Click here to read Part 1: Vimy Ridge France
Thursday 25 March 2010
We have come to the medieval city of Ieper (Ypres) in Belgium to explore the WWI sites nearby. We have checked in our Bed and Breakfast and have walked to the Menin Gate to join dozens of others waiting for the Last Post ceremony that has started promptly at 8 PM each evening since 1928. Every evening is different, depending on who is in attendance. Tonight there is a small contingent of local service people, school groups from Scotland and Britain and many tourists. The traffic has been stopped and we have a front row view of the proceedings. Five buglers from volunteer fire brigades form a row at the eastern end of the gate, accompanied by a woman from the Scottish school group with her bagpipes. The buglers play the Last Post, followed by a recitation of the exhortation from Laurence Binyon's "for the Fallen":
They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old,
There is a minute of silence followed by the laying of wreaths by local officials and two school groups. The ceremony ends with the Reveille played on the bagpipes. It is incredibly moving, so much so that we return the next night to witness the ceremony again.
Ieper (Ypres) itself was a lovely city to visit. Completely destroyed in 1914 by German artillery attacks, the citizens were evacuated and the city was later retaken by British and became a British military center. At the end of WWI, Winston Churchill wanted to preserve the city as a memorial to the horrors of war. The Belgians disagreed. The Belgian Government subsidized all citizens who wanted to return and rebuild, which they did, magnificently. Rebuilding was also financed by payments from Germany as reparation.
Ieper bills itself as the City of Peace, but it is also known as Cat City. In medieval times, live cats were thrown from Cloth hall belfry to ensure good luck. Now a jester throws toy cats from the belfry and there is a Cat Parade every third year on second Sunday in May with everyone in cat costumes.
John Stephens had included a suggested circle tour of Canadian cemetaries and memorials on his website, which we used as a base for an afternoon tour. We managed to visit several important sites near Ieper. Our first stop was the Hill 62 Memorial and Sanctuary Wood cemetary. The memorial commemorates battles between April to August 1916, the first time Canadian forces were in a planned offensive. The memorial site gave a good view of the southern stretch of the Salient line.
Our next stop was the Passendale (Passcendaele) memorial. If you
haven't see the film by Paul Gross, produced in 2008, it is worth while
renting. It depicts a battle of Oct/Nov 1917, ultimately won by
Canadian and British forces, but at a horrific loss of life. The
Canadian General Currie, Commander of the Canadian Corps, who had
excelled at Vimy Ridge, warned of huge loss of life and tried to disuade
the British from their plans but was overuled. Record rains had created
a sea of mud in which soldiers who slipped off wooden walkways were
drowned. The battle was won but at the cost of 15,654 Canadian soldiers
and about 500,000 Commonwealth lives were lost for a gain of a mere 2 sq
We had missed the turnoff to the Tyne Cot British cemetary on our way to Passendale, so we backtracked and visited this impressive site. It was the British tradition to bury soldiers killed in battle at the site of their death. Tyne Cot greatly expanded an original battlefield cemetary of 353 graves to include include those follen in the battlefields and those buried in smaller cemetaries nearby. It is now the biggest Commonwealth cemetary and the most visited. A very good visitor's center was opened by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 2007 and is well worth visiting. Included in the cemetary is a Memorial to the Missing. The back wall is inscribed with the names of 35,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died after 17 August 1917 and whose graves are unknown.
We visited only a portion of the cemetaries and memorials to WWI in France and Belgium. We met several people who were on repeat trips to the area. Many had become students of the history of this period, learning more each time they came back. We would return as well, even exploring the area by bicyle as there are 1,000 Km of bike paths criss-crossing the countryside. It was an unforgetable visit.
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