Friday 9 November
My connection to the Great War is tenuous – a great uncle I never met fought somewhere in France and survived. He lost an arm in the conflict, however, which meant he could never resume his job as a chemistry teacher. He later killed himself.
But despite not having a family grave to visit or a memorial to scan for the name of a lost loved one, I wanted to be in Flanders for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice on 11 November 1918.
We have come to Ypres, the main locus of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) activities on the Western Front – indeed this area was described as 'the heart and soul of the BEF.' I have been here before, several years ago. It touched me then, and I know that this weekend, while thinking about those young lives lost in such terrible circumstances, I will also be freely weeping for the recent untimely death of my dear friend, Kenneth Roy.
I wasn't able to get independent accommodation in Ypres – it all was booked eons ago, so we have come on a coach excursion with a company specialising in in-depth battlefield tours. Even though our first day is spent travelling from London to Dover and through France to our hotel base near Lille, our guide Greg is keen to make sure we have plenty of background information to prepare us for the days to come.
The 'World War,' as it was originally called, became known as the 'Great War.' But just 21 years after the guns fell silent it was renamed 'World War I.' A falling-out between three cousins ultimately involved 100 countries and states and 19 million fatalities – 11 million on battlefields and a further eight million civilian deaths.
It was the first time that generals had been fighting a war with modernised weaponry, Greg explains. Poisonous gases, chemicals, flame throwers, tanks and aeroplanes were all utilised during the four years of the war. Back in 1914, at the beginning, the tactics used by the generals in charge of operations would have been recognised by Napoleon, fighting 100 years earlier. By 1918 the tactics employed would be recognised by armies today – so much changed during so comparatively short a time.
The British casualties in WWI amounted to some one million men, 2.25% of the country's population. In Italy the figure was some 3.5% of the population, in France and Germany closer to 4%. A year after the war ended the Legion, which became the Royal British Legion, began to hold pilgrimages of former soldiers and bereaved families back to the battlefields, not only around the Armistice itself. They also commemorated 8 August 1918, the day when Allied Forces in Amiens, northern France, turned the tide on the German offensive. This was known as 'the big breakthrough.'
Commemorations are also held each year at Victoria Station in London, on 10 November, to mark the return of the body of the Unknown Soldier in 1920. One hundred women were invited to see this soldier's homecoming – their terrible qualification was that they had lost a husband and all their sons in the fighting.
Our hotel, a Holiday Inn, is in the small Lille suburb of Englos. It is fine, nothing luxurious. But then again, no-one is here for a holiday.
Saturday 10 November
A busy schedule is ahead today, much of it in the rain, which was such a feature of the Western Front. We begin at the Messines Ridge where, in 1917, the German army occupied the heavily fortified high ground, with sweeping views over the flat Flanders countryside. The plan to remove them from this vantage point took the best part of a year to put into effect. A series of tunnels was dug and huge mines were planted. Then they waited for the signal to strike.
At 2.30am, on 7 June 1917, British artillery stopped firing. By 3am the troops were ready, and at 3.10am the 19 mines were detonated almost simultaneously. The cacophony was so loud it could be heard in London, Greg tells us. Over 2,000 guns opened fire and 80,000 British troops left their trenches. The German forces were not prepared for anything on this scale and the Ridge, such a strategic point, was taken by British, Australian and New Zealand troops. By 10 June the Ypres Salient was secured.
The little town of Messines, on the Ridge, is modern and attractive. It has been re-built from the ruins. Like so many towns and villages along the Western Front it was obliterated – even the roads vanished. All the inhabitants left and even its mayor moved to Lille. Now it is neat and looks prosperous.
At Ploegsteert Wood – given the British nickname 'Plug Street' – the legendary 1914 Christmas truce between the British and German armies took place, but Greg assures us that the story of the game of football they are said to have enjoyed is entirely apocryphal.
The Plug Street Wood cemetery has a memorial for 11,447 men with no known grave. It also has three cemeteries, all beautifully kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Each grave is made of white Portland stone and engraved with a cross, Star of David or national emblem and the name, regiment and age, if known, of the soldier who died. Families were allowed to add their own personal inscriptions of up to 66 characters. But so many graves bear no name at all and simply state: 'An unknown soldier of the Great War – known to God.'
After the Allied victory at Messines, the 3rd Ypres campaign – the Passchendaele offensive – began on 31 July 1917. This campaign, we are told, utilised 'creeping barrages' for the first time, a way of moving forward while protecting infantry and artillery. The Battle of Passchendaele, after some successes for the Allies in the early days, got bogged down – literally – in the relentless rains of August 1917. The town was finally taken by the Canadians on 10 November 1917, but this came with huge losses, especially for the British forces.
To another cemetery – there are countless across the countryside – but this is the biggest Commonwealth War Commission cemetery in the world. Tyne Cot – given its name by the Northumberland Fusiliers who thought the local houses, before they were razed to the ground, reminded them of cottages back home. There are 11,900 graves at Tyne Cot. Three are new – two unknown Australian soldiers and one unknown British soldier – were recently interred, their bones recovered in excavations on land about to be used for house building. There are a further 35,000 names of the missing engraved on the panels.
It is a sombre place. Yet with a pale autumn sun peeping through dark grey clouds, casting shadows on the pristine graves, there is undoubtedly a terrible beauty to this peaceful resting place.
Sunday 11 November
In Ypres. One hundred years ago today the Armistice was signed at 5.10am by Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch in a railway carriage within the Forest of Compiegne. It was due to come into effect at 11am, by which time word should have got through to front line troops. Within those six hours there were a further 863 British and Commonwealth casualties, the last dying at two minutes to 11.
We join the poppy parade of thousands of civilians, marching to the Menin Gate behind police bands, fire and rescue bands, pipe bands and a lively and colourful Sikh band. We are each given a handful of poppy petals to carry as we walk to the most famous Commonwealth war memorial in Flanders. The gate bears the names of 54,896 soldiers who were reported missing in the Ypres Salient between the outbreak of war and 15 August 1917. Because the gate was simply too small to hold all the names of the missing, those who were lost after that date are on the panels at Tyne Cot.
When we arrive at the Gate we hand our petals back – they will be released from the top of the monument at the end of the commemoration service, swirling wildly in the wind, before covering the ground with pools of deep crimson. The ceremony is most moving, the 'Last Post' has never sounded more heart-rending.
As a slightly more upbeat antidote, during our free time that afternoon we take the train to Poperinge, known as 'Pop' to the British forces. This is where two army chaplains – Philip 'Tubby' Clayton and Neville Talbot set up Talbot House, named in honour of Neville's brother Gilbert, killed in 1915. Talbot House, or Toc H, as it became known, provided front line troops with a place of rest and relaxation – there were concert parties, games of chess, newspapers from home, a haven where they could become human again.
At 'Every Man's Club,' Tubby Clayton insisted that rank was never observed. I was delighted to discover, on a bed on one of the upper floors, resident black and white cat Benja. I hope he had a long-distant ancestor who could provide those soldiers with the solace and comfort only a cat can offer.
Back in Ypres there is another, final commemoration service, this one attended by the King and Queen of Belgium. We watch in the main square, on big screens, no longer having the physical stamina to elbow our way through the crowded streets to the floodlit Menin Gate. How pathetic that sounds, after all we have heard about the fortitude and bravery of those young men sent off to fight in 'the war to end all wars.' If only.
Photograph at top: Tyne Cot cemetery, Belgium, by Alan Millar