Visiting Ypres and The Somme is not so much a holiday or a trip as it is a pilgrimage. Lest we forget, we are commemorating the World War I centenary between 2014 and 2018, and I felt simultaneously humbled and privileged to accompany the School where I work, to pay due respect and learn more about a War that did much to shape the world as we know it today.
We’ve all seen the footage of rows and rows of white tombstones stretched across manicured lawns, but the sombre mood of melancholic reflection that permeates the atmosphere at the cemeteries is a visceral experience that words simply can’t do justice to. It was a senseless war that cost millions of lives on both sides.
As Belgium was on the side of the Allies, there are naturally more cemeteries for those soldiers, but the eerie, minimalist Langemark cemetery is given over to German soldiers – and the mass grave of 25000 unknown victims there brings the point home that this was a humanitarian catastrophe on a staggering scale, no matter which side you fought on.
The must-see-before-you-die experience is undoubtedly the last post ceremony at Menin Gate. Ever since 1928 (apart from when the town was occupied in World War II), the people of Ypres have held this ceremony at 8pm every evening to express their gratitude to the British and Commonwealth troops for the sacrifices they made for the town and the region during World War I. This ceremony attracts a huge crowd, and whilst I could have just about taken photos if I wanted to, to do so felt both reductive and inappropriate; it was a time to think and reflect, as the buglers played the bugle call and carried out ceremonial military manoeuvres, interspersed by a minute’s silence.
This was all moving enough, but as we were there the evening before ANZAC day, we were lucky enough to be treated to an extended ceremony. The buglers played ‘Abide With Me’ and then we had the Australian and New Zealand anthems back to back: a New Zealander was stood next to me, and he sang along, hand on heart, to the latter, which was a lovely and poignant moment.
The Somme is a no less important place to experience. As most of us know, this was one of the most shattering conflicts in an exceptionally devastating war. Quite understandably, we tend to think of it as a battle that took place over the course of a day, or maybe several days, as that’s when most of the carnage – mostly brought about by extreme incompetence on the part of British commanders – took place. But it actually took place over the course of several months, running the landscape as well as claiming many lives.
The place with the most striking visual impact was undoubtedly Thiepval Memorial and visitors centre. Another enormous monument to the missing dead of World War I, it bears some 70000+ names of British and South African soldiers, who have no known grave. Newfoundland Park is very much worth a mention for it being the main commemoration for Canadian soldiers. It might resemble a park more than a cemetery with its hillock Caribou monument, but the remaining trenches, memorials around the park, cemeteries and ‘danger tree’ (a petrified tree that still stands from the War) are more than enough to ensure that this place is not forgotten as a place of conflict.
Another must-see is Lochnagar Crater. This huge crater was laid under German lines by British troops, and exploded on the morning of 1st July (the first morning of the Battle of the Somme) to quite destructive effect – the accompanying plume of smoke shot some 1000 metres in to the air. The crater, whilst visually jaw dropping, is of particular significance as the undiscovered remains of German, French and British soldiers lie underneath it.
Our school party were fortunate enough to enhance the experience by reading war poems at the cemeteries. Of the poems we read, the one that remains with me most is the truly heart-breaking ‘Before Action’ by William Noel Hodgson. It was written shortly before he was killed in action, and is the voice of a man who is resigned to his fate, for he and his Captain had done some reconnaissance prior to the attack that suggested an attack would be disastrous – a report which was ignored by their superiors.