01 May 2011

Weekend in Lille

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row

John McRae 1915

One thing we had decided we wanted to do in Lille, before we left on our trip, was to do the tour of World War 1 sites in Flanders organised by the local tourist information office. We arrived to book the tour to find it had been cancelled that weekend due to lack of interest.

However, for a few more euros each we were able to book a private guide to take us on a tour. Aurore from Trottin nord turned out to be an excellent guide and we profited a great deal from her expert knowledge and her car - allowing her to vary the tour to suit our wishes. I would highly recommend her if you are ever in the area and was thoroughly moved by the experience of visiting these sites - unable to imagine what the beautiful rolling, lush, green countryside must have looked like in 1918, covered in trenches and land mines, treeless and desolate. Unable to imagine it taking 10 years to "cleanse" the land and return it to its population.

My grandfather fought in the First World War. At the age of 18, in late 1917, he joined the Scottish regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In early 1918 he shipped to France and from what we can gather fought in the trenches around Lille - potentially in Bethune, Hazebrouck, Arras, Bapaume and Artois.

That's my grandfather, back right.....he looks like a little boy, a little boy soldier, who at the age of 18 went off to fight in a war, a war that killed over 885000 British soldiers....luckily he returned, but my dad said he never talked of his experiences in France.

Our guide collected us from our hotel at 8am on Saturday morning (yes an 8am start on holiday!) First was a quick stop in Lille itself to learn a little about the role of the city in the war. We saw memorials to the members of the city's resistance shot by the Germans in 1915 to the only memorial in the world recognising the role of pigeons (think carrier pigeons) in World War 1.

We then drove north from Lille, deep into the region of Flanders, that straddles France and Belgium, devastated during World War 1 when it became a landscape of trenches and craters and men fought bloody battles to gain metres of land......

First stop was Ploegsteert (nicknamed Plug Street by the British troops), where Winston Churchill (Prime Minister hero of Britain in World War 2) fought in 1916. We drove on to the Ploegsteert Memorial...built in 1931 to commemorate the 11,447 men with no known graves who died during battles in nearby Armentieres, Loos, Fromelle, Hazebrouck etc. It is surrounded by a number of graveyards including the Hyde Park Cemetery and the Berks Cemetery Extension. One grave here, commemorates a 16 year old, who lied about his age to join the army and by the time his mother was able to get the army to start looking for him to bring him home he was already dead.

Many of the names used in the area in World War 1 have strong London connections - this includes the trench called Oxford Circus or Regent Street.

Every Friday at 7pm the Last Post is still played at this cemetery to commemorate those that lost their lives.

We then moved on up the N365 towards Ypres, stopping near Messines to visit the Peace Crater. In the early morning of 7th June 1917, the British army blew up 19 mines that they had spent many months digging out to undermine German positions. The tunnels were dug by Tunneling Companies of the Royal Engineers, mostly by men known as clay kickers, who lay on their backs and with spikes on the soles of their shoes kicked out the mud and clay to create a tunnel (the quietest way to dig a tunnel). 17 of the 19 mines were all exploded in unison in June 1917 and the crater created by the Spanbroekolen Mine was purchased in 1920 to create a memorial. The explosion created a hole 76m across and 12m deep...

Our next stop was the incredibly moving Tyne Cot Cemetery, close to the strategically important town of Ypres (Ieper). Here, 11,954 allied soldiers are buried, the largest Commonwealth military cemetery anywhere in the world. A further, 34 587 men who fell in the Ypres Salient, whose graves are unknown are also commemorated here.

Over 8000 of the 11954 graves belong to unidentified service men.

I was unsure of what a salient was, it seemed historically important and have since discovered that a salient is a battlefield that extends into enemy territory and is surrounded on 3 sides. The Ypres Salient saw some of the heaviest fighting in the 1st World War, with over 90000 British and Commonwealth troops being killed.

After Tyne Cot, we headed to Ypres, captured early in the First World War by allied troops, Ypres was strategically important throughout the war. The city itself was almost totally destroyed but was rebuilt exactly as it was before the war (following a long debate about whether it should be left destroyed as a memorial to all that fell there) and today it has many magnificent buildings including the Cloth Hall and the cathedral.

On of the most moving sights in Ypres is the Menin Gate. It was built in 1921 to commemorate the British and Commonwealth soldiers who lost the lives on the Ypres Salient - remembering 54896 men.

The Last Post (click here to listen), is played here every evening at 8pm, as it has been since 1928. The exception being the 4 years during which time the town was occupied by the Germans in World War 2. On the evening following the town's liberation by Polish troops, the ceremony was resumed. A moving tribute to thousands of men who gave their lives......


Thimbleanna said...

Wow Di. What an interesting post!My dad and hubby have always wanted to go to the battlefields -- sadly, I fear it may not happen for my dad, but I hope to one day go there with hubby. I sounds like a very somber, yet interesting place. Thanks so much for sharing all the valuable info.

Bethany Hissong said...

This was a really moving post... so much history. And the photo of your grandfather is really great... he is so young and handsome. It is overwhelming sometimes to think what they went through for a good part of their lives. Thanks for sharing this Di!