Tyne Cot and Ypres – On Flanders Fields

Tyne Cot

Just over 50 kms from Brugge (Bruges) and 40kms from Lille sits an area of farmland. There are blossoms and Cyprus trees and, at this time of the day, the birdsong is glorious.

This is Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing. A big title, yes, but a fitting one for the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world – in any war.

The area around Ypres and Passendale (or Passchendaele) stood smack bang in the middle of Germany’s planned sweep through the rest of Belgium and into France in WW1. As such, it was considered strategically important by both German and Allied Forces. From late in 1914 (the first battle of Ypres) both sides dug in for the duration.

I won’t bore you with the war history – suffice to say countless lives were lost for very small gains. In the worst of the battles in 1917 – the Battle of Passchendaele – over half a million lives were lost.

If you look across the fields now you can see barely a rise in the ground, yet any tiny undulation was fought for and defended. Tyne Cot stands on one of these, with German bunkers or shelters still part of the cemetery.

The statistics

Tyne Cot is the resting place of almost 12,000 Commonwealth servicemen – over 8,300 of whom remain unidentified – their graves are marked with the inscription “A soldier of the Great War…known unto God.”

Yes, those numbers are correct. These men all died in the fighting around Ypres (Ieper) between 1914 – 1918, but most fell during the Battle of Passchendaele, or Third Battle of Ypres, in 1917.

The Memorial Wall

The stone wall around the cemetery – the memorial wall – lists the names of almost 35,000 servicemen of the UK and New Zealand who died between August 1917 and November 1918 and who have no known grave.

The numbers are actually worse than this. The original intention was to list all the names of British servicemen who died in the Ypres area on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres (see below) but they ran out of space to do so. An arbitrary cut-off date of 15 August 1917 was decided on, with the remainder of the names being listed at Tyne Cot.

Four graves here are for unnamed German soldiers treated here after the battle. Their inscriptions are in German.

Standing here in 2018 it’s hard to fathom the vast difference between the area as it is now – green, leafy and full of birdsong – to the chaos, filth and noise these men must have died in. The ground was virtually liquefied by shelling and the trees long turned to matchsticks.

It’s a fitting and respectful memorial – and one that you can help but be moved by.

Ypres

It’s fair to say that Ypres (or Ieper) has been pretty unlucky over the years when it’s come to wars.

Even before it was literally flattened in World War 1, it was the scene of a number of battles and sieges – dating all the way back to the first century when the Romans took a liking to it. In the 13th century, a huge fire took most of the city out, in the 14th century it was besieged in the Norwich Crusades, and in 1678 it was captured (briefly) for France by Louis IV.

Ypres became part of the Hapsburg empire early in the 18th century, before being captured again by the French 80 years later. Then, of course, came the three battles of Ypres (deliberately mispronounced Wipers by English soldiers) in WW1 – which obliterated the town.

Rebuilding Ypres

Ypres became a symbol of all the British were fighting for – and a place of pilgrimage after the war. Using money paid by Germany in reparation the town was rebuilt. Some buildings so closely resemble the original that it’s hard to believe that they haven’t been here all along.

The Cloth Hall (originally built in the 13th century) in particular is a very close replica. (Unfortunately, we were there as the sun was going down so my pics aren’t great.)

Ypres these days has the title of “city of peace” and is a sister city with Hiroshima – both cities sharing some devastating commonalities. Ypres is where chemical warfare was first used and Hiroshima…well, we know that story.

Aside from its importance as a place of memorial, Ypres is also popular with war and family historians.

Menin Gate

The Menin Gate in Ypres is a memorial to the missing.  The names of over 54,000 Commonwealth servicemen who died in the battles around Ypres up to August 15, 1917, and whose graves are unknown are listed here.

To honour the fallen, every evening at 8 pm sharp the Last Post is played under the Menin Gate Memorial. The ceremony has taken place every day since 1928. The night that we attended was the 31,012th ceremony.

The playing of the Last Post is generally followed by the laying of wreaths by families of the fallen or other associations. The ceremony is then concluded by the buglers playing the Reveille – to mark a return to daily life at the end of the homage.

According to the website, the Menin Gate was chosen as the location for the ceremony because of its special symbolic significance. It was from this spot that countless thousands of soldiers set off for the front, many of them destined never to return. If you want to know more about this incredibly emotional service, duck across to The Last Post website.

Check out my other posts from France at this link.

 

 

 

Brugge…

Once upon a time…

Once upon a time, way back in the 13thand14thcenturies, there existed a city that was so prosperous that the wealth of its citizens rivalled that of queens.

Its fortune was made on the back of textiles and trade, with international traders setting up here to do business with the ships laden with all sorts of exotic goods – wool, wine, silks, spices –that berthed here. The city was so important that stock exchanges today are still called bourses in many languagesafter the trader’s house that many merchants met in during the 13thcentury right here.

It was here that English wool was converted into fabric, and here that Flemish artists painted works for such perfection.

As often happens in these situations, the craftsmen began to disagree and stand up to their overlords. Retributions followed – as retributions often do – and traders began looking for somewhere else to do business. Merchants followed the traders and the city began to fall into a decline.

Then disaster struck…

The long sea channel that connected the city with the sea – and the city’s economic lifeline – silted up. With access to the sea gone, houses were abandoned, and canals remained empty.

The city slumped into a slumber that would last around 400 years – which is, in a way, somewhat appropriate for a place that looked as though it had sprung straight from the pages of a fairy tale.

The city is Brugge (or Bruges), and it’s thanks (in part) to this extended slumber that it miraculously survived two world wars.  Some tourists made their way through late in the 19thcentury on their way through to Waterloo (does anyone else want to burst into song at that name, or is that just me?) but it wasn’t until much later that Brugge was rediscovered.

Today it’s a picture postcard example of a perfectly preserved medieval city.

In the past Brugge’s trade was mercantile, today it’s about tourists with its prime assets being a massive market square, narrow cobbled streets, historic churches, perfectly preserved buildings and photogenic, willow-draped canals.

Textiles are still popular, with plenty of shops selling tapestries and lace – keep an eye out for the map of the city done in lace. The pic below doesn’t do it justice, but you get the idea.

Chocolate is king here. You can buy all chocolate here from commercial novelties (think phallic – this is a PG-rated site so I won’t post the pics) to artisan chocolatiers. The entire city is full of air-borne calories, so take care not to breathe too deeply.

Truffles

We visited on a day-trip from Lille so sadly had just a short time to explore. Anyways, here’s some of what we did see…

Markt

And no, I haven’t spelt it incorrectly – there is no “e”. This open market square is the centre of town.

Basilica of the Holy Blood

Tucked into the square, beside a chocolate shop, is the Heilig- Bloedbasiliek or Basilica of the Holy Blood.

It takes its name from the phial that apparently holds a few drops of Christ’s blood. For the donation of a few euros, you can check it out. It doesn’t look anything like blood – not that I’d know what blood would look like after it’s been in a phial for over a thousand years.

Anyways, it was reportedly brought here in the 12th century after the Crusades. The Noble Brotherhood of the Holy Blood was formed soon after to protect and preserve and venerate it – which all sounds a little Dan Brown-ish.  Each Ascension Day they do a procession through the city.

There’s even a legend that every hundred years the blood flows again. Given no one alive has actually seen this phenomenon I suspect it’s a little like the “back in 30 minutes” signs you see on shop doors – when you don’t know when the thirty minutes actually has started.

It does, however, make for a good story, and from a rather nondescript exterior, the stairs lead up and around into a lovely and intricately decorated chapel.

Half Moon Brewery

Brugge is very much a beer town, yet there’s only the one family-run brewery still actually operating in town- Half Moon Brewery…the perfect spot to stop for lunch after walking all morning. Although this brewery was founded in 1856, there has, in fact, been a brewery on this site since 1564.

The 2-course menu here was 22E, so we shared the shrimp croquettes and I had the Flemish Beefstew – which is, incidentally, called Carbonnade or Carbonade Flamande in Flemish France. (Keep an eye out for the recipe over the next few days).

Hubby and F chose the beer ham and cheese soup – also excellent – and thankfully helped me out with my fries.

On the subject of fries, or frites, it seems that the nationality of the cook who accidentally dropped a piece of potato into some hot oil and invented the chip is as hotly debated as the question of who made the first pavlova. The Belgians say it was them, and the French claim that it was in fact them. Whatever – these fries were flipping good.

The Beer Wall

On the subject of beer, we had to check out the 2 be Beer Wall. there are over 1800 beers – and their accompanying glasses (all Belgian beers have a branded glass that the beer should be served in) – in the wall. Wait, wasn’t there a song about that? 1800 beers on the wall…no?

The bar has only about ten beers on tap at any one time, but plenty more in bottles. Worth a look…and a drink.

Canal Cruise

Yep, it’s seriously touristy, but at 8E it’s worth it to get a different view of this gorgeous city.

A must do.

The Cathedral

St-Salvatorskathedraal…Sweeping high ceilings and antique tapestries make this one interesting.

While we were wandering around there was a girl standing high up on some scaffolding do painstaking restoration work. Now, there’s an idea for a character…

What else?

There are the shops that sell tapestries and lace,

shops that are just about Christmas – all year round,

a market building where I can’t remember the name…Vismarkt?

and enough architecture, art, history, and dreamy canals to keep anyone interested.

The problem is, lots of other people know about Brugge’s beauty and the streets are mobbed in summer and on weekends. Come in the off-season, or midweek – as we did – and avoid the crowds.