed to avoid all week decided to come down as we arrived home but it couldn’t put a dampener on a great 4 days.
View details of this tour - 1918: The Hundred Days