Remembering WW-I history.....

Trip Start Aug 22, 2011
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Trip End Sep 29, 2011


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Flag of Belgium  , West Flanders,
Saturday, September 3, 2011

11 Sept. 3 - Saturday

The group had to be up and organized early this morning, as we'd be visiting some of the historic WW-I battlefields near Ypres and Passchendaele. An early breakfast was arranged for 07:00 and the Bus would be leaving at 07:50, in order to (hopefully) avoid heavy traffic.

The first stop of the day was Yypres, where we picked up our local Guide, Jacques near the historic Menin Gates, which was erected as a memorial to British and Commonwealth soldiers who died fighting in the Ypres salient during WW-I.  From there we proceeded to one of the local historic sites, a location made famous by Lt. Colonel John McCrae who wrote the famous poem In Flanders Fields.  Frequent mention was made during the day of the contribution and sacrifices of the Canadian troops, so I found this to be an especially moving part of the tour.  While at that site we toured some concrete Bunkers, and were shown some old photos of what they originally looked like when they were made of sandbags.  Jacques indicated that he has led tours of that facility for Veterans that fought there, and they won’t set foot inside the Bunkers.

The battles in the Ypres area were some of the most significant of WW-I.  The city was surrounded by the Germans on three sides, creating a "salient", and many terrible battles took place as they tried to take the town from allied forces.  One of the worst was Passchendaele, also referred to as the third battle of Ypres which took place from 21 July to 6 November 1917.  In the second battle of Ypres from  22 April to 25 May 1915, the Germans used poison gas for the first time.  Initially Chlorine was used but Mustard Gas was later employed.  The name of the town was often mispronounced by British troops as “Wipers” and in fact at the time they produced a small newsletter called the “Wipers Times”.

Our next stop was the Commonwealth Cemetery at Tyne-Cot (short for “Tyne Cottages”) which is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world.  It contains almost 12,000 soldiers, of which about 8,300 are unnamed, and I found this to be an especially moving site for me.  As I walked between the rows of white crosses in the bright afternoon sun, I thought of the many Canadian fathers, sons and brothers who now rested in this sacred Belgian soil, and all those at home whose family members now rested in this far away foreign land.  It wasn’t uncommon to have 60,000 casualties in a single battle, so the sacrifice of all the Commonwealth troops was enormous!

We then drove  a short distance to a smaller Langemark German cemetery.  It’s apparently a very sacred location for Germany, and during WW-II, Hitler made a point of stopping there to pay his respects.  There are fewer Headstones in the German cemetery, with six or more soldiers buried under a single headstone.  Just inside the entrance, there’s a large square garden area, which is surrounded by small concrete blocks with a metal plate fastened to each one.  Just underneath the garden area, lies a large concrete burial crypt where over 25,000 German soldiers are interred.  The metal plates contain the names of those who rest in this crypt.  One interesting anomaly is that there are two British Soldiers buried there also. They were  wounded in battle and were taken to a German Field Hospital for treatment.  Both succumbed to their injuries and were therefore laid to rest with German troops.

During the drive to our next stop, we passed “Vancouver Corner”, with the very distinctive St. Julien Memorial and large statue of the “Brooding Soldier”, which was erected to commemorate the sacrifices of the Canadian 1st Division in that part of the Ypres Salient from 22 to 24 April 1915 during the first Gas attack.  Jacques described the Gas attacks where Chlorine gas was used against allied troops.  Due to the way the front lines were oriented, it was necessary for a north east wind to be blowing and at about 17:00 the Germans unleashed the gas on unsuspecting allied troops.  One remarkable point to note is that a German soldier had been captured the day before, and told his interrogators that gas would be used, but they either didn’t believe him or the information got “lost” somewhere?  The German soldiers confession apparently came to the attention of Hitler after the war (in the '30’s?) and the soldier in question was jailed for 10-years at hard labour for treason.

The gas caused great devastation, especially in the French lines.  The troops broke from their positions and ran.  Jacques read an actual account of the effects, and it wasn’t only soldiers that were killed.  Every horse, bird and any other animals in the area (including insects) were killed by the Chlorine.  The Canadians apparently did not break cover and run, but held their ground and fought. At one point they abandonded their trenches knowing that Chlorine is heavier than air, and held urine-soaked rags over their faces to provide some protection from the gas.  Unfortunately, by standing up on the parapets they exposed themselves to rifle and machine gun fire.

One other interesting side note to these stories is the fact that Fritz Haber, the German scientist who developed the gas, had also experimented with poisons based on Fertilizers.  One result of his experiments was Zyklon B, which was used in the Gas Chambers in the Concentration Camps.  The ironic part of this story –  he was Jewish and some of his extended family died in the concentration camps during WW-II.  One of his wives and some of his other family members later committed suicide, possibly due to shame over his dreadful scientific accomplishments.

We eventually stopped for lunch at Varlet Farm, which was the site of other famous battles during WW-I, as it formed part of the German front lines during 1917.  It was taken by the Anson Battalion of the Royal Naval Division at 07:20 on the 26th of October 1917.  It is now also a B&B, and the proprietor (Charlotte) had prepared a wonderful lunch of buns, breads, cold meats, cheese, Ham Salad, Bananas, Apples, etc.  We all sat at a long table and had a very enjoyable lunch.  Charlotte is an expert on the history of the battles in that area, and apparently travels to many parts of the world to lecture on the subject.

Our first stop after lunch was a visit to Hill 62 and the Sanctuary Wood Museum, which was another famous battle site (I believe also involving Canadians).  I started by watching some old photographs in a kind of “picture viewer”, where a dial was turned to flip to the next picture.  While the photos were old and grainy, some of the scenes they showed were dreadful.  After that I had a look at some of the many displays of weapons and other artifacts that had been found in that area.

Behind the Museum, there was a large network of trenches, that appear to have been restored to some extent but for the most part configured as they were during the war.  Some of the soil in this area is “blue clay”, which is totally impervious to water so that explains why the trenches filled with water so easily.  It had rained recently, so the bottom of some of the trenches was a “soup” of mud, so I wasn’t anxious to venture into them although that certainly was possible.  The trenches were surrounded by actual shell craters (LOTS of them).  The Sanctuary Wood Museum is privately owned by the grandson of the farmer who reclaimed his land in 1919 at the time that the local people returned to Ypres.

Our final stop of the day was a smaller American Cemetery, where Jeff (a representative of the U.S. Battlefield Monuments Commission) provided a short talk.  While it was a very small location compared to Tyne-Cot and some of the others in the area, it was also a moving place to visit.  The building in the centre of the field was very impressive inside (especially the ceiling, which can be seen in the photo).

By this time it was about 16:00 and that was the end of our touring for the day so we boarded the Bus for the trip back to Bruges.  We dropped Jacques off at the Menin Gate, where “Taps” is still played by Buglers every evening.  As we approached the Hotel, we noticed a lot of banners and activity in the Canal.  Swimmers were entering the water, and swimming towards the bridge across from the Hotel, using a “bobbing” swimming technique.  I'm not sure what the event was, but there were a lot of particiipants.

After returning to the Hotel, I took my Netbook to the Lobby to catch up on E-mail and try to make at least a short entry to my Blog.  I spent about 1.5 hours and decided to go for dinner at the historic Vlissinghe Pub & Café, which is only a short walk from the Hotel.  This is the oldest Pub in Bruges, having been in operation continuously since 1515 and serving a selection of about130 different types of Beer as well as light meal items. I had the Spaghetti Bolognese and two Beer, and it was a fine meal.  I asked the Waitress about “Continental Gin” (as the Guide had suggested) but she didn’t seem to know what I was referring to.  I pointed out Jenever on the Menu, and she said “no you don’t want that, it’s only for winter when it’s cold”.  Two of the ladies from the tour were also dining there at the time.  At one point I got chatting with the couple seated next to me, as the guy had a similar Camera to mine.  They were from Germany, from the Alsace area near the French border.  The wife was very quiet and didn’t chat at all (possibly she didn't speak English).

After dinner I went back to the Hotel to get organized and then headed to the main square to try and find an ATM, and also get some night photos.  As I approached the square, I could hear Pachelbel’s Canon in D playing, and noticed a band in bright red uniforms with Stetsons playing on the large bandstand that I had noticed previously when the group did our walking tour.  Their uniform had a very slight resemblance to the RCMP dress uniforms.  They were excellent musicians, and it was great to be able to stand there in such magnificent surroundings and listen to great music.

When the band had completed their concert, they lined up in ranks and with a Police “Motorino” escort, proceeded to march through the streets playing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and other tunes.   I followed them to their end destination (as did a lot of other people who had been listening in the square), in order to get more video footage and perhaps a few more pictures.  It was mostly dark by this time, so even with a high ISO setting, it was difficult to get good photos.

On the walk back to the main square, it started to rain so I had to interrupt my night photo activities.  Fortunately the heavy rain held off and I made it back to the Hotel without getting the Camera wet.  I did manage to stop at a EuropaBank ATM and get some cash.

Hildbren and one of the other tour members were sitting in the Lobby, so I had a short visit with them and then returned to the room to update my Diary and get my packs organized for the trip to Delft tomorrow.
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