My Trip to Ypres

Ypres (Ieper) 2018 – How to go on a roller coaster trip without leaving the ground.

Pictures at the bottom. Click on them for a larger image.

Weeks of planning:

To get this right I planned it like a meticulous brigadier, I knew that I had to go, but like most things in life if you don’t get pushed they tend to get pushed back to the back burner.
I had planned to go in 2015, 100 years since Private George Brown’s death, but as above it came and went without me going.

I came up with a cunning plan, if I stated on my radio show that I was going and when, there was no way I was going to not go. So I did just that, mid-afternoon I said on air that this year I am going to Ypres to find my Great Grandfather and I’m going in October.
Now I had to do it, no excuses.
This is the story.

Friday 19th October – The outward Journey

We planned to sail on the 12 noon sailing from Dover to Dunkirk; left home at around 10am drove down the M20 and arrived in good time.

The process of getting through border and passport control at Dover was slow due to someone in a vehicle ahead of us had more occupants then were on their ticket.

We eventually got through and drove round to check in (DFDS) which was a smooth operation. Boarding card hung up in the window we drove to our allotted lane, sat and waited.

We saw the ship we were to board come in and dock and disembark its previous occupants.

Lane by lane we entered into the belly of the ship, parked up and went into the public decks.

As we neared the Port of Dunkirk I was getting edgy, partly due to the prospect of driving on the right and making a journey I had not driven before, even with today’s modern technology I was still edgy.
I had been thinking about what I would do, say and how I would feel when I saw the field Private George Brown was killed in and when finally I came face to face with his grave.

The ship docked on time at 15:00 (Continental time) and we went down to get back in the car to disembark and start the real adventure.

Slowly we moved off the ship and all I could think of was driving on the right and getting to see my Great Grandfather, I had it all planned for that Friday afternoon. The route we would take was A16/E40 into Belgium then the N8 down to Brielen where I believe he was killed then to the Perth Cemetery (China Wall) where he was laid to rest.
At this point I should add that I had travelled the route on google earth many times in the hope that when I actually got to drive it I would know and recognise villages, junctions and churches etc.

It Worked! Like a dream we travelled and eventually, quicker than I thought, we drove into Brielen and found easily the field where his life was taken along with four or five of his colleagues on 7th June 1915. British Army Grid reference Map 28.H.5.a.2.9

It was a sobering moment, taking several minutes to sink in and I still don’t think is has fully, but there we were standing in a field that 103 years ago was a battlefield where lives were lost. In fact all around us in the whole area were killing fields.

We were getting a few stares from locals, possibly wondering what two Brits were doing wandering around a field taking photographs. All they had to do was ask, but they didn’t.

We spend a fair few minutes there, I wasn’t sure what my emotions were going to be, but they held up thankfully.

Next came the navigation around Ieper itself, again I had done dummy runs on google earth many times, so much so I almost knew the colours of the doors near where we had to make a turn. Within minutes we were approaching Hellfire corner and within 500 yards of the cemetery Gulp!

When we arrived at the Cemetery, we both needed a toilet; we had been looking on the journey down but didn’t see one. Once parked up there was an orchard next door so we took it in turn to guard and go! That was a relief and more comfortable.

My heart was beginning to speed up as we walked through the cemetery gate, I wanted to read the engravings on the gate but my heart took over and I made a beeline to where I knew his grave was after much research into the cemetery layout.

I was expecting to feel emotional, break down, after all I had shed many tears researching and planning, but it didn’t happen which made me feel a little guilty, I should have been crying.

By this time the sun was getting low in the sky, I had only planned to visit the cemetery just the once so wanted to get some photos of his grave stone and of me standing by him, Sue took some pictures of me there.

I had prepared a little speech to read to him just letting him know we hadn’t forgotten him and all that made the sacrifice, also to tell him about his family.
I asked Sue if I could have a little time on my own with him and I read my speech to him, again expecting to break down, but again it didn’t happen, what was wrong with me?

The message reads:

Hello Private George Brown.

You don’t know me, but I am your great Grandson Steve.

Your Son, Thomas George Brown, who was around six years old when you were killed, grew into a fine Man, he married a lady called Doris May Bliss and they had one Daughter called Olive Jean Brown, My Mother who married Denis Monk the Grandson of Arthur (Jessie) Monk who was out here with you somewhere, but he returned and lived to 93 years old.

Your Son Thomas was a very highly regarded man in Rolvenden but he sadly died in 1983, his wife, Doris, my Gran died in 1994 and my Mother Olive, your Granddaughter Died in 1999.

Thomas, your son, told me bits and pieces about you but it wasn’t until recently that I realised just what you must have gone through.

Olive, my Mum, your granddaughter did a lot of research into you but sadly died before coming out here to find you. This is part of the reason I’m here, to complete all the work she had done and to find my Great Granddad.

It is such an honour to be here today, I want to tell you that we all still think of and thank all of you that made the sacrifice so that we could live freely today.

I have shed bucket loads of tears researching and planning to come and find you, but sitting here now I feel it was so worthwhile.

The World is still a screwed up place, we haven’t learnt, the world is still full of idiots hell bent on power.

I’m just going to sit in silence for a few moments and think of you.

Thank you and although I have never met you, I feel a lot of love for you, for what you did, for what you are, and for giving me the best Grandad ever and the best Mum ever.

God Bless you and may you rest in peace Sir.

I left a laminated copy there on a small stake in front of his grave.

After standing, looking and thinking for a while I said to Sue, come on, let’s go and find the B&B we had booked, she then said to me we can come back again tomorrow if you want, that was just what I wanted to hear, “Yes” I said, I’d love to. Still not having broken down and got it out of my system I thought coming back would be a great plan, I had so much bottled up I needed to let it out.

As we walked out of the cemetery I felt the emotions a little, I felt I didn’t want to leave him there, but calmed down and we got in the car and drove in to Ypres town centre. We had planned to go to Hill 60 but the road was closed so we didn’t get there.

We had a little rest in our B&B then went out for the evening, found a little bar just down the road from our base, Bar 32 and went in for a pint. It was just a few yards from the Menin Gate which we intended to go to for the 8pm Last Post service.

On leaving the bar and heading towards the Menin gate I thought we might be the only ones there, how wrong can one be? It was crowded all around and on both sides, I really was stunned at the amount of people there, it is like this every night apparently.

Having again been emotionally moved at the last post service at the Menin gate, and it really is emotional, we went for a wander to a public house, and The Old Bill was our first port of call.
After a drink there we decided to go for something to eat. Being a fussy so and so with food the Ypres Burger Bar looked like the place to be, and as a bonus they also sold beer. We then went back to the Menin gate as crowds had dispersed and had a drink in the public house called Ypra Inn right opposite, a nice place to have a pub, then went back to the Guest house.

Saturday 20th October

Having got a good night’s sleep, well sort of, we set off towards Hill 62 a museum and trenches. The farmer and his family that own the land have preserved these trenches since the end of WW1. I felt that visiting this place would give us some sort of idea as to what our brave soldiers would have seen and experienced. It didn’t disappoint.

We pulled up outside and parked; straight away you are confronted with some original hardware, not sure what type of field guns they are but I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of them.

Walking inside, you come to a Café and a payment desk, you pay your money, 8 Euro’s each and immediately you are confronted with a huge collection of bits and pieces of authentic World War One “Stuff” as far as I am aware all found in and around the area.

It is in no particular format, you may be excused for thinking you have walked into a jumble sale.
Warning, there are some pretty gruesome picture too, all manner of bits and bobs, from bullets to lighters, medical kits, guns, everything you can think of and more. It’s hanging from the walls and in display cabinets.

Moving on to the next room, there are uniforms of all descriptions, more weaponry, medals, and some rather nice trench art.
You then get to go outside to the trenches….

Just before you get to the woodland and its trenches there is an array of larger artefacts just outside the door, shells, more shells and much iron work little is recognisable but all bits of WW1 militaria.

So, to the trenches, well not quite yet, we decided to walk through to the edge of the woods first, walking past tree trunks still there, sheared, split and shattered by the ravages of war left there as a reminder that it’s not just humans that were culled, some have been used as shrines with photographs of soldiers and crosses affixed to them and some with bullets and shrapnel embedded in them.

OK, now the trenches, the first thing you notice when going down into them is the smell, musty damp and woody, but then I guess they would. They stretch for quite a way weaving in and out. It wasn’t until I did a bit of research that I found out why they were not straight, they were zig zagged so that when a shell landed nearby the shock wouldn’t travel down the trench killing or wounding more soldiers.
There are many shell craters in these woods, some right next to the trenches, it’s a pretty safe bet men lost their lives right here.

Along with the recognisable trenches there are tunnels used for communications between the frontline, second line and backup trenches, barbed wire and quite a few hazards, take care, but it’s well worth a visit.

We then went for a short walk up to the Canadian Memorial (Mount Sorrel) as we were so close; a peaceful tranquil setting on a slight hill and from here you can look over the fields to Ypres town.

From here we went back to revisit Private George Brown in the Perth Cemetery, another heart tugging visit and again I couldn’t seem to get my emotions out, once again we took some pictures as the Sun was in a different place as it was morning, yesterday it was late afternoon when we visited.

We spent quite a while here again and again I didn’t want to leave him there, but then Sue put it a little straighter in my head by saying to me “He probably wouldn’t thank you for taking him away from his colleagues” that sort of helped a little, although as soon as we had walked away I wanted to turn back and say goodbye again.

This visit I saw there was a visitor’s book by the gate, so I signed it and left a message, quite simply

“I came to talk to my Great Grandfather”

We got back in to the car and went back into Ypres town.

On our list of things to do was the Flanders Fields Museum, St Martins Church and wander around the town of Ieper (Ypres) and that’s what we did.

St Martins Church was first as it was on our way back to the centre from the car park, free entry too. Like most RC Churches it is dripping with bling, not my scene really but I always show respect and I have to admit to feeling “Something” when I enter these establishments. It was Sue’s wish to walk around and she wanted to light a candle for an uncle she had recently lost, so I lit one too for my Great Granddad I had just found.

Moving on. We went to the Cloth Hall, very impressive building and all of this area was flattened by the end of the war and has all been rebuilt and a grand job has been done too.

The Flanders Museum was OK, again I’m not one for museums that are full of modern Audio visual displays, I prefer to look at real stuff, authentic real tactile stuff that has a story to tell.
Although mainly Audio visual there are a few good displays of authentic bits of kit here. You end up in the Café, we walked through it.

For 2 euros extra you can take a walk up to the top of the Bell Tower all 231 steps of it, we bought two tickets and started the assent.

About two thirds of the way up the type of staircase changes from an closed in stone wall spiral staircase that you would expect in a Church steeple to a more open modern meccano style spiral staircase up through the actual bell chamber and beyond.
It was at this point Sue decided she’d had enough so she sat it out at this level and I went on determined to get to the top, (personal challenge having COPD) so I got there and the view was worth the climb.
You can see all round the town but for me the best view was down towards The Menin Gate and beyond to where the battlefields would have been and wondering about all those brave men who must have walked that walk.

After all the walking it was time to eat and drink, so we wandered around the square and planted ourselves in a small outside area of the Old Tom Hotel, ate and drank.

From there we went up on the Big Wheel that has been planted in the square, for me it spoilt the wonderful square but I guess it’s there for the tourists so we did it.

Then we wandered back down to the Menin gate and went for a walk along the Ramparts a lovely walk through a park down to the Lille gate and another small cemetery in a beautiful riverside location Ramparts Cemetery Lille gate.

We then walked back up to the Town square and sat outside a Spar shop that had a bar, well it had to be done! From there we went back to our B&B for a nap before the last evening jaunt.

Again in the evening we headed towards the Menin gate for the Last Post ceremony at 8pm, again huge crowds and I would say more than on the Friday evening. We got chatting to another couple from England who have been many times, you just can’t help but feel emotional at this place and it was building in me again, I still hadn’t got visiting my Great grandfather out of my system.

We had a drink in the nearby Ypra Inn and sat outside in the street along with many others. After the ceremony I saw the three Buglers and the Piper and thanked them for what they do. By the time we left here time was getting on so we found a restaurant called Vauban had something to eat, last beer at Bar 32 then went back to our room as tomorrow we had to travel home.

Sunday 21st October.

Our booked sailing from Dunkirk was Midday and we needed to be there at least 45 minutes before and it was an hour’s drive away. So we decided to leave around 9am that gave us plenty of time. Sue did say we could visit Great Grandfather again before we left, I decided not to, as much as I wanted to, I really didn’t want to drive back with tears in my eye’s instead I settled for knowing that we would come back again another time in the future. It really was a tough decision.

We had a steady drive back, fairly uneventful except where the N8 meets the E40, the European junctions are a strange can of worms, but we found the correct route back, luckily the roads were not busy at all.

Arriving back at the DFDS Dunkirk dock, we got a drink and a bite to eat, well as much as you can get from vending machines drove back on the boat and came back to blighty.

This trip has changed my life, I Worshipped my Granddad Brown and although I met his mother when I was a young child, I was so young on can’t remember much about her, but I remember my Granddad crying when she died, I can’t imagine how he must have felt at the age of Six when he learnt that his Dad had been killed in the war.

My Mum, before she died did a lot of research into her Granddad but in those days it was letter writing and phone calls if you had a phone. Sadly she died before going out there to find him.

All her research was passed to me and I promised I would complete it and go visit. I was the very first of George Browns family to go, that makes me proud and moves me. However I will go Back!.