Flanders & the Somme 2003

Report by Committee Member

Bessy Phipps (Anderson)

 

When I was in school, history was always my weakest subject. I could never remember the dates or the significance of wars and battles, and the reason for a nation going to war against another nation didn’t hold much interest for me. An uncle of mine joined the army in 1917, after his mother’s death, and he was killed in France in 1918 at age 21. I knew very little about him, mainly I suppose because I didn’t ask. I have seen a photograph of him in uniform, good looking, vulnerable with perhaps a trace of fear in those young eyes. But like thousands of others who enlisted at the time, I am sure he was adventurous and probably wanted to go with his friends and contemporaries who would be joining up as well.

Earlier this year I read about the Bandon War Memorial Committee’s proposed tour to Flanders and the Somme in September. Immediately I was consumed with a passion to go and see these places, and see where this uncle is commemorated and lay a wreath on behalf of the family who had never been there. And here I must record my thanks to Bandon War Memorial Committee for locating the cemetery and facilitating my visit there in their itinerary. The trip was very well organised and much appreciated by all the participants. We were based in Ypres for the five night duration and with the exception of one long day trip in France towards the Somme, the other days were spent in Flanders and Ypres itself. The Belgian countryside in the south-west is level and intensively farmed. Potatoes are a plentiful crop, so is maize which was ready for silage making. We saw quite a lot of sugar beet and fields of leeks and cabbages of all kinds. We saw a field of pumpkins too and what a gloriously rich harvest that was. Fewer cattle or dairy herds than at home, but villages and clusters of houses would be more plentiful. But what really caught your eye and your heart were the number of war cemeteries scattered about the countryside, some of them less than a mile apart, with their rows and rows of white Portland Stone Memorials. All without exception were beautifully maintained.

The Commonwealth war graves commission founded in 1917 is responsible for the maintenance of graves and memorials in 150 countries to commemorate some 1,700,000 members of the Commonwealth Forces who died in the two World Wars. There is a great sense of peace and quiet in these places and someone remarked that even the birds don’t sing there, and there is absolutely no vandalism even in the more remote areas. At the entrance to every cemetery there is an unlocked safe in the wall for the registers containing names and references of all the identified soldiers, and their stones bear their names and the emblem of their regiment. Stones erected to unidentified soldiers simply carry the inscription “Known to God”. The names of all the soldiers who haven’t been found are listed in alphabetical order under the name of their regiment on the walls of the cemetery nearest to their fatal battle. Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world containing almost 12,000 graves and nearly 35,000 names are recorded on the walls. Many of these were victims of the gruelling battle of nearly Passerdale. We visited a German cemetery at Langemark, where over 44,000 German soldiers graves are marked by black square stones, laid flat into the ground. At the back of the cemetery stand four life size sculpted figures with heads bowed. Rows of large oak trees add an eerie gloom to this place. Another interesting afternoon was spent in and around Mesen, a small quiet town close to the French border. Arriving at lunchtime we went to a pub displaying a “Cead Mile Failte” sign. Some Irish music was put on and we were quickly served tea and toasted sandwiches. For the afternoon we had a guide with a great passion for the history of both world wars. He showed us over the museum there. Then off to the Irish Peace School, which came about through the efforts of FAS and its Northern Ireland equivalent to provide “Away for it all” breaks for young people from different traditions in Northern Ireland for study, recreation and reconciliation. Teenagers who once used their artistic talent to paint graffiti on the walls of Belfast and other towns have painted some beautiful murals on the walls of this centre. We visited “St. Nicholas” Church which has an underground crypt and a Peace Carillion in its tower. Outside the town we went to the Island of Ireland Peace Park, set in beautifully maintained grounds, the monument is an obelisk in memory of all Irish soldiers who fought and died in the Great War and particularly of those lost in the mine battle at the local Messines Ridge

. The lovely town of Poperinge has been described both as a haven and as a hell. A haven for those fortunate enough to return for respite from the trenches, and a hell for those who were deserters or were traumatised from their experiences, many of them were underage. They would be tried by Court Martial and sentenced to punishment or death and the death cells and shooting post preserved here in the basement of the Town Hall are very grim evidence of what “shot at dawn” means.

In France we visited Thiepval, where the 45 metre high Franco British Memorial dominates the countryside. Its huge columns bear the carved names of 73,000 soldiers who died in the Battle of the Somme and have no known graves. Nearby in the Ulster Memorial Tower, commemorating the soldiers of Ulster who fought and died at the Somme.

Ypres to-day is a charming medieval town with cobbled streets and a spacious square. Traffic is quiet, as bicycles are a popular mode of transport. Children cycle to school and the little ones are brought on bicycles by their mothers, who then cycle off to their shopping. Bicycles are parked between supports in designated places, but are not locked. There is no evidence of crime or vandalism and one instinctively feels safe. This town had a troubled history and was the scene of many sieges and battles, and was completely destroyed in World War 1. The Belgian people, however, had the plans of the principal buildings and set about restoring their town to its former glory. St. Martin’s Cathedral is a magnificent gothic structure with some glorious stained glass windows. Behind the Cathedral stands the memorial to the soldiers of Munster, in the form of a Celtic Cross on a plinth, supplied and erected by a Cork sculptor. The largest building in Ypres is “the Cloth Hall” built originally in the 13th century, overlooking the cobbled square, as a warehouse for the wool trade, its 400 feet facade has been splendidly rebuilt, though we are told it took 34 years to complete and it has a 200 ft. high belfry tower. Today it houses the “In Flanders Fields” Museum, where audio visual exhibits tell the story of the wars. There are scale models, battlefield artefacts and so on. Other buildings of architectural interest are the Town Hall and Courthouse. The Anglican Memorial Chapel of St. George was built in the late twenties. Everything in this beautiful little church is donated in memory of a soldier; even the individual kneelers have hand made tapestry covers with British Regimental colours. Outside the town agricultural activity still throws up shells and grenades, some still live, and on freshly cultivated ground you can see the zigzag chalk lines indicating the existence of trenches. We had the privilege and very humbling experience of attending the Christian burial of the remains of an unidentified soldier from World War 1, which were uncovered during recent excavations.

Ypres most poignant memorial at the eastern entrance to the town is the Menin Gate. This is a huge monumental colonnade with almost 55,000 names inscribed on its walls. Here every night at 8 o’clock since July 1927, with the exception of the Nazi occupation in World War 2, the last post ceremony takes place. Traffic is halted as a couple of hundred people gather quietly under the massive arches, prayers are recited and five volunteer buglers from the fire brigade sound the last post, that short but unforgettable solemn musical tribute. Some people lay wreaths or search for familiar names on the columns, but the majority disperse as quickly as they gathered and normal life is resumed. Seeing these places made me feel humble, sad, grateful and proud all at once, but aware overall of the overwhelming debt of gratitude we owe to all those men who sacrificed their young lives for the peace and freedom we enjoy today. B. Phipps

 

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