Ypres trip part 1

From Missy:


So as promised for those that are interested a few thoughts about my trip to Ypres. I think it is best that I spread these over a couple of posts or it will be long and boring. :)

I arrived on Tuesday afternoon, so just chilled before going out on Wednesday. Ypres, despite being re-built in the years after WWI, has retained the medieval design in the old town, and still has that feel about it. It is indeed a beautiful town, and I am sure was just as beautiful – if not more so – pre-1914.

world-war-i-western-front-em-w77-wwiwest

On Wednesday morning I was taken out and about to the Ypres Salient, specifically to look at where the Otago Battalion fought. My Great Great Uncle was killed in December 1917, so fought at Paschendaele in the October. My wonderful guide showed me where the front lines were, and how they changed as ground was taken & then lost, and so on. He talked about the first use of gas in 1914 in the first battle of Ypres, and showed me where the Germans were when they released it, and how far it covered – until you actually see it you can’t comprehend how devastating it would have been.

When I saw the ground covered by the NZers in Paschendaele it was quite emotional, they were so exposed, and to know that it was basically a quagmire when they were trying to advance, they were essentially sitting ducks.

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It is quite amazing to see the Nga Tapuwae signs around that explain and show the NZers involvement. We were out for 3 hours and covered quite a bit of ground, I thought that was a lot, but for our soldiers 100 years ago on foot in the rain and mud it must have been horrific to try and make their way to the front and then up the rises to try and take the land from the Germans.

I was also taken to the area where my Gt Gt Uncle was most likely killed, and where his battlefield grave was (that is private land so we were unable to access it, it was a case of looking behind the houses to see the spot), I will say that was more emotional than I thought it would be, considering I never knew him, and to me he is nothing more than a name and someone I know very little about – though a bit more now.

Once we were done with that we went to the cemetery where my Gt Gt Uncle is buried, to my knowledge I am the only person in my family to have visited his grave, it was very emotional, and quite humbling to visit it, and see where his final resting place it. I put a poppy in the garden by his grave and spent a bit of time talking to him, telling him I wished he had been around to see my Grandfather grow up and know him and my father, and see the world change, and how we all remember the sacrifice that him and his comrades have made. It seems a little silly, but I felt better for it.

We also visited the NZ memorial at Polygon Wood, which the NZers (mainly Canterbury and Otago Regiments) occupied over the winter of 1918 / 1917. Polygon Wood is an ancient wood, but the trees are less than 100 years old, it is a weird mix to know the wood itself has been there long before the Romans, but the trees having all been destroyed during the 4 years of WWI have all been re-planted, originally with pines as that is all they could grow in the years after the war, but slowly are being replaced with native trees again.

For me this was a very emotional visit, something I hadn’t really expected, and it wasn’t solely to do with my Gt Gt Uncle, but just seeing the NZ graves of so many young men, and those of unidentified NZ soldiers, soldiers that will never have a family member visit their grave, but poignantly a lot of NZers visit to pay respects.

I have a huge amount of respect for the workers and volunteers at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the cemeteries are so well cared for with so much respect. I also have respect for the people of Belgium, and Flanders in particular, for their remembrance of these men that died for their country.

I had mixed feelings though when first in Ypres, they have built quite a business out of WWI, most businesses in town are aimed at those coming to visit cemeteries and battlefields, and it could be seen as disrespectful, but then when you think of the fact that their town, and surrounding area, were so devastated during WWI then if anyone is going to make money from it, it should be them. The battlefield / cemetery industry (for want of a better word) has been around in Ypres for almost 100 years apparently, it all started in late 1918 when British people would turn up to see where their loved on died, or was buried.

I will write some more posts on my visit, there is still a lot more to say. Though I do feel I risk turning Pete’s blog into one like David Farrar’s travel blog!

See also Ypres trip part 2

(No risk of that, your report from Ypres is much appreciated and I think it will be of interest to others as well as me – PG)

From the Auckland Museum Collection:

A small Belgian village of major importance

From 31 July to 6 November 1917, British, ANZAC, Canadian and South African soldiers fought against the German Army for control of a small Belgian village called Passchendaele. It was one of the major battles of World War I and one of the most tragic. From July to November 1917, the total killed and wounded was reported to be 448,000 from British allied forces and 260,000 from German forces.

Opposing the German advance through Belgium and into France

Passchendaele, or Passendale as it is now written, is near the town of Ypres (officially named Ieper) in West Flanders, Belgium. That’s why the Battle of Passchendaele is also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, or simply Third Ypres. The plan was to drive a hole in the German lines, advance to the Belgian coast and capture the German submarine bases there. This would also create a corridor in a crucial area of the German army’s western front and take pressure off the French armed forces.

Two of New Zealand’s greatest tragedies

On two days in October 1917, in the farmlands of Belgium, New Zealand suffered two of its greatest tragedies. On 4 October, 490 New Zealand servicemen were killed. Eight days later on 12 October there was an even greater loss. Of 3000 casualties on that day, more than 840 young New Zealanders lay dead or dying in the mud and uncut wire before the village of Passchendaele.

Horrific conditions

Fighting from trenches and losing tens of thousands of lives to gain only a few metres of ground, the soldiers had to contend with liquid mud deep enough to drown in, the noise of gunfire and artillery and the smell of rotting corpses in the trenches.

Siegfried Sassoon, an English poet and soldier decorated for bravery, summed it up in this verse from his sonnet ‘Memorial Tablet (Great War)’.

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell-
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

12 Comments

  1. Gezza

     /  August 7, 2016

    ❤ ❤

  2. Missy

     /  August 7, 2016

    Pete, if anyone is interested, I have some photos of the Menin Gate and NZ memorials that I am happy to send to you to share.

    • If you email them to me I’ll post them.

      • Missy

         /  August 7, 2016

        I will sort a couple now and send them shortly. I just don’t want to bore people, this is one of my hobby horses so to speak and I can get carried away.

      • Missy

         /  August 7, 2016

        I have sent a few photos through, feel free to use some, all, or none.

        Personally I am most proud of the one I got of the Menin Gate at Dawn, it is one of my favourite photos I have taken in a long time. But I am a little biased. 😉

        • traveller

           /  August 7, 2016

          I agree it is hauntingly lovely

          • Missy

             /  August 7, 2016

            Thanks traveller, it was really amazing at that time of the morning (5.30am), and very lonely with no-one around.

        • pickled possum

           /  August 7, 2016

          Solemn, Missy. That is a beautiful photo. Your letter is so moving and informing. Thank you for the time you take to let us (me) ones back home, that don’t know much about, part of our history. 🙂

  3. Missy

     /  August 7, 2016

    500,000 allied lives lost in the battle of Paschendaele, hard to believe that was equivalent to half of NZ’s population at the time.

    Tyne Cot cemetery is one of the largest and has over 12,000 soldiers buried there from that battle, it puts it into perspective to see the gravestones lined up, read the names of the missing, and realise there were still more again that were killed.

  4. Thanks for your article. Much appreciated

    • Missy

       /  August 7, 2016

      You are welcome. It is hard to know whether anyone is actually interested or not, and I appreciate the fact that there are some that are interested, and appreciate reading about my travels.

      • Gezza

         /  August 7, 2016

        When people I don’t think I’ve seen here before post to say thank you, you can rest assured people are interested M. Both your reports, and the photos make as big an impact on me now as this did when I made it in 1989.

        [audio src="http://k003.kiwi6.com/hotlink/t6sbz9yglf/-ANZAC-.mp3" /]

        But you have to paste only the bits between the ” & ” into your browser and it might only work on a PC.