Ypres:

I should like to acquire the whole of the ruins of Ypres.
A more sacred place for the British race does not exist anywhere in the world".

Sir Winston Churchill - January 1919

"The rebuilt main square and cloth hall..

My apologies for a quick historical overview. It won't take long, promise, but it needs a picture painting to understand Ypres and what it came to mean.

Germany invaded France in August 1914. By the end of August the BEF had retreated almost 150 miles from Mons to the Marne river, just North of Paris. So had Joffre's French forces, who had been in a complete murderous bloodbath in what became known as the battles of the frontiers,  in the Alsace and Lorraine regions.

The pummelled armies reached the Marne and so began the desperate defence of Paris. By a combination of German blunders, French tenaciousness and sheer luck Joffre, the commander in chief of French armies, had manged to regroup allied forces and in a counter offensive forced the Germans to retreat 40 miles to the Aisne river. There the front, from Switzerland to North East of Paris, stabilised, and was to remain pretty much in the same shape, until November 1918. 

 

The front line to the North and East of paris, stretching east and southeast to the Swiss border.

However to the North was open ground. From the Aisne to the channel Coast. There then began what became known as the race to the sea, both armies seeking to outflank each other and in a series of ferocious battles they fought northwards through Northern France and into Belgium.

 

The race to the sea ... and what became the stagnant northern section of the Western front.

Ypre, a small Flemish town a few kilometres from the Belgian coast, became the virtual finish line. Further north to the channel the ground, known as polders, reclaimed land drained by dykes, had been flooded by the Belgian forces. To the north lay Ostend and Zeebrugge, in German hands. To the west lay the channel ports essential to the BEF, Dunkirk and Calais. If the German armies were to take Ypres then the way would be open to take those channel ports. 

Ypres had to be held at all costs and by 1918 all costs meant the loss of over 250,000 allied lives, 185,000 of them British and commonwealth forces. The losses were equal if not greater on the German side.

The cloth hall, top. Bottom left to right, the Menin gate, St Martins Cathedral, St Georges memorial church.

Despite Winston Churchill's passionate words the Belgians kept Ypres for themselves and rebuilt it, stone by stone, cobble by cobble, back to it's former glory and today it is a most pleasant town to visit. Difficult to imagine the complete ruin it became, difficult to imagine the horrors that befell it and the men who marched into, through and out of it, and those who never left.

The Belgians though did give to Britain the Menin Gate, the second British biggest British and commonwealth memorial to the missing in the world.

The walls, stairways and upper galleries are inscribed with the names of 43,000 commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave. Every evening, at 8pm, the last post is played here. If it is difficult to imagine the numbers who marched through and never came back, they at least will never be forgotten.

The countryside around Ypres was completely devastated. Millions of high explosive shells destroyed virtually every tree, every dyke, effectively every blade of grass. With no drainage the ground became an ocean of deep, glutinous mud.

There were three terrific battles for Ypres. 1914 when British and French forces fought desperately to hold back advancing German armies. 1915 when the Germans tried again to take the town and only narrowly failed in their objectives despite using gas for the first time.

August 1917 the British and commonwealth forces launched a termendous assault with the aim of breaking through the German lines. The worst rains in memory turned the battlefield into a sea of mud.  Only a limited objective was achieved, the capture of the ridge of high ground a few miles east of Ypres,and the capture of the small village that topped it, Paschendale, which gave it's name to the battle..

Today it has all recovered.

Gently rolling grassland looking towards the village of paschendale.

It was from here that the second battle of ypres was launched, in March 1915, and from these fields that canisters of gas were opened, the start of gas warfare in 1915. With a gentle breeze blowing away from Paschendale the gas was carried down the slope towards unsuspecting Canadian and French troops.

Outisde the village of Paschendale a number of defensive strong points were built by the germans.

One of these was an isolated cottage that concealed an almost impregnable blockhouse protecting the way to 5 fortified bunkers. These were machine gun positions that cost attacking commonwealth forces thousands of lives.

To the Northumberland fusiliers who attacked the blockhouse the cottage resembled a "Tyne cot", a distinctive type of workers cottage lining the banks of the river tyne.

After the war the area became a cemetry for the thousands who had fallen in the vicinity. 

Tyne Cot became the biggest British war cemetry in the world. 

The cross of sacrifice. Erected on the remains of the fortified blockhouse.

I did say in my introduction to my WW1 section that this is about now, my feelings, what is there now. It is not an historical account. 

My feelings were one of humble gratitude and thanks.

Nothing can prepare me for Tyne Cot, nothing should prepare me.

I can stand in respectful awe at Thiepval and with solemnity look at the 72,000 names to the missing inscribed there. I could walk under the Menin gate with it's 42,000 names inscribed. Nothing affected my senses more than looking at nearly 12,000 headstones.

Nothing for me could visualise the scale of loss more. Nothing, for me, could invoke feelings of so much gratitude for the sacrifice given by all those fallen, or to close my eyes and give my grateful thanks that I was born in an age when I  and any of my living family were spared the horror of that war.

It does not stop with headstones at Tyne Cot. Inscribed on the walls are the names of another 33,000 soldiers of Britain and the commonwealth who have no known grave.

In some ways there is a solemn beauty to it.The war is over. We can all celebrate the peace that we now have. However we can give respect for those who paid the price for freedom and that respect is given with dignity and care. For me there are only two words left to describe Tyne Cot before moving on.

Thank You.

 

As well as the Menin Gate there is another small part of Britain in Ypres and it is a most attractive one.

After the war, with thousands making the pilgramage to where loved  ones had been lost, it was realised that for most of them, of Anglican faith, there was no appropriate place to worship.

Late into the 1920's a small plot of land was acquired, just around the corner from the Flemish cathedral of St Martins, and a church was built, a quite lovely church, St Georges memorial church.

St Georges and the Guards window, representing the coats of arms of all the Guards Regiments to have fought in the Ypres Salient.

All the kneelers are likewise embroidered with the crests of all regiments represented at Ypres.