From September 4-6, Amy Moore travelled to the famous WWI Battlefields to discover what celebrating the centenary offers visiting groups.
Following our arrival into Ypres at 1730hrs, we were invited to view an introductory presentation by Stephen Lodewych of the West Flanders Tourist Authority. Flanders is part of the Western Front, which remained unoccupied until 1914. Following the end of the First World War, military cemeteries were created amongst the scenes of devastation.
The presentation was hosted in Cloth Hall, a neatly restored 13th century building boasting a rustically medieval interior. Only a quarter of Cloth Hall is occupied, with the remainder housing the contemporary In Flanders Fields Museum. Our group were advised that since the start of the centenary, Flanders has seen a vast increase in British school groups visiting, and in regards to accommodation, there has been an great increase in occupancy rates to 91% (May 2014).
Ypres provides a functional base for anyone visiting, showcasing vibrant history in relation to the First World War. It was occupied by the German Army in 1914, and was soon to be recaptured by Allies on October 14, 1914. It is said that approximately five million soldiers passed through the region. Ypres is home to the In Flanders Fields Museum and Last Post Ceremony.
LAST POST CEREMONY
Around 2000hrs, our group embarked to The Menin Gate to witness the iconic Last Post Ceremony. There was an impressive turn out considering the event has been performed every evening since 1928. Organised by the Last Post Association, 2015 will mark its 30,000th public performance.
The Menin Gate has been constructed from classical design, and is arguably one of the most famous Commonwealth Memorials in Flanders. It is through the old town entrance that thousands of soldiers once passed on their way to the front. To this day, the Memorial has engraved the names of 54,896 soldiers reported missing, with a further 35,000 commemorated on panels at the Tyne Cot Cemetery in Passchendaele. Due to demand, groups should endeavour to arrive early in order to get a good view.
Home to the Memorial Museum Passchendaele and Memorial Gardens, which houses seven individual green spaces shaped like poppies.
Home to the harrowing Poperinge Town Hall Death Cells exhibited on a former execution site. Also, Talbot House, which was a hotspot for rest and relaxation during the First World War.
The Yser Tower Museum reopened earlier this year following a big refurbishment project, which saw a new visitor centre built and extended parking facilities for guests.
Zonnebeke became an area of destruction and desolation after the First World War, and it wasn’t until the early 1920s that people started to return and rebuild.
Passchendaele is its neighbouring village, home to the Chateau of Zonnebeke, which houses the Memorial Museum Passchendaele. Nearby is Tyne Cot Cemetery, arguably one of the largest Commonwealth Military Cemeteries in the region.
TYNE COT CEMETERY
Tyne Cot Cemetery is certainly a shocking sight with over 12,000 bodies buried, including two German prisoners of war. The bronze ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ dominates the landscape, present at all sites housing over 10,000 graves, and has been erected over a former German bunker, which had been captured by Allies on October 4, 1917. Tyne Cot Cemetery is located in Passchendaele or “Passion Dale,” which translates as ‘The Valley of the Suffering.’
Between 1919 and 1921, only 3,800 bodies had been identified by name. Some graves have still not yet been identified and therefore, bear the mark ‘Unknown to God.’ Each headstone has been constructed from white Portland stone, with a small collection made from marble. The cemetery was inaugurated in 1927, with a design by Sir Robert Baker. “Memorial to the Missing” sits on the rear wall, detailing the names of 35,000 British and New Zealand soldiers who fell after August 16, 1917.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Like many others, Tyne Cot Cemetery is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which sees the commemoration of almost 1,700,000 Commonwealth Forces from around 153 countries worldwide. Fromelles was the first to see a Commonwealth War Grave built in more than 50 years, having uncovered 250 soldiers from six mass graves in 2009.
EVENING ENTERTAINMENT: THE SOUNDTRACK OF 1914-1918 ‘WITH SONGS THAT WON THE GREAT WAR’
Hosted in the deluxe Hotel Palace, our group enjoyed some upbeat musical entertainment. Guests shouldn’t expect a fanfare of celebration, with a petit ensemble of two performing within an intimate venue. Guests can enjoy a hearty four-course meal and after every dish, the musicians will take to the stage, with the piano’s ambience echoing throughout a spacious hall. Stories and poems from the time help to set the scene, and did well to form a unique narrative of the First World War. On piano was the highly talented Maricke Rabaey, with Yves Bondue providing a memorable vocal performance. The troupe performs every Wednesday at 1930hrs, with parties of 30 or more able to allocate additional dates. For more information visit www.flanders.be
Poperinge was located immediately behind the front lines. Poperinge is home to Talbot House, a former wartime soldiers club, which provided the ideal spot for rest and relaxation. The Lijessenthoek Military Cemetery is the final resting place of over 9,500 commonwealth graves, with a newly opened interpretation centre constructed on the site of an old evacuation hospital.
LIJESSENTHOEK MILITARY CEMETERY
Lijessenthoek Military Cemetery arguably tells the most interesting story, as on this site, one woman – a staff nurse – had been buried following a bombing in 1917.
Travelling from the newly constructed Visitor Centre adjacent, 1,392 rusted posts lead the way to a concealed entrance, indicating the amount of deaths recorded. Within the Visitor Centre, guests receive a complementary memento of their trip, with an option to print the biography of a soldier dedicated to the date of visit. One of many interactive displays, visitors are also encouraged to press their ear to the wall, listening to authentic sounds of the former hospital.
From 1915 to 1920, it was the biggest evacuation hospital in the Ypres Salient, housing approximately 10,784 burials from 30 nationalities, including the Chinese Labour Corps. The Visitor Centre is an ongoing project, as many identities are still waiting to be discovered.
Messines is Belgium’s smallest city, which sits on the language frontier between Dutch and French. Messines is home to the Irish Peace Tower, which stands as a symbol of the cooperation between the Irish Catholic 16th Division and the Irish Protestant 36th Division, who fought side by side on June 1917. The Irish Peace Tower reaches 30metres, with three outer curves to demonstrate the advance. A new Tourist Information Centre (TIC) was opened in April 25, 2014.
PEACE VILLAGE INTERNATIONAL HOSTEL
Peace Village International Hostel is owned by VisitFlanders and has stood in a prime touring location for eight years. Founded via the Irish Peace Project in 2006, the accommodation aimed to attract around 15,000 tourists per annum – soon to see more than 20,000 people attend.
Its core demographic is UK & Irish School Groups, with Messines boasting the site of a major battle in 1917, where the Irish Catholic and Protestant soldiers fought side by side for the first time. The Irish Peace Tower is a short walk from the venue. The word ‘hostel’ often refers to budget backpacking accommodation, but the Peace Village International Hostel almost borders on luxury.
Upon arrival, our group tucked into a heavily fished buffet, served in the restaurant with a memorable yoghurt and herb dip. The hostel also harbours 13 en-suite studio rooms, with eight specially equipped for guests with limited mobility. The hostel can accommodate 150 people, with 11 rooms recently fitted for staff, guides and drivers. There are several meeting rooms and conference facilities suitable for large events, ideal for youth groups and/or corporate parties.
Nearby is the Flanders Peace Field, which stands on the former site of the Christmas Truce. The land has been reconstructed as a football pitch, and distant chimes can be heard playing WWI chants. Our group embarked on the March of the Phoenix remembrance walk, touring the Peace Field and the New Zealand Peace Park, located alongside a well-preserved German trench, which overlooked former battlefields.
COMMENT: Doug Goodman Travel PR
At around 1830hrs on September 5, Doug Goodman gathered our group in the intimate lobby of the Hotel Recour in Poperinge. It was between these four striped walls and a draping, embellished chandelier that he proceeded to describe the narrative of ‘Uncle Alec’ who was killed in the Battle of the Somme on September 15, 1916. It was an emotive and personalised account, where he approached the subject with an educational stance. He handed out photos and letters he’d archived and detailed a search, with a history stretching back to 1992.
“Doug Goodman, who runs a travel PR company, has organised many battlefield visits and says that group trips are essential for getting the best possible experience. “The tourist boards of Nord, Pas de Calais, Champagne Ardenne, Flanders and Wallonia, are well prepared for the influx of British groups expected to be visiting over the next few years.
“Excellent literature, new museums, immaculate cemeteries, signposts and highly knowledgeable guides are there to welcome us. “Many visitors have a specific name to find on a gravestone or on a memorial to those who have no known grave. “Preliminary research through CWGC.com – Commonwealth War Graves Commission – will be able to provide more information.
“Asked what he finds most impressive on battlefield tours, Doug says that it’s the sight of school groups reverently touring the cemeteries and their emotion at finding a relative’s grave.”