One of my main goals for visiting Flanders was to see some of the World War One battlefield sites, and I got my wish by arranging a one day battlefield tour with a local company. Quasimodo Tours is run by husband and wife duo Philippe and Sharon, with the aim of delivering a really thorough introduction to the battlefields in the space of a single day, which is perfect for time-conscious travellers.
Whilst it would have been fun to devote my entire trip to cemeteries and memorials, like most tourists I had a packed itinerary to fit in, so a day trip was the best compromise. I hopped on a train from my hotel in Brussels to join the tour bus at Bruges about an hour later, for a bright and early 9am start at Bruges train station.
I should point out that nearly all of the historical information in this post comes straight from Philippe, who certainly knows his stuff. He was keen to show not just the places we’d all heard of but also some of the less famous (but still important) sites relating to WWI, like the memorial to French flying ace Georges Guynemer in Poelkapelle.
Dynamics of the Tour
So how did the tour cover so many aspects of Flanders in just a few hours? It was rigorously timed to make sure we could fit in as much as possible, from memorials to Canadian, Kiwi and American troops, to a field dressing station.
However, not every stop involved leaving the bus to stretch our legs. This made for a more efficient trip – sometimes we’d pause for a few minutes to see a small monument or a viewpoint relating to a battle, but to take everyone off the bus in order to walk round it would seem a bit unnecessary.
Instead, we were able to compare our bus-side views of 2014 scenery to some of Philippe’s old photos, and could quickly see how much had changed since the end of the constant bombardments had finally given the countryside a chance to recover. This was most apparent at the Menin Road, which is pretty unrecognisable today from the barren wilderness seen in archived images, and also the ridiculously dangerous Hellfire Corner, now a roundabout instead of a target for German snipers.
Langemarck is one of four remaining German cemeteries; there were originally 670 in the area but these weren’t maintained (due to obvious animosity) and it was decided to concentrate the numbers. With dark stone decor and a mixture of identified and unidentified bodies in the German graves, Philippe pointed out just how different this was from Allied cemeteries, which use lighter stone and clearly distinct plots wherever possible. In the centre stood a mass grave topped with wood chippings – the final resting place of 27,000 men. Looking at the neat patch of land, it was hard to comprehend so many bodies being confined in that space.
Back on the bus, we were told about the Iron Youth, a term some of you may recognise from reading the novel All Quiet on the Western Front. These were the young and totally inexperienced German boys who volunteered as reservists and were armed with training from older Germans who hadn’t seen action either. The Iron Youth were pitted against a more prepared Allied side, leading to over 3,000 German deaths. A century later, it’s actually the youth of Germany maintaining the cemeteries of their countrymen, volunteering to keep them intact. We were told that the older German generations choose not to visit – presumably it’s too sensitive for them to do so.
It was really interesting to compare the layout and mood of a German cemetery with the pristine Tyne Cot, a resting place for thousands of troops from across the Commonwealth. With over 11,000 registered graves and also a Memorial to the Missing – nearly 35,000 men whose bodies were never found – I’ll admit, it’s difficult to process the scale of the place until you’re actually standing within the walls; photographs really don’t do it justice. 70% of those buried were unknown soldiers, marked as ‘Known unto God’, with some identified by regiment and others simply by nationality.
One very unusual stopping point was beside a clutch of farm outbuildings deep in the Flanders countryside. An unearthed shell, retrieved by the farmer, stood waiting against a telegraph pole (this is a simple way to alert the authorities, not an invitation for someone else to pick it up). Inside one of the buildings was a large collection of shells, grenades, guns and wire, all deemed safe enough for us to handle, so I had the strange honour of holding a grenade dating back nearly a century.
We then headed to the small but impressive Hooge Crater Museum for lunch. This privately owned museum was crammed full of war exhibits and includes sections of flooring replicating the duck boards that soldiers would have walked over every day. Even the museum cafe, where we had lunch, was lined with fantastic examples of trench art – a reminder that there were moments of monotony in between the fighting, when the men honed their artistic talents to pass the time.
Another important stop was Hill 60, a strategic point that the Allies and Germans fought to control during WWI. Unlike its surroundings, the land here has been left untouched since the war ended, and you can see huge disturbances and craters that have carved up the ground and changed it forever.
Moving onto Ypres, or Ieper, The Menin Gate loomed large as we arrived. The towering arch, which was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfeld, is inscribed with the names of 55,000 missing men from across the Commonwealth. Seeing the names and ranks really brought home just how widespread the devastation was, especially amongst battalions formed by soldiers from the same area or with common interests, such as the London Cyclist Battalion.
We then had a bit of time to wander around the city centre, taking in sights like the imposing Cloth Hall. Considering the amount of devastation it faced during the war – I later read that 10-20 German shells were landing here every minute at one stage – the restoration of the city’s streets and landmarks was an incredible achievement. I found it quite poignant that a funfair was clustered around the Cloth Hall whilst we visited, with kids clamouring to play in the shooting gallery, yet nearly 100 years ago this was a place torn apart by real fighting.
After Ypres, it was time to reflect on the youngest known soldier to have died in the war, 15-year-old Valentine Strudwick, who was a rifleman. He’s one of the many buried at the Essex Farm Cemetery, a modest and quiet spot close to the Ieper-Isjer canal, bordering the Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station. This is where John McCrae, an army major and doctor, was said to have written the famous poem, In Flanders Fields.
One of our last stops was to see a restored trench, known as the Yorkshire Trench and Dug-out, which sits in the middle of an industrial estate just outside Ypres. The site is still very much a work in progress and has relied on the work of enthusiastic amateur archaeologists to excavate and preserve what lies underneath the ground – a trench system dating back to 1915. In and around the site, 155 bodies were recovered, but only one could be positively identified.
Standing beside the Yorkshire Trench, Philippe pointed along the road to show us roughly where the front lines of both sides would have stood. Nearly 100 years on, the faceless warehouses didn’t feel much like a battleground anymore, but that’s not to say the war has been forgotten here. Just one day after our tour, a shell exploded about a minute’s walk down the road from this site, sadly killing two construction workers.
At the end of the tour, most of us stayed on to see the Last Post ceremony (well worth the extra €10) which is held every night at 8pm under the Menin Gate. It’s organised by local volunteers from the fire brigade and attracts huge crowds, which is why Quasimodo advises you head over at about 7:30pm to get the best view of the proceedings. We also witnessed a wreath laying ceremony from local schools and visiting soldiers, but the main attraction was hearing the bugle players fill the archway with sound. It was a moving and respectful way to end the tour. To absorb all this in a day was pretty full-on, but it was thoroughly worthwhile.
The most sobering moment, for me, actually came when I was travelling back in a taxi to Bruges and was passing some of the other cemeteries and memorials. Darkness had fallen and there were no crowds to contend with – just silent rows of gravestones for men buried far from home, and stone tributes to those not even lucky enough to have graves. That was when the senselessness of war really sunk in.
- Chemical warfare in WWI and the Hague Convention – find out about the gas attacks at Ypres and other sites
- Background on the Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres – where Philippe told us 1/3 of Allied deaths were due to drowning in mud
- A detailed overview of the role of Ypres in the war – including civilian evacuations and the introduction of the Wipers Times newspaper created by soldiers
Visiting Notes: The basic tour lasts from 9:15am-approx. 5:30pm, but the addition of the Last Post (which I recommend you take up!) means you’ll finish at roughly 9pm in Bruges, following a taxi transfer.
Disclaimer: I booked my tour with Quasimodo independently, but my train travel from Brussels to Bruges was planned with the assistance of Visit Flanders. To find further information about travelling to Brussels, please see www.visitflanders.co.uk for more details.