With the commemorations for the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War just around the corner in 2014, there is set to be increased interest from British visitors in making the trip across the Channel to visit the battlefields of France and Belgium. We sent RHYS GRIFFITHS to Flanders to visit some of the historic sites that are likely to be of interest to visitors exploring the story of the conflict in this corner of Europe.
In the sweeping story of our nation’s history, few events have touched almost every family in the land quite like the world wars of the 20th century. In all around 1,700,000 men and women from Britain and the Commonwealth lost their lives in these two conflicts, and thousands of those killed during the First World War lie buried in the fields of Flanders. Some in graves bearing their name, many simply ‘a soldier of the Great War’. Some in the numerous cemeteries dotting the Belgian countryside, others still lying where they fell during the terrible battles that scarred this otherwise unremarkable landscape.
Every year thousands of people cross the English Channel or come from the four corners of the Commonwealth to make a pilgrimage to the graveyards and the battlefields of Flanders. Some will be coming to pay respects to a family member lost in the conflict, others just to remember the immense sacrifice made by the thousands who never returned home.
A key place of remembrance, here in the countryside outside Ypres where the battle of Passchendaele was fought, is the Tyne Cot Cemetery. Named because of the resemblance of German pillboxes on the site to the workers’ cottages of Tyneside, the burial ground at Tyne Cot is the largest cemetery for Commonwealth soldiers anywhere in the world and from any war. In all it is the resting place of almost 12,000 casualties of the First World War, while the Memorial to the Missing which overlooks the cemetery from the north-eastern boundary bears the names of almost 35,000 combatants who were never found.
Since the 1990s there has been a marked increase in the number of visitors making the journey to the battlefields of the Ypres salient and the cemetery at Tyne Cot is almost always included in any visit. The increase in numbers led to the construction of improved facilities at the site and work on a new visitor centre was completed in 2006. Here you can learn more about the fighting which happened in the surrounding area and look out and down towards the town of Ypres below. And in a moving reminder of the sheer scale of the losses suffered here, as you walk down the path to the visitor centre a voice reads out the names, slowly and softly, the names of the 34,887 missing honoured on the memorial at Tyne Cot.
For those wishing to put into context the huge losses which led to the creation and expansion of Tyne Cot, a visit to the Passchendaele Memorial Museum in Zonnebeke is a must. Here you can learn about the terrible fighting of 1917 which saw 500,000 casualties in 100 days - all for five miles of territory gained. The terrible toll of the Battle of Passchendaele has since become a symbol for the senselessness of war and here at the museum the story of the fighting is told through a series of displays and original artefacts recovered from the countryside around Zonnebeke. There is also a reconstruction of both German and British trenches, giving visitors a sense of the conditions in which the fighting took place in the Ypres salient.
On the road from Ypres to Poperinge is another cemetery that is a popular place of pilgrimage for those visiting the battlefields of Flanders. Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery is the second largest Commonwealth cemetery in Belgium and is located on one of the main routes between the Allied bases at the rear and the frontline around Ypres. Situated where casualty clearing stations and field ambulances were once based, Lijssenthoek is the burial place of almost 10,000 Commonwealth casualties and more than 800 fatalities of other nations, mostly French and German.
Finally, arriving at Poperinge, we come to Talbot House and the ‘everyman’s club’ behind the lines where men and officers could mix freely while taking much-needed leave from the daily horrors of the frontline. The house and its garden became a British home-from-home for the men serving in the Ypres salient, a place where they could read, meet with friends and comrades, worship in the attic chapel, and always be sure there would be a cup of tea on offer.
Today Talbot House retains this very British air thanks to the B&B here which attracts visitors from the UK, and the many British volunteers who keep this ‘living museum’ alive for future generations to appreciate. But despite the strong links to the past, there is no suggestion that Talbot House is not looking to the future. The museum attached to the house tells the story of the club through multimedia displays, while guests can use a tablet computer that guides them through the building and explains exactly what it is they are seeing during their visit.
Ypres is a great place to base yourself when visiting the Flanders battlefields and is located just across the border with France in the Flemish province of West Flanders. It is easily reached by those taking the cross-Channel ferry to France as it is less than 90 minutes drive from the ferry port at Calais.
MyFerryLink offers up to 16 sailing between Dover and Calais every day and you can book your crossing from £29 one way by visiting our booking page on the website or by calling 0844 2482 100.
Where to stay
The Hotel Ariane is Ypres’ only four-star hotel and is ideally located for those wanting to wander through the pretty heart of the town. The hotel’s large and well-equipped rooms start from €99 per room per night for doubles.