A Guide's Perspective on Ypres & Somme Battlefields
School trips to the Belgian World War 1 battlefield sites are seen almost as a rite of passage for many schools, due to the phenomenal impact a school trip to these sites have on students. Adaptable Travel use highly trained and highly respected guides to explain and bring to life the sites of Ypres and Somme on our school trips.
One of our guides Steve Smith, also a WW1 author who has a new book coming out soon, has written his perspective on the newly renovated In Flanders Fields museum and the Langemark Cemetery.
IN FLANDERS FIELDS Perhaps the most iconic part of Ypres in Flanders is the Cloth Hall. During WWI it could be seen for miles around and became a target for German shelling when they attempted to break through the staunch resistance by the British, Belgian and French Armies in what became the First Battle of Ypres. Four major battles later found this 13th Century structure reduced to rubble. It is estimated that 600,000 men fell in this sector alone. The Cloth Hall was rebuilt and saw the emergence of WWII where Ypres was again fought over but not to the scale that it saw in the Great War. However, the Cloth Hall was not fully restored until 1967. Since WWI Ypres has become a focal point for families to visit where their loved ones fought and died. It also became a place of pilgrimage for the veterans who came back after WWI to pay their respects to the mates who didn’t make it. Many settled there to work in jobs such as gardening in the newly constructed cemeteries erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They are all gone now but Ypres still remains a focal point to those that wish to learn more about their past.
The Cloth Hall is now the home to the newly renovated ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum. The museum website states, ‘In a country where war was fought, it lingers, even if that war is already a century behind us.’ This is certainly very true of this whole region and the museum now seeks to take the visitor through the different stages of the war. It is very much an interactive experience. When you enter the muesum you are given a poppy braclet. The poppy bracelet asks for little snippets of information about you. The reason for this is that it attempts to personlise your visit. For instance, I live in Norfolk so the soldiers I was introduced to came from Norfolk. As you move through the museum you come across various stands for you to look at multimedia in the guise of video and interactive touch screens where you use your bracelet. What I particularly like about the new look is the large screen where you can look at the Ypres Salient from the air. They change from WWI to present day and gives you a stark reminder of what this whole area was like. You also watch films about the Christmas Truce and what it was like to be a doctor or nurse at Passchendaele. All of this is interspersed with many relics and photos of the Great War. What is also new is the fact that you can now climb the 231 steps of the bell tower and see the countryside around Ypres. This gives the visitor a commanding view all the way to places such as Tyne Cot and Messines.
Should you wish to research while you are there then the museum has a research centre. This holds well over 5,000 books as well as maps, photographs and original documents. ORIGINS OF LANGEMARK CEMETERY As a contrast to the many British cemeteries around Flanders and the Somme it is always best to visit one of the German cemeteries. There are many myths surrounding them and I hope to be able to quell some of them in this article.
The first myth is that the Germans were not allowed to have as much land with which to bury their dead. This is not so. For instance, the Germans and the Belgians sat down in 1925 and an agreement was met whereby the Deutsche Kriegsgraberdienst (Official German War Graves Service) were allowed to attend their cemeteries. International law also dictates that a country has to provide sites for the dead of both sides. The German War Graves Service is now more commonly known as the ‘Volksbund’. In the interwar years the Volksbund merged 128 cemeteries and then after WWII, in 1954, the initial agreement of 1925 was dissolved and the German war dead from 120 sites in West Flanders were moved to four sites at Hooglede, Menin, Vladslo and Langemark between 1956 and 1958. Langemark Cemetery contains the remains of 44,296 German soldiers who died between 1914 and 1918. It was originally started from burials in 1915 and grew as the war went on. It was officially inaugurated on 10th July 1932. Within the cemetery there is a central grave that contains the unidentified remains of 24,917 men. This is called the ‘Kameraden Grab’, the Comrades Grave and is part of a tradition that German soldiers are buried together.
The many Oak trees in the cemetery are a reminder that this is the national tree of Germany. The central statues at the rear of the cemetery was made by Professor Emil Krieger was inspired by a photograph taken of soldiers from the 238th Reserve Infantry Regiment mourning at the grave of a comrade in 1918. Also within the cemetery are the remains of three concrete blockhouses. These were captured in October 1917 and signify the German line. The line now is fielded by blocks which detail the regions in Germany where the regiments that served in this sector came from. A very infamous person visited Langemark in June 1940.
During the First World War Adolf Hitler had served with the 16th Bavarian Reserve-Infantry-Regiment as a runner and had seen action to the south of Ypres where he was wounded and taken to the church at Messines which was used as a German casualty clearing station. On a two-day whistle stop tour Hitler spent two days visiting the Ypres Salient, which included the town of Ypres and Langemark. His visit is a reminder that the war had a major effect on the way Hitler thought during and after the war.
The beginning of the war fuelled much of what occurred later on for Hitler where in 1914 young German students, who had only recently joined the army, were killed in action against the professional guns of the British Expiditionary Force. It became known as the “Kindermord bei Ypern”, the ‘massacre of the innocents at Ypres’. If you look out past the statues you can look towards where Ernst Jünger, who wrote Storm of Steel, stopped the British Guards Division on 31st July 1917. He did it with a handful of German Fusiliers backed up by second line troops such as cooks and clerks. In the distance you can make out a small rise, which is where Jünger eventually stopped and made a new defensive line. In his narrative Jünger talks of digging in and finding the graves of those that fell in 1914.
The final question that is always asked is how do the Germans commemorate their dead when they were cause of two wars in the 20th Century? Quite simply they dedicate all their cemeteries to peace.
Written by specialist WW1 Guide and Author Steve Smith.