Moved by the impact of the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ commemorative WWI memorial at the Tower of London Anna Hyman visited some of Flanders war cemeteries.
The other day I cupped a scarlet poppy in my hand and grieved for a life that had been lost.
For this was no ordinary poppy. This was one of the 888,246 ceramic poppies, that drew hundreds of thousands of people to the Tower of London to see the astonishing and incredibly moving sight of the blood red carpet of poppies filling the historic moat for the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ memorial. The memorial created by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.
At the beginning of August 2014 I had watched it being built. Poppies were already pouring out from a window in one of the towers and down into the moat. Along with the poppies already blossoming in the summer sunshine were boxes upon boxes waiting to be opened and their contents planted. I stopped to talk to a young father with his two small children. The little boy was too young, but his eight year old daughter he told me knew what the poppies meant. ‘Yes’ she said shyly ‘they are for men who died’!
Known unto God
A month later on a sunny September day our coach was at Dover ferry port along with a number of WW2 jeeps waiting to board the P&O ferry heading for the Normandy battlefields.
But we were going back further in time – to the battlefields of the Great War.
The following day I was standing in a cemetery in Flanders looking at the regimented ranks of tombstones.
Some bearing a name, some a regiment and too many bearing simply the message ‘Known unto God’.
To visit the war graves is one of the most thought-provoking and humbling experiences imaginable.
In Flanders Fields Museum
But first of all we called in at Ypres the city that has risen phoenix-like from the rubble resulting from the near constant bombardments during WWI; its city centre with its beautiful Cloth Hall has been faithfully restored to its former medieval glory.
And it is in this splendid building that the intensely powerful In Flanders Fields Museum is housed; ‘intensely powerful’ because its exhibition pulls no punches in the presentation of the story of the invasion of Belgium and the horrendous conditions of four years of trench warfare.
The story is told through various re-enactments and interactive displays alongside simple, poignant displays of personal possessions.
For the Fallen
At 8pm that evening along with a crowd of several hundred we stood in silence under the massive Menin Gate (built in 1927) as the Last Post was played and the well-known verse from Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’ was read.
It is a ceremony that has been performed virtually every evening since July 1928 in honour of the 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died and whose graves are unknown. During WWII when the city was in German occupation the ceremony was held in Surrey at the Brookwood Military Cemetery. (The names of the 35,000 soldiers killed after 15 August 1917 who also have no known graves are recorded on the Tyne Cot Memorial.)
The weather had turned, and for our remaining 48 hours tuned itself into our reflective mood with grey skies and ethereal mists hanging low over the now peaceful and gentle countryside, that had not so very long ago been churned up muddy fields of suffering, death and sorrow.
We stopped at Passchendaele to visit the Memorial Museum. It was in this area that in just 100 days over 400,000 soldiers were lost in the struggle for just a few kilometres of land. A specially constructed six-metre deep dugout depicts what life was like underground for the men stationed in it and its trenches. In the main house, the museum is in Zonnebeke Chateau grounds, are displays depicting how quickly warfare changed and developed both in clothing and weapons from earlier battles.
From Passchendaele we moved on to Tyne Cot, from Tyne Cot to Poperinge and the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery surrounded by hop fields (for Flanders is noted for its beers). Lijssenthoek, after Tyne Cot, is the second largest British and Commonwealth cemetery in Belgium. But unlike Tyne Cot where most of the graves (approximately 70%) are unidentified, at Lijssenthoek, almost all the burials are named. It was the site of the largest field hospital in the area and has an interesting information centre hospital.
We had stopped for a very good light lunch at Oude Kaasmakerij (The Old Dairy) at Passchendaele and we found ourselves at Poperinge (a delightful little town) and the very special Talbot House in time for tea.
Talbot House was founded by the Reverend Philip (Tubby) Clayton and chaplain Neville Talbot as a bed and breakfast for soldiers travelling to and from the Front Line.
Having seen the unspeakable conditions that men in the trenches were enduring the two men opened Talbot House to give the soldiers a place of relaxation. Here the men could play cards, laugh, sing and for a short while escape from the horrors of war.
It still has the most wonderful atmosphere due in part to the volunteers who take it in turns to look after the house and provide visitors with complimentary tea or coffee (or as the lovely volunteers on duty the day we called in complimentary and quite delicious home-made fairy cakes and shortbread).
Early next morning as we began to make our way back to Calais to catch an afternoon ferry home we called in at Messines.
Battle of Messines
The battle of Messines took place over the course of a week in June 1917 – an attempt to capture and secure the ridge of high ground from the German defences.
For months before a series of tunnels had been dug under the German lines with over 600 tonnes of explosives at their far ends. Nineteen of the 22 mines were detonated with over 10,000 soldiers killed outright. The combined British and New Zealand troops captured the ridge. The Messines Ridge New Zealand memorial records the names of 839 soldiers who died and have no known grave.
Close by Messines is the Irish Peace Park dedicated to the Irish soldiers who, regardless of religion, fought and died side by side. The design of the tower only allows the sun to light its interior on Armistice Day at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The Peace Park also stands as a symbol of hope and reconciliation.
The Peace Park has also resulted in the construction of the Messines Peace Village, an international and very well equipped hostel used for events, seminars and meetings for associations and youth and school groups.
Fromelle and Flowers of Remembrance
And finally back into France and the new museum of Fromelles with its, by comparison to what we had seen earlier, tiny cemetery. The cemetery houses the graves of 250 British and Australian soldiers who died on 19 July 1916 in the Battle of Fromelles .
It was known that many men had died at close by Pheasant Wood but the locations of their burial was not known until aerial photography revealed what could only be the missing mass graves. The bodies were recovered in 2009 and reinterred in 2010 and thanks to modern DNA equipment a number have been identified and their graves now bear their names.
A narrow border even in September was in bloom with flowers of red, white and blue. Amongst them Blue cornflowers the French symbol of remembrance; White, the White Alpine Myosotis, a symbol for peace – its German name Vergissmeinnicht, as in English meaning forget-me-not; and Red for the poppy chosen by the British Commonwealth as their symbol of remembrance.
Three months later in a friend’s house a box arrived – a box containing a single scarlet ceramic poppy.
P&O Ferries: P&O Ferries offers up to 23 return crossings a day between Dover and Calais. Crossing time is approximately 90 minutes and there is a departure every 45 minutes at peak times. Prices start at £35 each way for a car and up to nine passengers.
Club Lounge, which includes complimentary newspapers, tea, coffee, and a glass of Champagne, is £12 each way booked in advance. www.poferries.com
Information about Battlefield coach trips can be found on the Coach Tourism Council’s website: http://findacoachholiday.com/focus-3/
Talbot House: http://www.toerismepoperinge.be/en/page/3021/sleeping.html Lijssenhoek Cemetery: http://www.lijssenthoek.be/en Memorial Museum Passchendaele: http://www.passchendaele.be/eng/homeEN.html In Flanders Fields Museum: http://www.inflandersfields.be/en
The comfortable, friendly and centrally located Hotel Albion in Ypres: http://www.albionhotel.be/.
The centrally located and friendly Recour Hotel, Poperinge. The comfortable rooms range from classically elegant to modern and stylish: http://www.pegasusrecour.be/english/kamersinfo_e.html
De Fonderie restaurant, Ypres; a smart but casual, centrally located brasserie offering very good food, charmingly served: http://defonderie.be
The centrally located Hotel Palace, Poperinge for a tasty three-course menu combined with entertainment – Songs that Won the Great War – from €55 per person. www.hotelpalace.be/