Visit to Ypres, 22nd April 2005
On Friday 22nd April 2005 my History Special Subject class, all Final Year students from the University of Kent, went on a visit to the Great War Cemeteries in and around the Belgian town of Ypres.
I've been to Ypres before, when I was a spindly legged thing of 14 in year 9 at school. We went on an English trip as part of the War Poetry thing we were doing at the time. I know it made an impact on me then, but so much more of an impact was made this time round. Maybe it was because at 21 I'm much more mature than I was then. Maybe it is because we have spent a year going through writing and opinions about the war but this was the first time we were physically near it and its dead. Or maybe it was because the majority of the people whose graves we saw were as old as I am now. It was really quite chilling to think about.
Our tour guide on this trip was our Special Subject tutor, Dr Mark Connelly who gave us a running commentary on the military doings in the areas we drove through from both World Wars. He told us that of all the British dead of the Great War, all theatres, over a third were buried in the Ypres area. It's such a tiny area it really doesn't seem possible or logical for 300,000 men to lie there. Statistically it is frightening, more so because the men who died there, stayed there. In a controvertial move, nobody was repatriated after death.
The first cemetery we visited was Brandhoek New Cemetery. As a New Cemetery all the bodies there were interred post war, most of them people who died after reaching the Casualty Clearing Station behind the lines. The most noteable grave in Brandhoek is that of Captain N. G. Chavasse who is one of only three men ever to win the Victoria Cross and Bar (meaning he won the VC twice). It was certainly interesting to see, but I found the one next to it more moving. I do not recall now who was buried there buut I do remember the inscription on his stone. It read something along the lines of "deeply missed by his loving mother".
Brandhoek is a small cemetery, especially when compared to Tyne Cot, which we would visit later, but it was very intimate and peaceful. The most apt sight of the entire trip was here when I witnessed forget-me-nots growing on the beautifully tended graves. Pictures of Brandhoek are numbers 1477 to 1486.
After Brandhoek we visited Menin Road South Cemetery, a cemetery begun mid-war, with some refugees in it - men relocated there after the destruction of Menin Road North at another point in the conflict. In a connection to the University of Kent,Captain Thomas Riversdale Colyer-Fergusson, a Victoria Cross winner is buried here. His family sponsor bursaries at the University and the bi-annual concert at the Cathederal by the University of Kent Music Society Chorus and Orchestra.
Menin Road South is an odd little cemetery. It lacks the intimacy of Brandhoek, but doesn't have the enormous scale of Tyne Cot. All in all, it is the cemetery that made me feel least of the few we visited.
Pictures of Menin Road South go from 1487 to 1499.
Being short of time we left Menin Road South after only a short visit and proceeded on to Tyne Cot.
Tyne Cot is the largest British War Cemetery anywhere in the world and truly awe inspiring. Nothing can bring across quite the size and scale of it except seeing in person. I've been there before but it really took my breath away to see it.
In Tyne Cot there are 12,000 men buried, of which only a few thousand have ever been identified. On the Memorial to the Missing there are 35,000 names of men who have no known grave. The names of men whose bodies are subsequently identified are removed from this wall when it is next overhauled. Given the way that any breeze is magnified on this rather exposed spot it needs redoing often and there is a constant rolling replacement of gravestones that have become too weathered to display the details of who lies in what plot of land. Maintaining Tyne Cot must be a huge task, and it is work that is done both respectfully and well.
Tyne Cot was so named because the German Pill Boxes that littered the area reminded the soldiers fighting there of the Cottages of miners on the Tyne. "Tyne Cottage" was shortened to "Tyne Cot" and the name stuck. This cemetery marks one of the British high water marks of the Battle of 3rd Ypres.
In an interesting move to preserve Army Hierarchy, soldiers on the Wall of the Missing are listed in order of regimental precidence, meaning that the Guards are first on the wall, then Regiments of Foot listed with the oldest first.
Of all the cemeteries I visited Tyne Cot was by far the most awe inspiring of all of them, just because of the scale of it.
Tyne Cot is shown in pictures 1500 to 1535.
After leaving Tyne Cot we drove through Poelcappelle on the way to our next destination. Poelcappelle was pointed out to us as noteworthy as a cemetery there holds Private John Condon of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment who was killed on the 24th May 1915, at the age of just 14. He is believed to be the youngest battle casualty of the war.
Our next stop was at Langemark, the only German war cemetery in the Ypres region. This cemetery is just a fraction of the size of Tyne Cot, yet contains at least four times as many men.
The mood in Langemark is completely unlike the mood at any other cemetery I have been to. There are feelings and emotions that just hang in the air here. There is sadness and sorrow and anger and disappointment. The feelings which characterised the inter-war years in Germany are still present and tangible in Langemark and it actually leads to a Cemetery that spooks the visitor.
Langemark has a small space or chapel in its entrance arch and on the walls here are the most poignant sights in Langemark. Wooden plaques on the walls listing the names of students from German Universities who were conscripted into the Army in 1914 and died at the First Battle of Ypres. This event has become known as The Massacre of the Innocents as many of the conscripted students went into battle against the British Expeditionary Force singing. Of course, the conscripts were no match for the professional army that the British Army still was at this time and they died.
The Cemetery of Tyne Cot makes you think about the scale of the war, but it is easily pushed to the back of your mind, in a way that Langemark can not. Langemark gets under your skin and having been there I didn't feel quite the same. I would even go so far as to say that the effect of it is still on me.
Langemark appears in pictures 1536 to 1549.
From Langemark we headed towards Ypres itself, passing by St Julien and the Canadian Memorial there.
The simplicity of the memorial here is the most striking thing. It was erected on the site of the first Gas Attack of the war which was withstood by mostly Canadian troops. It was by far my most favourite sight of the trip. It has a real beauty about it, and for want of a better word it is the most respectful commemoration of the bravery of those who fought the war.
St Julien features in pictures 1551 to 1553.
Our final stop of the day was the Menin Gate, which was impressive for its sheer scale but not as moving for me as the Canadian Monument at St Julien or Langemark German war cemetery. It's certainly a must see, especially for the last post ceremony (which we missed this time round), but not the sight that impressed me the most by a long way. Most interesting about the Menin Gate for me was the metal scale model of the gate, complete with braille inscription at the bottom to allow blind visitors to appreciate the Gate.
The Menin Gate is pictures 1555 to 1562.
So what impressions did the day leave me with?
Well it's difficult to express, but I'm going to try anyway.
Paul Fussell suggests in The Great War and Modern Memory that "the Great War was perhaps the last to be concieved as taking place within a seamless, purposeful 'history' involving a coherent stream of time running from past through present to future." As part of this there was a language in operation in 1914 that everyone recognised and associated with war: "The language is that which two generations of readers had been accustomed to associate with the quiet action of personal control and Christian self-abnegation ('sacrifice'), as well as with more violent actions of aggression and defense." Fussell believes that this language came to an end with the First World War because none of the words the people of 1914 were familiar with were appropriate to describe the scenes at the Somme and Passchendaele.
I can certainly see Fussell's point and I agree with that particular section of his ideas, unusual as it is probably the only part of Fussell's thesis that I do agree with. I don't think that by 1918 the language they had to work with was sufficient for veterans to communicate what they had seen. Where my thoughts differ from Paul Fussell's is that he believes a new language was created to deal with it. I don't think this is true.
Having seen what I saw in and around Ypres and knowing what I know from doing The Great War and Modern Memory as part of my degree I know that there is still no language to describe it. No words can possibly describe what I saw and felt. Words are completely and utterly useless for trying to quantify what I experienced in the cemeteries at Langemark and Tyne Cot. I'm not sure that I will ever be properly able to do so.
I don't think I was the only one who left feeling like that.
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