15 million men and women lost their lives in the 1914-18 conflict commonly termed ‘The Great War’. The battlefields and cemeteries created have become the pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands visitors every year. One way to do this is an organised tour such as provided by Great Rail Journeys.
Travel by Eurostar to Lille, France and then coach for the short journey to Ypres, Belgium, a town steeped in history and one that played an important part in the conflict. The Novotel in the heart of the town makes an excellent base being so close to the main square. Nearby is the ‘In Flanders Field Museum’ situated in the Ypres Cloth Hall where the story of the conflict can be seen in detail. Videos, photographs, exhibits, uniforms, artillery and much more set the scene of 100 years ago. Set aside at least 2 hours to do the museum justice after which you can relax in the large café selling meals and a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
Mention Ypres and peoples thoughts immediately turn to the world famous Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing where the names of nearly 55,000 soldiers who were killed but never found are recorded on its walls. Every evening the Last Post is played by members of the local Fire Brigade and has been since 1928 apart for a short spell in WW2. The Last Post marks the closing of the day and onset of night and in the context of the fallen represents their closing hour of existence and eternal sleep. At 8pm exactly a quietness, a hush, descends, the crowd falls silent and still as the bugles sound. They come every evening in their hundreds, young and old alike, members of the armed services and veterans, families who have lost a relative in the conflict, they come from all over the world, stand together to remember and reflect. I met a retired London police officer, his son and cousin in the parade waiting to lay a wreath to a great uncle, big strong men but like many they were in tears. Exhortation given, wreaths laid, the ceremony closes with those haunting words of the famous Kohima Prayer ‘When you go home, Tell them of us and say, For their tomorrow, We gave our today’ It’s a moving ceremony that will remain a lasting memory but one not to be missed. 9th July marked the 30,000th ceremony.
Poperinge, or ‘Pops’ as the troops called it lies 14 kms west of Ypres, and another famous name from the conflict. Used as a garrison town by Commonwealth Troops it acted as a clearing house for the wounded as well as an area of rest and relaxation. Poperinge was also home to the Death Cells and Execution Spot. 306 soldiers were executed for cowardice or desertion in WW1, the youngest being just 17 all of whom have since been pardoned. A few minutes’ walk away is Talbot House, one of the main rest and relaxation accommodations. In 1915, 43 Gasthuisstraat, as it was first known was opened to British soldiers as a club. The property owned by a wealthy brewer was however vacated when shrapnel from German guns landed in the back garden and damaged the rear of the building. The empty building was seen by the Reverend ‘Tubby’ Clayton ‘Chaplain to the Forces’, who arranged for the British Army to rent the premises at 150 Francs a month. The building was then turned it into an ‘Everyman’s Club opening in 1915 where rank ceased and all people were equal. A notice over the front door read “All rank abandon, ye who enter here,” Christianity was the theme. It was named Talbot House after Gilbert Talbot the younger brother of Neville Talbot one of the administering padres. The name Talbot House was abbreviated to Toc-H and thus the Christian Toc-H Society was born, now with members worldwide. Today Talbot House is a ‘Living Museum’ where guests can stay on a B&B basis in one of the 10 rooms for 39 Euros p.p.p.n including continental breakfast but for an extra 5 Euros you can delight in a ‘Full English’. A piano sits in the back room with music and song sheets, bedrooms on the 1st floor and a chapel on the top floor simply referred to as ‘The Upper Room’. The premises are now managed by Rof, who has been here since 2011 and has an in depth knowledge of the house and its history. Rof is ably assisted by volunteers who come for a 2 week period and assist in the general running of the establishment. The beautiful gardens are an oasis of quiet and calm, the air scented from the numerous roses that are a symbol of ‘Hope’. This is a B&B with old world charm and a history second to none.
9 kms north east of Ypres is Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Cemetery in the world. The last resting place of nearly 12,000 soldiers with another 35,000 commemorated who were killed but never found. Row upon row of white headstones where the average age is just 19 years. Many just read ‘A soldier of the Great War’ ‘Known Unto God’. Headstones in perfect line akin to soldiers at attention interspersed by red roses with small lavender bushes at each end making a walkway to the large Tyne Cot Cross of Sacrifice. They came in their thousands from all over the world to free Europe and died in their endeavours. They lay here side by side, all religions, stones atop the Jewish headstones marking respect, a memory the world can reflect on and question the sensibility of war. The large white memorial just reads ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’. I hope it does, it has given me and millions like me a freedom we might not otherwise have known.
The region is one of the most historical in the world and has much to see, Hill 60 and the Caterpillar Crater, the area that men of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company gave their lives digging tunnels under the German lines, Essex Farm Cemetery where Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote his famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. The cemetery of Lijssenthoek, memorial Museum of Passchendaele 1917 with Memorial Park and Poppy Gardens, the list is endless. The area boasts quality restaurants in the guise of Pacific Eiland at Eiland 2, Fonderie Brasserie at Polenlaan 3, Gasthof “De Kring” in Poperinge and many more.
For people interested in the story and sights of the Western Front, Great Rail Journeys have a particular tour that covers these famous sights and battlefields. A 5 day escorted group tour ‘The Battlefields of Flanders’ staying at the Novotel Ieper Centrum in Ypres from £495pp that includes standard rail fare, tour manager, 4 nights’ accommodation with breakfast, 2 dinners and excursions.
In the words of the Royal British Legion Exhortation ‘We Will Remember Them’
Alan Fairfax -
is a travel writer for
YOUR HOLIDAY TV
Alan also writes for the
Ashford Advertiser Media Group with regional papers across Kent with regular holiday & travel sections in all editions
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