Visiting Flanders And The Somme

I had the pleasure of visiting Flanders and the Somme on a GTI Battlefields Tour. Although harrowing at times, it was a trip that I found fascinating.

Stepping out into the cold November air at 4am is probably not many people’s idea of fun but I was really looking forward to this trip. The purpose of the visit was to tour and learn about the battlefields of World War One around Flanders and the Somme between 1914 and 1918, and the devastating loss of life. I have always been interested in World War 1 history so when I was asked to visit Flanders and the Somme with GTI, the group travel specialists, I was delighted to accept.

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DAY ONE

After a short flight to Brussels, we were met by our tour guide, Iain McHenry. Formerly a military policeman in the British Army, Iain now runs his own business, organising and leading bespoke tours of the former Western Front World War One battlefields, and also the battlefields of the Palestine campaign of 1917/18. Iain is a larger than life character and for a guy in his late thirties, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of what happened on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918.

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We made our way to our luxury coach and met our driver Karl to begin our ninety minute drive to our first stop, Tyne Cot Cemetery. Tyne Cot Cemetery is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world and the sheer number of graves it contains makes it difficult to process.

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There are 11,965 registered graves in the cemetery. Of that number 8,369 are unknown (unidentified) soldiers killed in action whose headstone simply reads ‘A Soldier Of The Great War’ and ‘Known Unto God’. On the wall to the rear of the cemetery are the names of 34,927 soldiers who have no known grave and is a continuation of the names inscribed on the Menin Gate. Inside the cemetery, two mourning angels kneel on top of pavilions at either end of the memorial wall, highlighting the harrowing nature of the conflict in the surrounding area of Passchendaele. As our first stop, the visual that Tynecot gives, combined with the facts, figures and personal stories of the huge numbers of soldiers that died in the area, the reality began to hit home.

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After lunch at ‘De oude kaasmakerij’ or the Old Cheese Factory,(shout out to VisitFlanders!), we were on the move once again. This time towards the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 near Zonnebeke. The museum is solely devoted to the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele, when in 1917, in only 100 days, almost 500,000 men were killed, for only eight kilometers gain of ground. The museum has a reconstruction of trenches that allow you experience what life was like in the trenches of WW1, as well as numerous exhibits, including many photographs and A/V shows. The place contains many personal artefacts that were found over the years.  

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We visited the grave of Waterford born John Condon in Poelcapelle British Cemetery. Condon is reputed to be the youngest soldier to have been killed in action in World War 1, at the young age of only 14. He served with the Royal Irish Regiment and, whilst there has been some debate about his age, he stands as an example of the many boy soldiers who served. This served as a fitting end to the first day of our tour, highlighting the madness of 1914  to 1918.

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We checked into the Novotel Ieper Centrum hotel in Leper that evening. The rooms were more than adequate considering the little time we would be spending in them. It had been an early start a full fifteen hours earlier and we had taken in so much in the short time we had been on the ground in Belgium, but there was still one more thing to do before dinner. Attend the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate….

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 He is not missing; he is here.

The Menin Gate Memorial is one of the most visited memorials on the Western front and stands in commemoration to the 54,896 missing soldiers who lost their lives during battles in the area. Every evening at 8pm the noise of traffic stops and a stillness descends over the memorial as the emotive “Last Post” is sounded in honour of these lost soldiers. This traditional salute to the fallen warrior was started in 1928 by the Belgian people in gratitude to those who had died for its freedom. It is a tradition which has continued unbroken to this day apart from German Occupation during WW2. The site of the Menin Gate was chosen out of respect for the hundreds of thousands of men who passed through it on their way to the battlefields. I found the tradition both moving and sad and I think its brilliant that the town has continued this nightly tradition for so many years. 

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DAY TWO

A hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast and copious amounts of coffee kicked started me for the visit into France and the Somme. After a couple of stops, we arrived at Guillemont, where the 16th Irish Division engaged in some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire battle of the Somme. Guillemont and nearby Ginchy were liberated by the 16th, but at a very high price losing up to 6,500 men, half their total strength in the battles. Between Guillemont and Ginchy is a distance of less than one mile. Within that one mile, 1,100 of the 16th lay dead. The Division had been decimated, but Guillemont and Ginchy had been taken. The people of Guillemont have erected a memorial to the 16th Irish Division and have even named a street after the Division too.

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Following on from from a few other stops, we visited what I anticipated to be a real highlight for me and I’m not even sure why – Theipval Memorial. Standing in an isolated windswept position on the Somme, Thiepval is the largest and one of the most emotive Memorials to the Missing from any war. The names of over 72,000 soldiers are carved into the stone of the massive memorial and visiting here is a moving and sobering experience. Losses at Thiepval were catastrophic and almost every regiment and corps of the British army is represented here. Of all I had seen, this impressed me the most, its location, its size and what it represents. This was the last stop of our second day touring. The transfer from the Somme back to our hotel in Belgium was close to two hours. This gave many of us on the coach time to contemplate and process the couple of days and what had happened in this area only 100 years earlier.

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When we got back to the hotel, it was time for a couple of ‘cleansing ales’ to clear the dust from our throats before dinner. This also gave us an opportunity to watch some of the Autumn Internationals rugby in a local bar. Having gone out on both Friday and Saturday night, both seemed like a Monday with very few people out and about. Why? Well, I have absolutely no idea and none of us in the group could figure it out. Suffice to say, Ypres is not a place for stag parties!

DAY THREE

The final day of our tour was upon us, with just a few planned visits before boarding our Aer Lingus flight home later that afternoon. The first of these was the Island of Ireland Peace Park which is home to a one hundred foot round tower, similar in style to the tower of Glendalough. Built in stone shipped all the way from Mullingar in Ireland, the tower stands as a very poignant memorial to the soldiers of Ireland who fought in World War 1. Located near the battle for the Messines Ridge, the memorial is of particular significance as it was the first time Irish Catholic and Protestant soldiers united together to fight side by side against a common enemy. This occurred when the 16th Irish and 36th Ulster Divisions found themselves united within IX Corps. A remarkable aspect of the design is that the interior of the Tower is only illuminated by the sun on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. This is also Remembrance Day. A really beautiful tribute.

Later in the day, we ate lunch in the Flanders Field Museum, courtesy of VisitFlanders again and also had an opportunity to wander around. The museum is quite modern and using technology and interactive exhibits, it brings to life the battles and gives you the opportunity to experience life at the Front. It is located inside The Cloth Hall on Market Square in the centre of Ypres. If I’m honest, I found the museum a little disturbing and I would suggest not for the faint-hearted!  It really brings the whole experience home filled with death and destruction – and it is interactive if you can imagine that…flanders and the somme

Our final stop was to the grave of Willie Redmond, who died of his wounds in an Ulster Division field hospital, the evening after the advance on Messines Ridge by the 16th Irish Division and the 36th Ulster Division. Willie Redmond was the brother of John Redmond, leader of the Irish parliamentary party. He was 56 at the time of his death, considerably older than those serving with him. He held a position of relative safety on the 16th Division’s staff. Yet Redmond insisted on going forward with his old battalion, the 6th Royal Irish Regiment. Willie Redmond was buried at Locre, the 16th Division’s headquarters, where he still lies today. This was our last stop before returning to Brussels airport.

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There were other stops over the course of the three days, including Langemarck Cemetery, Lochnagar Crater, Newfoundland Park Memorial and the grave of the Irish poet and soldier, Francis Ledwidge. You can read the full GTI Flanders and the Somme itinerary here.  During the two hour drive from Locre to Brussels, I looked at the offerings from GTI. Having seen how the tours are run and been seriously impressed with the depth of knowledge of our guide and most importantly, having enjoyed the company of new found friends with similar interests – I’m sold!

Some might consider these tours somewhat macabre but I found it fascinating. I have a modicum of interest in WW1 history and yet still found the tour impressive. The way the tour guide was able to relay so many personal stories of those that died, really brought home to me the horrific conditions these men lived and died in. I find it difficult to say I ‘enjoyed’ the trip, even though I did, but ‘enjoy’ is just the wrong word. So many deaths, so many young lives lost for nothing and so few lessons learned by following generations.

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Next on my list?  World War 2: D-Day Landing Beaches, then World War 2: Secrets of The Third Reich and I have a couple of mates who want to visit Berlin so we’ll probably do this one too: World War 2: Berlin & The Cold War.

GTI are the specialists in Ireland in the organisation of group travel of all kinds. The organise escorted holidays such as cultural holidays in Europe and Worldwide, historical and battlefield tours, sports, activity and school tours. They tailor make tours designed around your group’s interests and budget, with their specialist knowledge at your disposal to ensure you make the most of your travel plans. You can find out more on the GTI website.  

Cormac

The Travel Experts Husband 😉