Travels

Ypres

Monday 6 May 2019

A 45 minute drive brought me to a site on the outskirts of Ypres, or Ieper in Belgian. I got set up then headed out on my bike to visit a couple of WWI cemeteries.

The first, Tyne Cot Cemetery, is the biggest Commonwealth War grave site in the world.

Tyne Cot, or Tyne Cottage, was a barn named by the Northumberland Fusiliers which stood near the level crossing on the road from Passchendaele to Broodseinde. Around it were a number of blockhouses or ‘pillboxes’. The memorial cross is built over one of them.

When the site was captured the blockhouses became a medical post. Those who didn’t recover were the first burials.

It now holds the graves of about 12,000 soldiers, 8,300 unnamed. Around the wall, memorial plaques list 35,000 whose graves are unknown. Many who died were just 19, my son’s age. That put things in perspective.

There were lots of local student groups visiting which was good to see.

I then cycled to the German cemetery at Langemark.

Over 44,000 Germans are buried here, about 25,000 in one mass grave. The wreaths are from British visitors. One read “War does not determine who is right, only who is left.” That Brits left wreaths there was very moving and, I thought, a great tribute to the human spirit.

Everywhere I went, I passed information boards telling of events that occurred in that location, smaller cemeteries, signposts to other cemeteries, and memorials such as this Canadian one.

In the evening I walked into Ypres to the Menin Gate. On the the road out of Ypres to the front, from which many never returned, a huge memorial arch was built and inscribed with the names of 55,000 Commonwealth soldiers with no known grave.

With the exception of a couple of years during the Second World War when the town was under German occupation, since 1928, buglers from the Last Post Association have played the Last Post here every night at 8 p.m., regardless of the number of attendees or weather conditions. There were about 400 people there tonight.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

Here’s a thought. At the moment, all the British soldiers lying in all the graves in all the cemeteries across Europe, lie within the community that came into existence to ensure their often futile sacrifice would amount to something worthwhile. Yet there are many in the UK, whose father, grandfather or great grandfather lies in the soil of this community, who want to leave the community. Can you imagine the dead being anything other than disbelieving and ashamed that the generations that followed thought so little of their sacrifice?

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel visiting the memorials. It was poignant to witness the thoughtful consideration of the living, but I kept coming back to the dead representing a catastrophic failure of politics and leadership. And we are seeing that in Britain again. It’s facilitating the rise of stupid people, in the thrall of devious others, embracing far right ideology as if it is a legitimate viewpoint, those that march and salute and shout and evoke some idealistic military history that never existed, wilfully forgetting the fear, destruction and death. The mob is rising barely two generations after the biggest conflict the world has seen. What happened to “We will remember them.”?

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