A motorist passing between towns and villages in Flanders and Eastern France cannot fail to notice the very numerous military cemeteries which are seen every few miles. Drive, for example, from Ypres down to Arras or Albert and as many as fifty such cemeteries can be seen. Each one represents a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of lives lost during the First World War. In March 1993, April 1999 and againin September 2006 I visited the area.
Ypres is an easy run east-south-east from either the Channel Tunnel or Ferry terminals at Calais. I recommend avoiding the motorways and taking the road via St Omer, Cassel and Poperinghe; you’ll see more of the countryside this way. No passports are required to cross the French / Belgian border. Diesel ("gazole") in both France and Belgium is 3/5 the price of the UK, and self-service filling stations work just like ours. If it’s an attendant service, ask for "le plein de gazole" which means "fill ‘er up with diesel." Unleaded petrol is "sans-plomb" and costs the same as in the UK. If you are touring via motorcycle, I have set up a page to help you plan your trip.
I can recommend the Tunnel; it's only slightly more expensive than the ferry; the time saving is a couple of hours. A more staggeringly boring way to travel has yet to be invented, but it's logistically easy. But the 90 minute ferry crossing can be a welcome break from a long driving session.
Visitors to Ypres must not miss the nightly Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. From the Cloth Market and Town Square, walk due east for 300 yards to the Menin Gate. Police stop the through traffic on the dot of 20:00 daily and at least two uniformed firemen, using bugles donated by the British Legion, blow the scalp prickling Last Post (left), which echoes hauntingly around the columns which record 54,000 soldiers lost in the Ypres Sector, but who have no known grave. The photo here was taken in May 2009 - there happened to be a full complement of 6 buglers!
It is impossible not to be moved by this simple ceremony which maintains the remembrance of the locals for the "Tommies", as well as French and Belgian "Poilus" who defended their country against the Germans between 1914 and 1918. Arrive at about half past seven to secure a good position; the buglers stand at the far end of the arch, on the Menin Road side on the little round circle of cobblestones. Free. Here is my May 2009 Youtube footage.
If you are filming or video recording this event at dusk or by night, I have found over several visits that the best place to stand is about 1/3 of the down the crowd, away from the buglers. The reason for this is that if you are filming after dusk, stand directly under the arch at the Ypres end, you will get considerable visual interference from headlights of cars as they pass by at the Menin end. This tends to swamp the video images. A position approximately half way along the crowd's edge gives you the right echo effect of the bugle calls as well as a good frame of the gallant buglers.
If you wish to park nearby, we found the best place was to come through the Menin Gate into the town and turn immediately left into the Bollingstraat, under the ramparts. Bays down this road are free for parking. After the ceremony, take a walk clockwise around the ramparts towards the Lille Gate and the Ramparts Cemetery. Many pleasant surprises and visual jokes can be found on this little walk and its return trip… shades of Portmeirion and Alice in Wonderland!
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website and on-line war graves database is quite outstanding and essential for anyone tracing graves or remembrance stones for relatives killed or missing. They have an office in Ypres, situated on the Elverdingsestraat, outbound on the right hand side, just before its junction with the M Haiglaan / Maloulaan. This is open during normal Monday-Friday office hours.
Ypres, surrounded on three sides by Germans, was almost totally destroyed by artillery fire yet rebuilt afterwards to assume its former medieval aspect, a fact which is hard to remember when looking round the town. It was here that gas was first used and the Canadians held the line; later, at Passchendaele only a few miles to the east, some of the most bitter fighting took place, with 34 lives lost for every yard of ground gained. Tyne Cot Cemetery on the road to Passchendaele, is a must. The infamous Hill 60 and Hill 62 / Sanctuary Wood sites and their respective museums are worth a visit, and there are numerous immaculately kept war cemeteries. All these are clearly signposted from local roads. Note that Hill 60 is at the end of a dead end. However the "What-The-Butler-Saw" type 3D picture machines at Hill 62 are definitely not for children as they contain very graphic images of the horrors of war.
Any on-site visit will need stout boots, preferably wellingtons, as the battlefields and outside museums reflect the 1914-18 conditions - muddy and wet.
It is recommended that any visitor to the area should purchase from the Ypres Tourist Office in the Cloth Hall, the local maps which cover the War Cemeteries and places of interest. These detail surviving relics such as bunkers and pillboxes, and many of these can't be found without a local map. Some of the bunkers etc are on private land, and require permission to enter; we didn't have any problems with this, finding the locals quite agreeable.
Try the In Flanders Fields exhibition in the Cloth Hall, where a new multimedia active museum succeeds in showing the real war, including monumental sound effects. The Hooge Crater Museum just a couple of miles down the Menin Road, where a former chapel built on one of the most dangerous grounds of the War has been converted to an excellent private museum. Entrance was about £3. Opposite is Hooge Crater Cemetery where over 5,000 soldiers lie, many with nothing more than "A Soldier Of The Great War : Known Unto God" to mark their resting place. Here, Allied engineers tunnelled under a German strongpoint and blew it up; at the time, a common way of prosecuting the war. No admission charge to this or any other War Cemetery.
During the Easter 1999 visit we stayed at Hooge, in the excellent Hotel Kasteelhof 't Hooge (right), on the A19 Ypres to Menin Road, 2 miles east of Ypres. Built on the site of stables belonging to a former castle destroyed by artillery, it's now a comfortable small hotel situated next to the Hooge Crater Museum and almost opposite the cemetery.
The proprietors made us very welcome and catered for our diverse tastes in food and drink! Try the mouthwatering Croque Monsieur or its larger version, the Croque Madame. Lovely after a day in the Trenches. I stayed there again in August 2001, August 2006 and May 2010 and found that the hotel was just as good, clean and pleasant with good food / drinks and service. They have even made a proper short walking tour of their own section of trenches.
Kasteelhof 't Hooge is at Meenseweg 481, 8902 Ieper (Ypres), Zillebeke, Belgium, tel 57 46 87 87, fax 57 46 87 58. There is ample private parking, and the hotel has a lake, gardens, bar and tea room.
Directions : exit Ypres via the Menin Gate and head east towards Menin. At the first major set of lights, turn right and follow the Menin / A19 signs. Go past the Menin Road Cemetery on the right and continue past two filling stations to the traffic island (this is the famous Hell Fire Corner). Here take the 2nd exit and follow A19 and the Commonwealth War Graves signs to Hooge Crater Cemetery which is on the right, at the top of the gentle hill. 100 yards past this is a left turn centre slip road directly into the Hotel.
For eating out in Ypres, there are many cafe and bars surrounding the market place in the town centre.
Notable in the Somme area is the Newfoundland Battle Memorial Park at Beaumont-Hamel just to the north of Albert, where the trench system and No-Man's-Land of countless shell craters turn the once flat farmland into an crater-pocked landscape, now safely grassed, but once impassable semi-liquid mud. Here the front lines are but 300 or 400 yards apart, and the Newfoundland soldiers suffered appalling losses as they were ordered to stroll across the line in July 1916, into the howling German machine-guns. It is impossible to look across this vista, complete with rusting gun limbers and barbed-wire posts, without feeling a fierce pang for the men who died there. Entrance is free. On our visit on April 5th 1999 we had a very informative Canadian guide show us round; thanks to Christy for her tour. In August 2006 we found that the actrual battle land is fenced off, with walkways through the site. This preserves the actual land.
From Beaumont-Hamel you can easily see the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing (left) where a gigantic stone monument carries the names of 75,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers of no known grave. This is a most imposing edifice behind which lie two war cemeteries of Unknown men, one side British & Commonwealth, the other side French and Belgian. Awesome in its majesty, Thiepval stands on a prominent ridge and cannot be missed.
Descend from the Battlefield Park and follow the railway line on the right. At the bottom of the hill, turn right over the railway and follow the signs for Thiepval, then the standard Commonwealth War Graves signs for the monument. If in doubt, keep climbing as the site is at the top of the hill. Thiepval is noted for the terrible losses suffered by the Pals Batallions.
Also try the Vimy Ridge memorial and Battlefield Park just to the north of Arras, where prominent notices warn visitors not to stray off the marked paths; many unexploded shells, bombs and grenades lurk under the surface. The massive memorial to Canada's dead stands atop Vimy Ridge, commanding the battlefield just below. Here, artificially preserved trenches with concrete sandbags give a rather sanitised impression of trench warfare. The German and Canadian front lines are, at this point, just 50 yards apart, catapult rather than rifle distance. The underground trench system shows how life underground was carried on, safe from the constant artillery bombardment. Entrance is free. Tours round the underground sections are by arrangement; arrive early to avoid a disappointment, as these tours are very popular and the tunnels quite awesome.
We found the actual "trenches" area too sanitised to be of great interest. More thought provoking was the walk between the Memorial and the Battlefield - through the forest and with countless shell and mine craters pockmarking the tree area.
Vimy is physically unmissable as its gigantic twin white stone towers dominate the land for miles all round. Park at the large car park opposite the memorial and walk up to it. After viewing this staggering monument, walk back down the hill to the battlefield park. Note that the Park closes at 18:00.
At Lochnagar Crater Memorial at La Boiselle just east of Albert, a 90 foot deep and 300 foot across hole shows where 60,000 lbs of gun cotton blew a gigantic crater under a German stronghold. This site is well worth a visit and has to be seen to be believed; it's the largest crater made during the First World War. Bought by an English historian and preserved from being filled-in by local farmers, its sheer size is awesome. No charge for visit. Follow the main road eastwards from Albert and turn right into La Boiselle. Turn right again in the village, and at the fork in the road take the left split. The crater is about ¾ of a mile up on the right, at the top of the hill. A wooden cross marks its rim.
Until the visitor to the area has seen these, and many other, battlefield sites, memorials and cemeteries, the massive scale of the slaughter cannot be understood. I was humbled by the experience, and pay tribute to not only the dead and the survivors, but also those who remember, especially Commonwealth War Graves Commission whose website and on-line war graves database is quite outstanding.
On a different note, the Battlefield Visitors' Centre at Waterloo is worthy of a visit. Here in 1815 Napoleon met his defeat at the hands of the Allied armies under Wellington and Blucher. A huge man made "Lion Mound" of 226 steps at the spot where Wellington's battle HQ was situated gives a stunning view out over the actual battlefield. Inside the Centre a high-tech sound and light display shows very graphically how the flow of the battle moved across the terrain, and the adjacent cinema has a thoroughly excellent film of how some children playing on the site are catapulted through a time warp and become enmeshed in the battle.
Next door is a waxwork display of the characters concerned in the battle and a very large circular display and 3D-effect painting displaying the key points in the battle. There is a Museum to Wellington in Waterloo itself. Even though 1815 is not at all my main interest, I found the visit well worth while. Entrance to all the attractions was about seven UK pounds.