Greg and Robyn picked us up at 8am in their rental car and we had an hour’s drive into Ypres. We allowed plenty of time to get there for our Battlefield tour at 10am. It was very cold and none of the cafés were open at that time, but we found a bakery and had a filled roll each for breakfast.
The tour was excellent; just a small group – us four and an Irish couple – but it was a bitterly cold day. Our guide Chris really knew his Great War history and brought it alive for us. We drove from the town of Ypres which was destroyed in WWI and has been rebuilt to look like it did before that war, along the North Salient. We went to several different cemeteries, including the Essex Farm Cemetery, alongside some of the preserved dressing stations/bunkers of the Allies at the Western Front, and where the Canadian Medical Officer John McCrae wrote his famous poem “In Flanders Fields”; the German Cemetery where German schoolboys died attacking the village of Langemark, along with mass graves containing all the bodies from the many original cemeteries on land handed back to the Belgians after WWII (a bleak place), and the huge Passchendaele Memorial (Tyne Cot). We visited the Yorkshire trench, a reconstruction of part of the Western front battle lines, where we appreciated just the few yards the front line moved in two years. We drove along the Passchendaele ridge where Chris retold the story of the two week battle of Passchendaele and we could visualise the hopelessness of the attack. A very sombre tour but we all learned so much and felt it was well worth doing.
At the conclusion, we found a warm café for coffee and a snack, and then drove to Dunkirk for a quick look at the Normandy sea front. The wind was still cold, so we found an inside bar for a drink before driving back to Ypres for an early dinner, intending to attend the 8pm ceremony at the Menin Gate (where every evening since WWI “The Last Post” has been played, except during WWII during the German occupation when it was played in England). Dinner at De Ruyffelaer was great. How’s this for the description of my meal – “wedding of Cod and St Pierre filet bathing in a vegetable pool”!! Unfortunately the meal took so long that there wasn’t time to fit in the ceremony and we drove back to Bruges, being dropped off at the camp just before 10pm.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
~ John McCrae