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Passchendaele remembered: Paul Hooper visits Flanders battflefields 100 years on

It is a strange feeling to be standing next to the grave of someone who was alive exactly 100 years ago this day.

I feel I should be overwhelmed with an eerie feeling of melancholy over the pointless waste of a life.

Yet in this cemetery in Ypres, in Flanders, I am surprised by a sense of contentment.

Total War: Passchendale 1917
Total War: Passchendale 1917

This soldier, whose well kept grave is adorned with roses, died a death I can’t imagine... just one more victim slaughtered in the muddy fields of Flanders in 1917.

But I feel reassured because he hasn't been forgotten. His name is etched on his gravestone and nearby is a short history of who he was, where he was from and how he died.

I gaze over the row upon row of monuments and crosses in cemeteries like the sobering Tyne Cot, which honours 35,000 missing men and women who died in the closing stages ofthe war to end all wars.

The Third Battle of Ypres – fought in mud, blood and water – is rightly described as the “blindest slaughter of a blind war”.

But there is still a sadness which hangs like a morning mist around so many memorials along the cared-for graves.

It is captured in four sad words, simply: “Known Only To God”.

Many perished without a word and now number the hundreds of thousands with graves without names.

But here in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Poperinge, I am drawn to the gravestone ofa captain who served with the East Kent Regiment,known as The Buffs. He was just 26 years old.

He had joined as a 2nd Lieutenant two years earlier and died with the 8th battalion during shellfire in the Messines Ridge on June 10th in 1917 during the prelude to the battle of Passchendaele.

Lijssenthoek was used as a hospital in preparation for the bloody battle... it honours the doctors, nurses and staff who fought to keep people alive during the maelstrom of horror in the summer of 1917.

Passchendaele is a small village five miles north-east of Ypres, whose name, together with the Somme has, for many, come to symbolise the tragic horrors of The Great War.

The Third Battle for Ypres was preceded by the attack on Messines Ridge which took place in June 1917.

Ypres a town which has risen from the ashes
Ypres a town which has risen from the ashes

But today - exactly 100 years ago - the main push by the British and Commonwealth and French troops began and fighting would continue until November that year.

The first phase of the bloody battle began at Pilckem Ridge, north of Ypres, in torrential rainfall and involving the British 5th and 2nd and the French 1st armies.

For the next few months the area is staging memorials to the battles at Langemark, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseine, Poelcappelle...and then Passchendaele.

Ypres is just a couple of hours away from Kent by Eurostar and taxi and this summer is the perfect time to make a family trip to enjoy a town which has risen from the ashes of a four year bombardment by the Germans.

It is now completely rebuilt...but in the style of the old town, full of wonderful museums, beer houses and great restaurants, and many craters to remind visitors of its sad past.

Known by the British Tommies as 'Wipers" it even had its own newspaper known as the Wipers Times...and was the scene of games of football which were playedduring the Christmas Truce when soldiers from both sides left their trenches to swap gifts, alcohol..and play footie.

Names of the dead on the walls at Tyne Cot Cemetery Zonnerbeke
Names of the dead on the walls at Tyne Cot Cemetery Zonnerbeke

But touring the area is not just about reliving the war, but to enjoy the efforts made by man to promote peace, so a first stop should be to the Peace Village (www.peacevillage.be).

This year, hundreds of pupils from 15 countries left personal messages on wooden stakes in honour of the 9000 or so soldiers who perished at Messines.

A few minutes’ drive away is the Island of Ireland peace park, the pool of peace, the German trenches at Bayernwald and the Heuvelland vistors centre.

Back in Ypres, a visit to In Flanders Fields Museum offers a wonderful perspective of the town’s history, and details those who lived and died during the battle.

In the evening I go to the Menin Gate, where people arrive and stand in silence as the emotive Last Post is played.

Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery
Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery

I watch in awe as old soldiers, young soldiers, bikers, school children, and relatives of those who fought arrive to lay wreaths, all serenaded by a choir from Manchester.

When it was built, the war poet Siegfried Sassoon condemned the Menin Gatein these words:

“Well might the dead who struggled in the slime, rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.”

Whatever your point of view, it has become a reminder to new generations of the futility of wars and the price paid by ordinary people...and their names are remembered on the walls so at the going down of the sun, and in the morning..their sacrifice is still remembered.

My last visit is to the Huts Cemetery to visit the graves of those who were shot by their own sides at dawn and the cells at Poperinge Town Hall where the condemned waited their fate..which leaves me thankful we now live in more enlightened times.

The Pool of Peace, made from a crater
The Pool of Peace, made from a crater

Yet Ypres is much more than just an echo of a forgotten time, it is also a thriving and bustling community with some of the best food in Flanders, like the Old Cheese Factory and the wonderfully designed De Fonderie with great beers and wines and fabulous food and the restaurant Passage in Poperinge.

It is a town which pays respect to its tragic past but now stands as a monument to a peaceful future.

If you are planning a trip this summer then visit www.visitflanders.co.uk;www.toerisme-ieper.beorwww.flandersfields1418.com which can help with the best places to visit, including In Flanders Fields Museum http://www.inflandersfields.be

Prices for set menus in many restaurants with three courses starts at€47 excluding drinks ( €55 with paired beers or €58 with wines).

Lunch of six cheeses with salad and home baked bread is just €10.56 excluding drinks. 

Other useful websites:

The Last Post Association – For the Last Post ceremony – also has a great app for tracing names at the Menin Gate.

The Peace Village – Our first destination where we hammered in our memorial posts for the New Zealanders.

The Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 – Museum with the re-created dugout

The In Flanders Fields Museum – Museum with the personal connection bracelets plus its temporary 1917 Total War in Flanders exhibition.

Hooge Crater Museum – Private museum where we had coffee ( beer) and apple cake

Talbot House – The R&R home in Poperinge run by Tubby Clayton ( Toc H)

The Death Cells

Commonwealth War Graves Commission –The organisation who look after all the graves in Flanders and worldwide. Has a good website to trace relatives buried /lost in Flanders

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