Saturday 26th January saw my first visit of the year to the Western Front. This time I had two good friends with me and we headed towards Belgium. Travelling by Eurostar we arrived in Lille nice and relaxed, once we picked the hire car up, we headed north to my favourite bed & breakfast on The Salient, Varlet Farm. It only took 45 minutes and we were greeted as always by Dirk with a cup of coffee and apple pie. I have stayed here many times but it was a first for my friends and I think it would be safe to stay they fell in love with the place. The farm was fought over by the Royal Naval Division in the Great War and literally, the Great War is on your doorstep.
The Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium
After a freshen up we headed of into Ypres for the Last Post at the Menin Gate, this was quite a moment for me as it was the 100th time that I had attended the ceremony to remember the Portsmouth lads named on the memorial. After the ceremony, as always moving few minutes we headed into the square and had a nice meal. On the way back to Varlet we stopped at what is my favourite memorial on the Salient, The Brooding Soldier, a Canadian Memorial at Vancouver Corner, St Julien.
The Brooding Soldier
Sunday saw us wake up to a cold, wet and windy morning, after a good breakfast we headed out. We had planned to visit a few cemeteries that I had not visited before. First stop was at Ledeghem Military Cemetery, which is located 17 kms from Ypres, it contains 85 commonwealth burials, dating from October 1914. Ledeghem was in German hands from the 19th October 1914 until the 1st October 1918. The cemetery is surrounded by houses in complete contrast to the next stop Kezelberg Military Cemetery which is situated on the corner of a field surrounded by farmland and is just 2 km up the road from Ledeghem. The area around Kezelberg Military Cemetery was in German hands throughout the war until the 14th October 1918 when the cemetery was started. It contains 147 commonwealth burials and 14 German burials, with quite a few from the 11th November 1918. By this time the rain had started to really come down and the wind was getting up but we headed of to the next stop Menen German Cemetery. Menen is the largest German military cemetery in Belgium, containing about 48,000. During the Great War, Menen was in German hands and the army laid out a cemetery near the forest. In the 1950s, the 128 German cemeteries in Belgium were merged into 4 large cemeteries at Menen, Vladslo, Hooglede and Langemark. By now the weather had really taken a turn for the worse, so we headed off to my favourite cafe l’Auberge for a hot drink. As always, we were made very welcome by Nelly and Claude, and those who have been with me will be pleased to know that “cucumber” was mentioned. It was nice to see them both and having a chat with Claude, it was good to hear how busy he will be in 2019, he is a great guide and if you’re in the area I can strongly recommend his services.
By the time we had finished warming up the rain had cleared, so we decided to go for a walk around Ploegsteert Wood, a place that has a special feeling for me as my Grandfather served in this sector during the winter of 1914. We stopped off and paid our respects at the following cemeteries Toronto Avenue, Ploegsteert Wood, Rifle House, Mud Corner and Prowse Point. Its always a pleasant walk and took us just under 3 hours, we remained dry throughout which was an added plus.
Remains of the Great War found in Ploegsteert Wood
Before getting back in the car we had a look round the Ploegsteert Memorial, which has the names of many Pompey Lads listed and visited the 2 cemeteries close by Berks Extension and Hyde Park Corner.
Ploegsteert Memorial under a winter sky
Once we got back to Varlet, we got freshened up and headed into Ypres and the Last Post, which was very quiet with only about 30 people, the least I have seen for a long time. After a lovely meal and a good chat, it was time for bed.
Monday saw us wake up to a dry morning but very cold and windy, over breakfast we decided to carry on with our plan to walk some of the Messines Ridge, something I had done before but we included a stretch that I hadn’t walked before which is always good for the walking tours I organise.
Having parked at Wytschaete Military Cemetery we headed off up the road, with Spanbroekmolen mine crater on the horizon. Turning right off the main road you immediately reach Maedelstade Farm, which was a German strong point and thus chosen to be mined on the first day of the Battle of Messines. You can see the crater but can’t visit as it’s on private land. Carrying on up the road which steadily rose it gave us great views across the battlefield towards Wytschaete Wood and further away from the unique spire of Messines Church. After quite a windy walk along the ridge, we dropped down to visit the lads at Irish House Cemetery. After the battle of Messines, the Royal Irish Rifles cleared this part of the battlefield and buried there dead. During the clearing of the battlefield, the Royal Irish Rifles discovered the remains of a large group of Gordon Highlanders who had been lying in No Man’s Land since December 1914. 33 Officers and men were recovered and buried in a mass grave in the cemetery. Only 3 were managed to be identified the others all unknown are marked by a unique headstone.
Gordon Highlanders unique headstone
We left the cemetery and headed towards Hollandscheschuur Farm, another German strongpoint which was mined for the battle of Messines, you can clearly see the crater from the road. Skirting the edge of Grand Bois we got up to the Bayenwald trenches and stopped for a cold and windy lunch at Croonaert Chapel Cemetery, a cemetery that I had not visited before. After lunch, we headed on a different route back towards Wytschaete, which gives good views of Petit Bois and its 2 craters, which yet again were blown at the beginning of the battle. As we walked, I was busy telling the stories of the battle which brings everything to life. Having walked for a bit more we entered Wytschaete Wood, another area I had not visited before but I knew there was an entrance to a German mining system in the wood but I didn’t expect to see the size of it when we turned the corner.
The German mine entrance is known as Dietrich Shaft.
Having walked through the wood, we found another bunker turned into a haven for bats and you could also see trench lines in the wood. A very successful walk and I learnt some more for forthcoming tours, walking the battlefields is my favourite thing to do and to have some company this time was great.
We enjoyed a nice cuppa when we got back to the bed and breakfast before freshening up and heading back into Ypres for another very quiet last post and the last meal in the beautiful town of Ypres, until July.
I always feel sad leaving the battlefields and Tuesday was no different, it had been an excellent trip and I had learned plenty and discovered more than I can pass on in the future. We still managed to stop at 2 more cemeteries well heading back to Lille, Ypres Town Extension and Oosttaverne.
Alan Laishley – Portsmouth WW1 Research