Ypres 2019 – One Year on and armed with more information.
Pictures below – Click on them for a larger image
Here we are then, a year after our first foray onto the continent in a car, more information on more relatives that fought in Flanders Fields in World War One.
Again after many hours of studying trench maps, articles and war diaries and coming up with a tight schedule to fit in as much as we can in a couple of days not forgoing trying the Belgian beer and visiting a chocolate shop, both of which were a given.
Friday October 4th
Off we went, we planned to catch an earlier sailing from Dover to Dunkirk than last year to give us an extra two hours on the Friday to fit more in. We got to Dover on time but got called in to customs for a search, all fine and off we went. The sailing was on time and uneventful as was the journey down to Ypres so we’ll start the story at the first stop.
St Eloi Crater No:3 where Great Uncle Bob, my Gran Browns Brother (Robert J Bliss of the Canadian Army 18th Battalion was injured)
We had to be there before 4pm as the electronic gate lock locks access then, I had previously got the entry code from the Ypres Tourist office. These craters were a result of troops tunnelling under the German front line, planting explosives and blowing them up. These sets of explosions were so big that they were heard here in the UK when they were blown at 4:15 a.m. on 27 March 1916.
Fighting then ensued for several days and weeks. Robert J Bliss received gunshot wounds to his arm on or around 9th April 1916.
Also just behind the crater is an old bunker, if only it could talk. We then popped over the road to see Crater No: 4.
Our next stop was about 10 minutes away although it took us more like 20 minutes due to road closures, something the Belgians do and they last for months even years in some cases. So we wound our way through narrow lanes occasionally coming across civilisation until we found the site of the Christmas Truce 1914. Although none of my relatives were there we felt it would be an interesting place to visit. There are two main sites here the official field where on Christmas day the English and German Armies held a truce and exchanged food & cigarettes and there is an official monument which is further up the road next to a cemetery, one of the hundreds dotted around in Belgium.
The only disappointment here was the field was full of crops, maze I think and we couldn’t see over the top of it, you’ll see in the pictures below.
Stop number three was what is now known as Bedford House Cemetery but back in WW1 it was not a cemetery it was a mansion known as Chateau Rosendael and it was here that Great Step Grandad Coveney (Who’s unit 2nd Battalion East Kent Regiment were moved frequently to where troops were needed) Rested and fought for a week from 10th to 16th February 1915.
It is now one of the biggest cemeteries in the area and the Chateau was flattened by the German shelling of the whole of the Ypres area. One or two old relics of the original estate are still there but not much.
First visit of 2019 to Great Grandad George Brown was the next stop. Perth Cemetery (China Wall). Sue said to me “can you remember where he is?” oh yes I said and made a beeline straight for his grave. Once there I was a little overcome to find that the message I had left there last year was still there, I had expected it to have been removed, but no, it was still there. I was a little chuffed to say the least.
We spent a little while there, took more photos and said a few words to him. We would return again tomorrow to see him again.
Day one done we headed back to Ypres to find our B&B the Gatsby Guesthouse.
Friday Evening we had a wander around the town centre and its wonderful array of bars starting in what I called the German Bar had a drink and a bite to eat. Then down to the Menin gate for the Last Post ceremony and a drink in the Ypre Inn. There was a small marching band there on Friday night, it looked to me like an Austrian umpah band but I could be wrong.
We then left the Menin Gate and walked back towards the Market Square and went in to the Old Bill Bar where we met up with my friend Roel Jacobus of the Belgian Band BEUK, great to see him and share a beer in his homeland.
From here we went back to our B&B. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day.
Saturday October 5th
With a busy day ahead we called in a bakers to get some munch, had a cup of coffee and went and found the car.
First call this morning was a field just east of Potijze – Zonnebeekseweg (Sun Brook Road) it was here where (Great Step Grandad) Thomas Alfred Coveney and the 2nd Battalion East Kent Regiment (The Buffs) fought in the front line around the 10th to 21st April 1915. It is around this time we believe he was injured, buried in a shell explosion which ended his war as he was medically unfit and returned eventually to England.
Next we headed towards the Polygon Wood area which is where Great Grandad Sgt Arthur Monk was on October 4th 1917 in The Battle of Broodseinde and in this battle received serious shrapnel wounds which ended his war. I had found two angles to view this from, the south and the north. Pictures below show the different views.
One of the wonderful things about Flanders fields is that you are never more than a few yards from a hero’s story. A few yards up the road whilst we were on the south side was a memorial to Sgt Henry James Nicholas VC MM and a few yards in the other direction was a memorial to Captain Clement Robinson VC who was also involved in the Polygon Wood Battle of Broodseinde.
From here we went around some more country lanes to the north side of Polygon Wood and looked down the hill towards the area where Sgt Arthur Monk and his comrades fought, and just about where I stood to take the pictures was where the trench ran through the countryside.
Whilst standing there a local stopped his car and approached me and asked why I was in this particular area, we struck up a conversation and I explained to him why, he was very interested. The conversation got around to where I was from, Ashford Kent I said to which he replied “Oh yes on the road to London, I come over every year as I am a Forrest Supporter and go once a year to a game in the UK” after a few more chats he wished us well and drove off.
Again whilst looking around this area we came across the Buttes New British Cemetery in Polygon wood, another very impressive Cemetery, they are everywhere.
We then drove around the perimeter of Polygon Wood making our way to the Hooge Crater Museum, but on the way stopped off to admire Black Watch Corner another memorial this time to the 1st Battalion Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) who halted the Prussian forces near here in 1914 the First battle of Ypres.
On to the Hooge Crater Museum then, more cross country lanes toward the Menin road, once here I knew where we were again, always nice to get on a big road with sign posts.
Hooge Crater Museum.
We didn’t visit this one last year, opting for Hill 62 Museum instead so we thought we would have a look around here this year, it didn’t disappoint.
A very nicely kept museum with a vast array of military hardware, in fact almost everything you could imagine, medical bits & bobs, bullets, shells, tools, uniforms, cap badges, you name it they seem to have it here, including a Model T Ford field ambulance similar to one in which three of my four ancestors would have probably taken a ride during their time out here.
This place is very nice; we also had a coffee and a bite to eat here before walking 100 yards down the road to the Hooge Crater and more WW1 stuff lying around it.
You have to look hard for this place although there is a large sign saying it’s there you have to walk into the grounds of a hotel & tearoom to access it, so we did.
There is an honesty box on the gate, you pay your 1 Euro per person and go in to what is the Hooge Crater area, the Crater itself is Huge and now full of water. Around it piles of hardware placed in piles and a couple of old bunkers, it is worth a look although you can tell it has been cosmetically arranged for visitor effect this is still a major place of history and gives an insight into what went on here, well worth the 1 Euro entry price.
The next place to visit was Hill 60, again we didn’t get to this last year as the main road through Zillebeke was closed for reconstruction, one year on and it still was, so the SatNav option was employed and we got there via another route which is always interesting as you pass so many other sites of interest, time just didn’t allow to stop at them all.
Hill 60 was in the line from St Eloi to Hill 62 which was where the Canadians were for a lot of the time, so Great Uncle Bob (Robert J Bliss) may well have passed through this area; anyway we went to have a look.
First stop for Sue was to feed a lone Donkey in a field opposite the car park. We then walked through one side of the area; it is split by a railway line. It is left almost as was because it is still the graves of hundreds of men buried beneath the shell cratered parkland. There is a wooden walkway to walk through there if you are wary of walking on graves. Once out the other side we walked over the railway bridge and into the other side of the woods to find Caterpillar crater another huge hole in the ground.
The Caterpillar Crater was formed by the detonation of a massive mine by the Allies that had been laid directly under the German trenches in June 1917.
Part of a whole series of mines that were blown simultaneously all along the German Front lines in this sector south of Ypres. It has been said that the blast of the mines going off was so powerful that it could be heard in London. The mines signalled the start of the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known as Passchendaele.
My first reaction when we saw this crater was Wow! It is that big, you have to see it first hand to be able to see just how big and deep it actually is, the picture below just doesn’t show it.
Back to Perth Cemetery to see Great Grandad Brown again then so back into Ypres and out to Hellfire corner, turn right and back to the cemetery to revisit the person all this adventure started with last year.
We decided we would have to come back again next year as the message I left by his grave last year, although still there was looking a little weather beaten, Good reason to come back! So I can replace it.
No speeches this year, more of a light hearted chat firstly apologising for disturbing his peace again, but there were still some serious thoughts and words, again I left a message in the visitors book.
I felt I couldn’t say any more than I said last year that would increase my utter respect for him and all that fought in the Great War and for our freedom.
After spending some time here again, we went back to Ypres centre and I got to drive through the Menin Gate, something I had up to present avoided as you enter the Ypres one way system but today I did it!.
Sue went into St Martins Cathedral to light a candle for her brother David who we lost earlier this year and for Twix the Cat.
We went and bought some lovely Belgian Chocolates (Don’t ask how much we spent) had a drink and went back to the B&B for a clean-up and change ready for the Menin Gate again in the evening.
Again we made or way via a bar or two across the Market Square to the Menin Gate area for the Last Post Ceremony at 8pm, tonight we were in for a real treat. On the way through the square we saw a few Pipers just mulling around, to be honest it’s not unusual to see Military band members and people dressed in uniforms around the square, they seem to perform Ad-Hoc around there.
We placed ourselves in one of the bars halfway down Menenstraat (Menin Road) towards the Menin Gate, the Ypra Inn right opposite the gate was packed, which it normally is around 7:30pm but it is almost empty at 8pm as most go outside.
So we were sitting in the street outside the bar when I heard some Bagpipes, looked up towards the square and there was a parade coming down towards the Menin Gate, I hastily got my camcorder out to film it, not seen this before.
It added so much more emotion to what is a very moving moment at the Menin gate a truly wonderful moment which left me wondering what this area must be like in November, but to be frank you’d probably see more on the TV at home on remembrance Sunday.
As mentioned above, the Ypra Inn empties around 8pm, so we went in there and sat in the warmth and watched the last Post from inside for a change, soft maybe, but we had stood out and watched it three times before it was nice to be sat down, although I stood up during the Bugle part, didn’t feel right not to.
After this we went to a nice little restaurant for a meal, well Chips for me but Sue had something a bit more substantial. Then back towards the square aiming for the B&B. Just around the corner from where we were staying was another little restaurant/bar so we popped in for a nightcap then went to bed.
Sunday October 6th
The journey back to blighty was not so straight forward, firstly heavy rain as we drove back up the N8 towards Veurne, then on to the E40/A16 towards Dunkirk, it did brighten up a bit once we got to the port, well, the weather did.
We don’t know what the problem was at the port but it was chaos, we got in the queue to check in, waited for ages, they then closed our lane, we had to merge in to another which took ages. After check in we went through the French border control, miserable bunch they were, I tried to be polite and speak to them in French, all I got was a stare and our passports thrust back at us.
That was as far as we got for about 30 minutes. Still needing to get through the British Border control and customs at Dunkirk we were going nowhere in a hurry. A while later two French land rovers came down the lane next to us loaded with what looked like troops or police, they tried to get through and eventually did.
Shortly after this the queue started moving, eventually we got to the British Border control and a very nice British border guard who spoke to us and smiled, unlike his French counterpart earlier.
By this time we thought the ferry would be loading. We moved through to the customs area where again they wanted to look in the boot and on we went to the queueing lane for the ferry.
Lined up, Sue decided to visit the ladies room before we drove on to the boat, by this time boarding was imminent but off she went, came back and reported that those French Army/Police were in the terminal building guns pointed and searching for someone. There must have been an incident in there which was causing the holdup earlier. It was a little frightening for her but she got out alive and we drove onto the ferry which left port half an hour late.
Back to Dover and disembarkation and the drive home went just fine.
It looks as though we’ll be going back next year, best start the research and planning now then.