Last November I travelled to Belgium with Leger Holidays on their ‘Armistice Day in Ypres’ tour. The reason for this was primarily to visit Tyne Cot for the first time, where my Great Great Uncle, William MacDuff, is commemorated. However as I had not visited the area before it was also a chance to see some of the other sites of the ‘immortal salient’.
After a smooth crossing and short drive we arrived at our hotel in Menin, just down the road from Ypres, and met our guide Peter Williams, who ably led the tour over the next two days. The following day, Friday 11th November, saw an early start to head into Ypres itself for the Armistice commemorations. Arriving at about 9am the area around the Menin Gate was already packed, and by the time the ceremony began there was barely room to move. For those who could not reach the Gate the proceedings were also shown on a big screen in the Grote Markt, in the shadow of the imposing Cloth Hall. The ceremony itself was very moving; the two-minute silence carefully observed by the crowd, and the haunting notes of the Last Post lingered in the air – a very emotive experience.
Following the ceremony we walked around the sturdy town walls, stopping at places of interest such as the Lille Gate and the Ramparts cemetery. We also had a chance to visit the ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum before it closed for refurbishment. The museum has now been considerably revamped and also now offers visitors the opportunity to survey the battlefields from the top of the bell tower.
I returned to the Menin Gate and sought out the names of the nine men from Carshalton whose names are inscribed upon it. It is a magnificent structure, and like Thiepval hard to comprehend the number of names that adorn its panels.
Some free time meant that I was able to visit Ypres Town Cemetery where a further two of Carshalton’s casualties, Ernest Baker and Reginald Chandler are buried; I was the only visitor and after the throng of people at the Menin Gate it was nice to have some solitude and time to reflect. After dinner in one of the many restaurants that line the Grote Markt, the final event of the day was to witness the evening’s Last Post ceremony, the Menin Gate almost as crowded as it had been earlier in the day.
The next day was spent visiting some of the sites in the area, including Polygon Wood, Caterpillar Crater & Hill 60, Hooge Crater museum and cemetery, Essex Farm, the Passchendaele Memorial Museum, and the Aristocrats Cemetery in Zillebeke.
However the highlight of the day for me was the visit to Tyne Cot and seeing William’s name on the memorial wall, taking some comfort in the fact that although he has no known grave, he is remembered alongside his fellow soldiers who also lost their lives in the same action. Seven men from Carshalton are also commemorated among the 34,952 who died in the salient after 16th August 1917. Looking west over the field of headstones the panoramic view belies the formidable field of fire the Germans must have had from their pillboxes over the gently falling ground.
On the last day before the journey back we just had time to visit the German cemetery at Menin. With the early morning sun filtering through the trees the atmosphere was eerily quiet, and it was hard to envisage that the remains of 48,000 men are buried under the low grave markers, making this the largest military cemetery in Flanders.
Overall I found the trip extremely fulfilling. It managed to fit a great deal in to the two full days spent in Ypres and the surrounding area, but at no point were we made to feel rushed. Our guide Peter was knowledgeable and took the time to speak to everyone on the coach. It was a great introduction to the Salient, and I look forward to returning in the future.
Details of this year’s Armistice Day in Ypres tour, 9th-12th November.