Over 10 million military and 7 million civilians killed with a further 20 million injured. They called it ‘The Great War’ and 2014 is the centenary of the commencement. Germany invaded Belgium and we went to the aid of Belgium. I have just visited some of the sites made famous by the battle that lasted for 4 years.
My trip began on a windy but sunny morning in Dover boarding the P&O ferry ‘Spirit of Britain’. How ferries have changed and indeed grown. This monster of 47,500gt. carries 2,000 passengers and 1,000 cars and lorries. Sailing on time we ploughed smoothly through the blue water of the English Channel to arrive in Calais 90 minutes later. During the short crossing I was able to sample the offerings of the Club restaurant, The Brasserie. My steak was done to my liking and washed down with a very acceptable glass of wine. Great way to travel.
Arriving in Calais we boarded the transport supplied by our hosts, The Belgian Tourist Office, and driven to our first overnight stop in Liege a distance of approximately 190 miles. It is noticeable how straight and flat the motorways are. Passing forests and fields of sweet corn the miles ticked away. Cows chewing the grass totally ignored us as we sped by to our destination. It was late afternoon when we finally arrived at the Jala Hotel in Liege.
A modern establishment with large well planned bedrooms. The bathroom sporting a very spacious walk-in shower was supplemented with large wash basin, illuminated magnifying mirror and a range of good quality toiletries. Separate toilet, large sitting area and one of the largest beds I have ever slept in completed the room. Dinner was taken in the main dining room where the mixed fish grill was very acceptable and washed down with several glasses of my favourite Sancerre.
The following morning was my opportunity to explore. Liege is situated in the Wallonia Region, the French speaking part of Belgium and the River Meuse winds its way through the centre. On the 5th August 1914 Liege was invaded by Germany and 100,000 of her troops, the town was taken which then remained under German occupation until the end of the war. In 1919 Liege was awarded the Legion d’Honneur for bravery.
Walking to the main square I pass the "Opéra royal de Wallonie". An imposing building in white with marble columns and flags fluttering in the warm breeze. On into the square you are immediately taken aback by the sheer size of the Prince-Bishops of Liège with its huge arched courtyard. Today it houses the Palace of Justice. Heading towards the Wallon Museum I pass the ‘Perron’, a monument dedicated to the Province of Liege and the City Freedoms and situated opposite the Town Hall. Finally I arrive at the ‘Musee de la Vie Wallonne’. A museum depicting the region through the ages with models and display cabinets showing transport, clothing, religion, occupations and much more. It even has a full size Guillotine for the not so feint hearted. A great museum which I heartily recommend to anyone wishing to learn the areas past. Soon it was time to return to the hotel, board the coach and head for our next stop, the historical Fort Loncin.
Fort Loncin was built in 1888 to defend the road and railway to Brussels. It is built in the form of a triangle, 300 metres along the base and 235 metres on the other two sides. The 7th August 1914 saw it became involved in defence of the area against German attack. Over 300 men died and since then it has been recognised as a war grave and a place of remembrance. Many of the soldiers who died there remain under the ruins but those whose bodies were recovered are buried in the Crypt. The Fort is built part underground. That above ground is surrounded and protected by thick concrete walls. Walking down to the entrance passing sculptures of soldiers dressed in the uniform of the time you start to appreciate how secluded it is. No sound other than the footfall of other visitors. Our guide, Jim, is an expert on the Fort and there is no question he does not appear to know the answer to. On entering the Fort we see the underground rooms where people lived. The simple ventilation system and the steam generators that provided electricity at the rate of 74 volts. Sanitation in those days was certainly a problem. As the tour continues Jim points out the huge cracks in the ceiling and walls where the ‘Big Bertha’ bombs of the Germans hit and penetrated the Fort. The largest cracks were caused when the impact to the above ground part of the fort was so great that part of it lifted from its base and then settled again. The Fort has been furnished to represent how it was in those days with models being placed in rooms to represent people. It is very authentic and interesting. Certainly to anyone interested in WW1 this Fort is on the ‘must do’ list.
Within the Fort is the ‘Halifax HR734 Museum’. HR734 was a Halifax Bomber in WW2 that had just completed a bombing raid on Cologne and was returning home when it was attacked and crippled by German fighters. The pilot, Flight Sergeant Charles Preston a young Canadian, ordered his surviving crew members to bail out from the stricken aircraft whilst he piloted the plane away from the houses of Liege to where it crashed near to Fort Loncin. Preston died in the crash but saved the lives of many by his actions. Heroism indeed.
Time to board the coach and head to Mons for our overnight stop at the Best Western Plus Lido hotel. Again an excellent hotel with nicely furnished rooms. Our evening meal was taken at the Vilaine Fille, Mauvais garcon at Rue de Nimy, 55, 7000 Mons. On ascending to the first floor of this restaurant we found ourselves in a high ceilinged room with wooden beams. These were set off by the plain brick and white walls which gave it a comfortable feel. My entrée of Grilled Prawns and a main course of Duck made a pleasant change from the normal fare. It had been a long day and with midnight fast approaching it was time to head back to the hotel.
The next morning was an early start with the introduction of our guide Alain Kicq. First stop was the Nimy Railway Bridge. It was here the British troops first engaged the Germans on the 23rd August 1914 and where Lieutenant Maurice Dease and Private Sid Godley died. Both were awarded the Victoria Cross for their heroic actions - the first British soldiers to receive the award in the Great War. There is a plaque on the wall under the bridge telling of this with a memorial. It was then onto the Mons Cemetery.
On entering this cemetery it is like many others with large gravestones in remembrance of the departed but as you walk through to the military section you suddenly see row upon row of white and grey stones set in straight lines as if standing to attention with equal spacing between them. 505 of them, 329 from the UK. Suddenly the enormity of it comes flooding to you. Some of the inscriptions leave a lump in the throat. One read “Sometime We’ll Understand From His Loving Wife and Son” others who were unknown just read “Known Unto God”. So many, so young.
Next was the St. Symphorien Cemetery set out in the peaceful countryside. The cemetery is built on various levels and divided into areas of different shapes and sizes surrounded by trees reminiscent of walking through a wooded park. Here you find small copses and clearings with graves to a particular regiment. It is the last resting place of 229 Commonwealth and 284 German soldiers. At the highest point stands a granite memorial over 20ft high erected by the Germans to the memory of both German and British servicemen who gave their lives. It is here the first and last British soldiers to give their lives in this war are laid to rest. At the time of my visit it was a warm autumn day with the sun filtering through the still heavily leafed branches. Everything was quiet and still apart from the birds. Time to reflect and remember.
Next and our final stop of the tour was Comines-Warneton but first lunch at the excellent restaurant L’Auberge Ploegsteert, Rue de Messines 159, 7782 Ploegsteert. After an excellent seafood lunch starting with baby shrimp in large fresh tomato with salad dressing followed by a tureen of Moules Marinieres we headed for the last part of the tour. First stop was the famous field where the ‘Khaki Chums Christmas Truce’ took place between the British and Germans on Christmas Day 1914. It is hard to imagine how soldiers from opposing sides can exchange Christmas greetings, socialise, play football and then return to killing one another. From here it was a tour of the area where Churchill was based and finally a return to L’Auberge. Opposite the excellent L’Auberge Restaurant is the ‘Memorial to the Missing of the Great War 1914 – 1918’. The beautiful white round building has its entrance guarded by two large white marble lions. Again the grave stones here are in line, upright and a set distance apart rather like soldiers at attention on parade. On the last Friday of every month at 7pm the ‘Last Post’ is played in memory of those who fought and died in the war. A new WW1 Interpretation Centre is due to open in Ploegsteert on the 9th November which will have areas within set aside for different aspects of the war in that area.
It was now time to head to Calais for the short crossing back to Dover. The question is, did I enjoy the trip? The answer has to be yes. It taught me a lot that I did not know about 1914-1918 war. The long lines of grave stones in memory of soldiers from many countries who were only in their teens and the feats of heroism carried out by them has made an impression on my mind that will remain long after this article has been published and forgotten.
For more information:
1. P&O Ferries web site: www.poferries.com
2. Belgian Tourist Office www.belgiumtheplaceto.be
3. Vilaine Restaurant: www.vilainefillemauvaisgarcon.be
4. Hotel Jala: www.hoteljala.be
Alan's video images of Belgium
and the battlefields
Alan Fairfax -
is a travel writer for
YOUR HOLIDAY TV
Alan also writes for the
Ashford Advertiser Media Group with regional papers across Kent and
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