WWI Battlefields Inspection Trip
Below is an account written By Adaptable Travel Senior Sales Coordinator Ricky Behan about his recent WWI Battlefields Inspection Trip
Following in the footsteps of soldiers we embarked on our journey to the Battlefields of World War I to develop a deeper understanding of the First World War, its scale and the millions of lives it cost. Our journey began by travelling to the Belgian town of Ypres with our knowledgeable and amazing guide Steve Smith. Ypres was a very important and strategic position in World War I as it stood in the path of Germany’s planned sweep across the rest of Belgium and into France. Once the centre of intense and sustained battles between German and Allied forces, Ypres has been rebuilt in the image of its former self and is again the picturesque and peaceful town it once was. With its architectural masterpiece, the Cloth Hall fully resorted and acting as the centre point of the town, Ypres has a relaxed and calm atmosphere which makes it the perfect base for a WWI Battlefields trip.
Our first morning in Ypres began by visiting Poppies manager Stefanie who was happy to show us around the different Poppies Hostels they offer for our student groups in Ypres. The hostels are very student friendly and are designed specifically with students in mind with games rooms, large dining areas, outside spaces and spacious rooms making their stay comfortable and friendly. The Poppies Hostels we visited are all located in and around Ypres so students can explore and walk along the charming cobbled streets taking in typical Flemish delicacies such as Belgian Waffles, French Fries with Mayonnaise and of course Belgian Chocolate. Evening meals are served each day in a different restaurant around Ypres and cater specifically for British school groups with Chicken and Chips and Spaghetti night being very popular amongst our groups.
With our accommodation audits complete, our guide Steve kicked off our Battlefields tour by taking us to the outskirts of Ypres to tell the story of Hooge Crater and Hill 60. Hooge Crater is effectively an open air museum with three original mine craters lying bare before you and is a great way for students to explore and picture what it must be like as a soldier serving in World War I outside the classroom. After hearing the harrowing accounts of soldiers trying to escape the first flame thrower attacks here in July 1915, we made our way out of the trench networks to Hill 60 and the awe-inspiring Caterpillar Crater.
Hill 60 was a prime target for both Allied and German forces and changed hands many times due to its strategic position at higher ground. Many men were killed fighting here and from walking around the battered landscape you can see just how close the opposing forces were fighting each other from and what little gains each side made. The battle of attrition resulted in both sides resorting to laying mines under enemy trenches and Caterpillar Crater is a great example of the lengths that each side made to break the deadlock. Providing context to the scarred landscape of Ypres, our next visit of the day was the Memorial Museum Passchendaele which narrates the story of the war in the Ypres Salient through a variety of historical artefacts, exhibits, images and movies. Complete with replica British dugout accompanied with bunks, communication posts and an operating theatre the museum is excellent in explaining the material aspects of World War I.
The emotional side of our battlefields trip however was saved to the end of the day by our guide with a visit to our first cemetery, Essex Farm, which was the location of an Advanced Dressing Station and the site where Canadian John Macrae was moved to write his famous poem “In Flanders Field”. Unassuming and modest in nature, Essex Farm was the perfect foundation to begin our journey back into Ypres for the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate.
Dedicated to British and Commonwealth soldiers whose graves are unknown, The Menin Gate is a fitting and impressive memorial made up of the names of over 54,000 soldiers carved on to stone panels which come together to form a poignant monument that dominates the Ypres horizon. As you look up at the stone panels the names of soldiers stretch as far as the eye can see and it is here where you really start to digest the huge loss of human life on show before you. As 8pm came the crowds under the arches fell silent and the bugle sounded the Last Post with wreaths being laid at the Menin Gate to commemorate fallen soldiers. Despite not being related to any of the actual soldiers who are remembered under the arches of Menin Gate, the names of the soldiers on the stone panels are remarkably familiar and it was a very moving end to the day.
Our final day in Ypres was spent exploring the graveyards of fallen soldiers and seeing the difference in style between German and Allied cemeteries and specifically the way they remember their dead. As the defeated side, Germany was not given the same opportunity to remember their dead in the same way as the British and this is made clear when visiting Langemark German Military Cemetery. Surrounded by tall oak trees, the native tree of Germany, the cemetery is dark and sombre keeping within German Tradition. The gravestones are positioned flat and the cemetery is laid out in a way that makes you reflect in a quiet and solemn manner much like the “Stone of Remembrance” overlooking the cemetery which portrays four soldiers looking down on the graves mourning their loss.
In contrast to Langemark, Tyne Cot Cemetery is the resting place of Commonwealth Forces and is much brighter in appearance with each grave marked by a simple headstone hewn from white Portland stone. Standing tall and arranged in straight rows to signify soldiers on parade, Tyne Cot Cemetery is a place of peace and tranquillity in contrast to the full horror of warfare that once besieged these lands. Completely open with neatly arranged headstones and immaculately cared for, Tyne Cot is uplifting and differs in style to Langemark in a number of ways but it is important to remember that each cemetery is built and designed with a country’s heritage, culture, and history in mind.
World War I was a truly brutal and devastating conflict and one that has shaped and influenced the world we live in today. It is a conflict that has scarred the physical landscape forever and created memories that will forever be etched onto gravestones in the form of names. My trip has taught me that nothing brings history alive more vividly than visiting the places, the buildings, and, perhaps more than anything, the battlefields where it actually happened, especially with a guide who knows the subject thoroughly. On a school trip to the Battlefields not only will you understand much better the physical and strategic challenges faced by the soldiers and the generals, but you will feel an emotional connection too. These are the fields where men triumphed and where they fell all in the name of war.