Category Archives: World War One Battlefields

Cloth Hall night 3

Beautiful Ieper and the Menin Gate – Belgium

Ieper – or Ypres back in 1918 – was immediately christened as ‘Wipers‘ by Allied soldiers, with even a ‘Wipers Times’ newspaper being written by the British!

During the Middle Ages, Ypres was a prosperous Flemish city renown for its textile industry – they were trading linen with England way back in the 14th century. It is located in Belgium north of the Somme River. Sadly this was right in the pathway of Germany’s planned sweep across the rest of Belgium and into France during WW1 so it became the scene of some savage battles. Shelled into ruins, the town ramparts were solid enough to endure the pounding of artillery and in fact were used by troops to shelter from the onslaught.

The people of Ieper were devastated at the destruction of their ancient town, but they have rebuilt it magnificently. Check out these before and after pictures of the amazing ‘Cloth Hall‘ below. This building featured in many photographs taken of allied troops moving through the town and the Menin Gate to the battlefields beyond. It is now home to the modern In Flanders Field Museum which commemorates the futility of war and includes a new World War I research centre.

A Before & After

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is also the centre of a painting made by Will Longstaff (Menin Gate at Midnight) showing ghostly troops moving by the gate – a very moving depiction that is in many RSL halls around Australia.

The town’s fire brigade has a group of buglers who play ‘The Last Post’ at 8pm each evening as part of a ceremony to honour the Allied soldiers who lie in unmarked locations throughout the surrounding battlefields. Traffic is halted while the large numbers of visitors attend this very moving experience. 54,000 names grace the walls of the Gate and we defy anyone not to shed a tear about the overwhelming horror and barbarity of war.

Kiwis Menin Gate 1 Menin Gate crowd A Menin gate 2 A Menin gate 1 A Buglers

This ceremony started at the end of WWI and has been a feature of the town ever since, except for a brief break during WWII when the town was occupied by German troops. A similar ceremony has been adopted for the close of our Australian War Memorial in Canberra each day.

We stayed at the very nice Ariane Hotel in Ieper while we toured the battlefields. A lovely blend of old architecture with modern interior and facilities.

Arian Hotel

Ieper is a delightful place as you can see from the photographs and has many beautiful buildings – and wonderful window displays of cakes and sweets!

A Ieper 1 A Buttress Cloth Hall night 2 Cloth Hall night 4 Cloth Hall night 3

Cakes in window

The town has cobblestone streets and we found them a little hard on our legs after a day walking round taking in the sights. The ramparts almost circle the town and are a lovely place to walk and take in the buildings.

Menin Gate Ramparts 1 Menin Gate Ramparts 3 Menin Gate Ramparts 4 Menin Gate Ramparts 7

Wallnut Red CurrantWe really had a good time and were intrigued by Belgium and in particular beautiful Ieper with such interesting and relevant history. We intend returning for a longer stay next time… and we would love to hear from anyone else who has also enjoyed visiting this region!

A Digger 1

World War One Battlefields Tour – Part 2

You may like to refer to our previous blog which focused on Villers Bretonneux and the Australian War Memorial. On our second day tour with Jacques, we took in Mont St Quentin. This was a significant objective for Australian troops to take. It is elevated terrain where the Germans could see and direct artillery and machine gun fire with devastating effect and it dominated the old fortress town of Peronne. There is a diorama in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra showing this action.

A Battlefields Tour 2

Les Carlyon in his book The Great War has described Mont St Quentin: “Much of the credit for Mont St Quentin belongs to Monash…. But Monash wasn’t the hero of Mont St Quentin, and he was gracious enough to admit it. This battle belongs to soldiers rather than Generals, corporals and privates who did astonishing things that are not easily explained.” Six Victoria Crosses were awarded in one day – the first of September…

This area is forested now with a road leading up and through it – roughly running in the direction the troops moved against it.  Ian has visited this place twice and found it to have an atmosphere that is difficult to describe. It is such an important place for Australians.  During the  2008 tour one of the experienced guides told a story about a tour he had led with some WWI veterans. When they were boarding the coach he did a quick head count and there was one missing. He eventually found this old Digger sitting on the edge of the road near the cemetery in tears. He said he was at the exact spot where he had been trying to patch up his mate when he died… All very sad.

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The old Peronne fortress is now an excellent museum with lots of interesting items displayed very well. It is worth spending some time there. They have a cafe in there so you can get something for lunch and a coffee or two.

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Jacques, our amazing guide, continued to divert to interesting places during our second tour, so we were able to see the new Memorial Cemetery in Fromelles where a mass grave was discovered recently. The location was finally found after a lot of sleuthing by a couple of individuals including the use of some old aerial photographs in their quest. A great job and DNA has been used to identify some of the diggers there.

Fromelles 2 Fromelles 4

As well we were shown the field where “The Red Baron” came to grief. Von Richthofen was shot down over an area where Australian troops were entrenched and they may have actually fired the shot that killed him. It is a little controversial and probably will never be settled.

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We have only shown a tiny fraction of the interesting places in this important battlefield region. Some of you may find this ‘war tourism’ a little ghoulish but we found it so inspiring to understand what had happened here, both for our ANZACs and the local communities. It is a way of honouring those soldiers who have now lain dead for a 100 odd years, and we hope it will inspire you to do a little research of your own and pay the Somme a visit.  You may feel sad, but you won’t regret it.

Next blog: Fabulous Ieper and the Menin Gate

 

Cobbers

World War One battlefields tour

This year marks the centenary of Australia’s involvement in World War 1, a very important part of Australia’s history and something that profoundly affected the nation. It also was a defining point for Australia and Australians.

Reflecting on these events has reminded us of our travels through the battlefields of Europe. Back in 2008 Ian attended the first Dawn Service on ANZAC Day at Villers Bretonneux on the Somme River in northern France. The local people were so happy to have so many Australians visiting their region as their efforts during the WW1 were greatly appreciated.

This great event has continued each year, and Ian was keen to return to that area for a more intensive look over some of the significant battlefields. This was where General Sir John Monash demonstrated his outstanding ability to command ANZAC forces and win battles with a minimum of casualties, something that had not been demonstrated by the majority of allied field officers up to that time…

So while planning our trip to Europe in 2013 we started researching the many battlefield tours available in Belgium. Our choice (highly recommended by TripAdvisor) was the Flanders Battlefield Tours run by Jacques Ryckebosch and his wife Gen. We organised two day tours well in advance, and they recommended that we stay in the lovely town of Ypres or Ieper as it is now known. This is a very pretty and historic town which was terribly damaged during WWI.

A V B 1

This was an outstanding decision as Jacques was very familiar with Australia’s efforts in WWI; was a Monash fan as well and to top it off was an aviation nut too… Ian was in hog heaven! Ginny threatened to go shopping at one stage while they nattered away about their joint  passions, but in the end she enjoyed the tours very much.

A Battlefield Tour 1

Ian really wanted to see two separate areas of the Somme that were involved in significant battles, so our first tour focused on Le Hamel and Villers Bretonneux. It was hard to envisage the carnage that took place in what is a lovely rolling countryside today – very green and pleasant. However the many cemeteries and memorials that dot the countryside indicate that this was not always the case…

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The little town of Villers Bretonneux was hammered by artillery and has been reconstructed. The Victoria School was rebuilt after the conflict with money sent from school kids back in Victoria, Australia. The famous sign in the playground “Never Forget Australia” brought a lump to our throats and their wartime museum was a great display.

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The Australian War Memorial just down the road is also outstanding and is the site of the Dawn Service on ANZAC Day.

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Jacques organised our tour perfectly and included visits to many other interesting artefacts and historical sites as well. We can really recommend his and his wife Gen’s very professional tours.

Next blog: Our tour of the Mont St Quentin and Peronne region