Christmas in Ypres, 1917

This is about a Christmas of a different sort to those normally associated with World War 1.

This was in Ypres in 1917.

This is from one of my grandfather’s diary. It shows that during the course to the war soldiers were moved in and out of France. Just prior to this he has received a commission and had spent time training in England as an engineer.

Lille Gate:

The Lille Gate or Rijselpoort in Ypres.

Ypres was badly damaged in the war, with the Lille Gate being relatively unscathed and housing a number of military headquarters.

Another snapshot from a year earlier:

Christmas Day On The Somme

’Twas Christmas Day on the Somme
The men stood on parade,
The snow laid six feet on the ground
Twas twenty in the shade.

Up spoke the Captain ‘gallant man’,
“Just hear what I’ve to say,
You may not have remembered that
Today is Christmas Day.”

“The General has expressed a wish
This day may be observed,
Today you will only work eight hours,
A rest that’s well deserved.

I hope you’ll keep yourselves quite clean
And smart and spruce and nice,
The stream is frozen hard
But a pick will break the ice.”

“All men will get two biscuits each,
I’m sure you’re tired of bread,
I’m sorry there’s no turkey
but there’s Bully Beef instead.

The puddings plum have not arrived
But they are on their way,
I’ll guarantee they’ll be in time
To eat next Christmas Day.”

“You’re parcels would have been in time
But I regret to say
The vessel which conveyed them was
Torpedoed on the way.

The Quartermaster’s got your rum
But you may get some yet,
Each man will be presented with
A Woodbine Cigarette.”

“The Huns have caught us in the rear
And painted France all red,
Pray do not let that trouble you,
Tomorrow you’ll be dead.

Now ere you go I wish you all
This season of good cheer,
A very happy Christmas and
A prosperous New Year.”

The author, Leslie George Robb, was killed in September 1917 and was buried 5 km south of Ypres along with many many others.

We have a lot we should be grateful for a century later.

Ypres trip part 3

Part 3 on Missy’s visit to Ypres. The first two:


 

The final part on my visit to Ypres at the beginning of August. This is just a quick one with a bit about the excellent In Flanders Field Museum in Ypres.

The museum is in the Cloth Hall in the market square. The Cloth Hall was a medieval building built as a commercial building for the cloth trade in Ypres, it dated from the 14th century (built around 1304). During WWI the building was left in ruins, but after the war (between 1933 and 1967) the building was completely rebuilt to its prewar condition. The building now houses the In Flanders Field Museum.

I have seen a lot of museums that look at wars, and battles, but this one was really emotional. This museum is dedicated completely to WWI and the battles around Flanders, it starts with a bit of pre-war history of Ypres, and talks about the lives of the people, and then moves chronologically through the war and how it impacted on the lives of the soldiers and the civilians in Ypres.

The museum includes some short films of actors telling the stories of soldiers, mostly British, French, and German, it tells the stories of some of the locals as well, including those that moved away from Ypres, and where they ended up and what became of them – those that returned, and those that did not.

For me on of the most emotional aspects of the museum was one of the simplest displays, from the start of the WWI centenary commemorations the museum has been listing the name of every person (military and civilian) who was killed in Flanders on a loop, on the day they died 100 years prior. I was in the museum for a couple of hours (incredible considering it is on one floor only), and I did not see the name of a casualty twice. Remembering they are only displaying the names of the people on the centenary of their death.

For me, having studied WWI a bit at University and knowing the numbers of the casualties, I don’t think it really hits you until you see the countless cemeteries, the thousands and thousands of gravestones, and the tens of thousands of names listed, for my part it truly does make it more real to see the names, and graves, rather than just reading numbers. I think seeing it represented as names, really connects with that human part of us, names make people real, numbers are just numbers and have no emotional connection to us as humans.

So, I fully recommend going to Flanders if you ever get the chance, visit the cemeteries, and the sites of the battles such as Messiness and Passchendaele, and above all try and spend more than just the half day (or less) most will spend in Ypres, visit the museum and walk the town.

It is sad to know that a beautiful medieval town was so completely destroyed that it is essentially only 100 years old now, but there are still some reminders of the ancient history of Ypres, and Flanders. I was told that Polygon wood is an ancient wood – despite all of the trees there being less than 100 years old. On the site of the wood, there has been a wood forever, and one of the roads down beside the wood was one originally built by the Romans, a small reminder that Ypres has gone through a long history and survived, and that it will continue to survive in the centuries to come.

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.

passchendaele-h287-700x467

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.