The Cloth Hall that dominates the Belgian town of Ieper looks very impressive. A soaring façade and tower that appears nothing if not medieval. But appearances are deceptive. Ieper is the modern pronunciation of Ypres and the Cloth Hall is entirely a post war re-construction. It is also the right place to begin a tour of the battlefields of the Western Front, where the grimmest days of the First World War took place.
Ypres is a tidy, prosperous-looking town and it is only when you look closely that you realise none of the buildings are more than 80 years old. Such was the extent of the destruction during the First World War that in 1918 a man on horseback could see from one side of the town to the other.
Inside the Cloth Hall is the In Flanders Fields Museum, an excellent interactive media exhibition that brings the historical timetable and personal experience of war to life. In the penultimate room of the museum there is a sound and light display that tries to give visitors an idea of what it must have been like to travel through no-mans-land on the frontline.
Here in this gentle, green countryside of Belgium, the Allies were desperately defending access to the channel ports. The British Expeditionary Force was virtually destroyed as a professional army within weeks of the outbreak of hostilities.
However, the Germans had also fought themselves to a standstill in this new-style of mechanised war and so began four years of trench warfare and intermittent carnage of incomprehensible proportions along the S-shaped Ypres Salient.
I found touring the battlefields of the Western Front a rewarding, if sobering, experience and would like to share my itinerary.
This whole region is scattered with cemeteries and memorials. You will choose which of these to visit depending on interest and perhaps nationality. I was particularly interested in memorials to New Zealand soldiers who fought here but there are of course also memorials that pertain to the armed forces of Britain, Canada, Australia and Germany.
A tour of the Western Front battlefields
Driving north-east from Ypres the landscape of Flanders looks flat but soon a faint ridgeline becomes apparent. It was this ‘high’ place that cost the lives of so many soldiers over 90 years ago during the battles of the Western Front in the First World War.
First stop after Ypres is Essex Farm, where Canadian medical officer Colonel John McCrae patched up casualties brought straight from the front and wrote his famous poem In Flanders Fields. Moss-greened concrete bunkers and ossified sandbags sit beside the small cemetery and memorial pillar.
The next stop is Vancouver Corner and the dramatic memorial The Brooding Soldier. This marks the area where Canadian troops withstood the first German gas attacks in 1915, losing 2,000 soldiers in the process.
From here the ground slowly rises towards the ‘hill’ of Passchendaele. It is only when you get up onto the higher ground that you can comprehend the advantage even 85cm of visibility can offer.
The largest and most significant cemetery is Tyne Cot. With a new visitors centre opened in 2007, Tyne Cot is actually the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world and the most important reminder of the bloody battle of Passchendaele. It was easy to identify sections of New Zealand soldiers.
Tens of thousands of soldiers died here in 1917 over a period of one hundred days, gaining only eight kilometres as they stormed the German positions – concrete ‘pillboxes’ that reminded English soldiers of Tyneside cottages.
There is a museum in Passendale and also five minutes down the road at an old chateau in the town of Zonnebroke. This does a great job of representing the rat-infested quagmires soldiers were forced to live in and fight through.
In the basement is a recreation of the dugouts and tunnels that increasingly became home for the Allied troops from 1917 onwards. After the battle of Passchendaele there was not much left above ground.
A little further from Zonnebeke is the Buttes New British Cemetery (New Zealand) Memorial. Here are 378 members of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force who died in the Battle of Polygon Wood on the Ypres Salient during the winter of 1917 to 1918.
Make sure you get back to Ypres in the evening and attend the nightly ceremony at the Menin Gate.
At 20:00 local time the last post is played here and school groups mix with tourists and locals to silently witness this simple honouring of the fallen.
Above the buglers the 35,000 names of unknown dead rise in columns and an official promises that we will remember them.
By Natasha von Geldern
This battlefields tour is an easy day trip from the beautiful medieval town of Bruges. There are a number of tour companies but I hired a car and did a self-guided Western Front battlefields tour with the aid of Major and Mrs Holt’s Pocket Battlefield Guide to Ypres and Passchendaele (published by Pen and Sword Military).
Have you visited a site of military tragedy like the battlefields of the Western Front?
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