I read in the news that Theresa May, Prime Minister of Great Britain, is to travel to France to lay a wreath on the graves of two young British soldiers who were killed during World War 1. One of them was the first man to die in that ‘war to end all wars’ and the other was the last man to die. It reminded me that I had visited Saint-Symphorien cemetery where they are buried, a couple of years ago and I thought I would re-post my original piece but to my surprise either I hadn’t posted anything about that particular battlefield or I had somehow deleted it.
However, it is still in my mind now so I thought I would just put up a few photographs of the cemetery because it is so different from all the others in France, being in woodland, and having a more peaceful appearance. It is also the only cemetery, I believe, in which both British and German soldiers are buried together. My visit to Ypres last year was very different. There massive cemeteries like Tyne Cot just filled one with a deep, deep sadness as the ranks upon ranks of white gravestones spreading across the fields could not but remind one of the carnage of that war.
First though, the gravestone of the young James Parr of the Middlesex Regiment who was the first man to die, on the 21st August 1914.
And the gravestone of Private George Edwin Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers who was killed on the outskirts of Mons at 9.30 a.m. just 90 minutes before the Armistice came into force.
And just to finish on, not far from here is the spot where the first shot was fired in that war.
And the steely grey canal over which many battles were fought in this area.
I didn’t imagine it would be so difficult to write about my walk on the Ypres Salient in Belgium, as I followed the course of the World War l battle of 1917 but it’s impossible to write about the horrors of the 3rd Battle of Ypres (also known as Passchendaele) without including great chunks of history to explain just why we were walking there, and a blog is no place for a history essay. That being the case, I have to forget my idea of doing a Monday walk for Jo and just add a few photos with connecting text. A few historical notes will be appended at the end of the blog for those who want to read them.
First though, a few details.
During the course of the war, Ypres was all but obliterated by artillery fire. At the end of what we now call The Great War, it lay in ruins, only a handful of buildings left standing. First-time visitors to Ypres find it hard to believe that this magnificent town with its enormous square surrounded by medieval and Renaissance buildings was completely flattened by 1918. Virtually the whole of the town you see today was reconstructed from scratch, stone by stone, brick by brick during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Rubble that could be incorporated into the buildings was collected, cleaned and re-used and the planners, by referring to the medieval sketches and diagrams that had survived, were able to painstakingly rebuild the squares, streets and beautiful buildings of this ancient Flemish town.
Throughout the town, you will see bronze plaques bearing the outline of the Cloth Hall, the Cathedral and the Menin Gate at street corners. These are the signposts for the 5.5km provincial Heritage Footpath, the most complete footpath in the Ypres inner city.
Ypres had been fortified since about the 10th century and the Ypres ramparts are the best preserved in the country. The town originated on the banks of the Ieperlee and some ten centuries ago it was contained within little more than an earth wall and some moats, parts of which, dating from 1385, still survive. Later, stone walls and towers were added and later still, under occupation by the Habsburgs and then the French in the 17th and 18th centuries, the walls were strengthened, and bastions, advanced redoubts and more moats were added. The Lille Gate is the only city gate left out of the many that existed in the past.
The Ypres Ramparts are wide: strolling them in autumn is delightful as the falling leaves cushion the feet of the walker. The signposted route is 2.6 km long and meanders past lakes and ponds (the remains of the moat), interesting statuary, and through the Lille Gate into a small W.W.l military cemetery filled with the upright white headstones erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, a sight all too familiar to visitors to France and Belgium. The municipal museum is located not far from the gate. Along the route, 23 panels provide information on the various points of Vauban’s ramparts.
There are 198 soldiers buried here, among them the graves of six New Zealand troops who were killed simultaneously by the same shell: their graves are now symbolically grouped together.
There follows some photographs I took on this walk which ended at the back of the Menin Gate, in some ways more beautiful than the gate whose picture we are familiar with at which buglers from the local Fire Brigade play the Last Post every night at 8 p.m. This custom has continued since 1928 when it was first inaugurated, save for 4 years during World War ll when the German occupation prevented it. This year being an Anniversary Year it attracts a few hundred people every night but sometimes there are just a few onlookers, yet the volunteer buglers nightly continue their tribute to the fallen.
A. Engraved on The Menin Gate Memorial are the names of over 54,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Forces who died in the Ypres Salient before 16th August 1917 and who have no known grave. Tyne Cot has 35,000 names and there are 75,000 engraved on the Thiepval Memorial.
B.Menin Gate Last Post: At 7.30pm the police arrive and all traffic is stopped from driving through the Menin Gate until 8.30pm. For one hour the noise of traffic ceases. A stillness descends and the crowd is hushed.
7.55pm: Buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade arrive and stand ready at the eastern entrance of the Menin Gate Memorial. They then step into the roadway under the Memorial arch facing towards the town. The Last Post is played.
C. Of the battles, the largest and most costly in terms of human suffering was the Third Battle of Ypres (31 July to 6 November 1917, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele), in which the British, Canadian, ANZAC, and French forces recaptured the Passchendaele Ridge east of the city at a terrible cost of lives. It had been a battle across muddy, swampy fields taken and lost, then lost and taken again. After months of fighting only a few miles of ground had been won by the Allied forces at a cost of nearly half a million casualties on all sides.
D. The defence of Ypres was essential for the Allied forces as the town was a strategic point blocking the route of the Imperial German Army to the Belgian and French coastal ports (the ‘race to the sea’). Thousands of Allied troops died in the rubble of its buildings, the shattered farmland around it and in the fields and meadows that had been deliberately flooded by the Belgian King to try and prevent the enemy from gaining a foothold. Both sides fought ferocious battles and lived in inhuman conditions to maintain possession. The Allied losses were horrendous but thousands of German lives were also lost on the battlefields around Ypres during their four years of offensive and defensive battles.
I thought my first post after my trip to Belgium last week would be about my walks around the battlefields of Ypres, but my mind is so full of the experience of seeing R.C. Sherriff’s play Journey’s End, performed in an Ammunition Dump in that Belgium city, that I want to talk about that instead.
This particular run of the play finishes on November 12th, so I urge anyone in that area or anyone who can reach it easily, to book quickly to see the play (details below).
Journey’s End is the only drama about the First World War written by a playwright who actually fought in the war.
Exactly one hundred years ago, Sherriff fought at Passchendaele in the 3rd Battle of Ypres and approximately 90 years since the play was first staged in London (with Laurence Olivier in the lead) it is being staged by the UK based MESH Theatre Co. in an old restored ammunition dump with 3-metre thick walls made to resemble the dugout in which the play is set, in Ypres, the town that was razed to the ground and re-built.
The action takes place over 4 days prior to the disastrous battle of St. Quentin and deals with the physical and mental ordeals of trench warfare experienced by a group of British officers during the run-up to the battle, the changes wrought by the war on one officer in particular (an alcoholic at just 21 years old, a causal effect of the war) and the effects of shell-shock on another. Only a few forward-looking medics took much notice at that time of what we would now call PTSD but which then was often considered cowardice, or if you were lucky, shell shock (after being named such in 1915).
The ‘Theatre’ is accessed through a couple of hessian sacks serving as a doorway to the dug-out, the setting is atmospheric, lighting restricted to a few candles and two or three oil-lamps which barely illuminate the smokey trench. Seating is limited to about 80 seats which surround a centre space on which the action takes place, the acting is powerful and emotional and being immersed in the atmosphere of the trench makes for a very moving experience.
The current run extends to November 12th with tickets at €15. Matinees 3.00 Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays with evening performances at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the performance running just over 2 hours.
If you don’t manage to see it this year, make a note in your diary that the company will be performing it again in 2018, the centenary of the end of the Great War, at Thiepval, France from 18th September – 8th October and at Ypres, Belgium from 10th October to 12th November.