Our first stop was the town of Ypres, unfortunate enough to be the site of four separate battles during the conflict, which left no building undamaged and the city in ruins. What we were all surprised to hear was that all the elaborate buildings around us were not in fact medieval but rebuilt in 1923 with German money. A new addition in this renovation was the Menin Gate, where at 8pm every day the Last Post is played and wreaths are laid. We all witnessed this and it was a thought-provoking start to our trip.
The next day we crossed the border into the Somme district of France, poppies growing on the roadside, where we visited the many memorials and cemeteries that were seen all over the landscape: the Ulster Tower, the Newfoundland Park Memorial (remembering the many Commonwealth troops that took part) and most spectacularly the magnificent Thiepval Memorial, where we conducted a short service to remember the many Salopians and relatives that so many of us had found inscribed on the walls.
After this we were treated with a visit to Arras, where the Allies had mounted their attack by emerging out of the medieval mines that lay below the town. Here we experienced something of the life of a soldier being ‘90% boredom and 10% sheer horror’ down in the mines where they were forced to live before the battle in which 285,000 died.
On the final day of our trip we saw the war from the other side’s point of view, visiting one of the only four German cemeteries on the Western Front at Langemark. We were struck with the contrast between the bright and elaborate Allied cemeteries and the harrowing, macabre German ones, where the granite headstones were laid flat on the ground as the French government refused them the honour of standing up.
The visit was not complete, however, without a visit to a chocolate shop in Ypres before heading home via the Channel Tunnel.
It is fair to say that we came away understanding the ‘war to end all wars’ in a much deeper way, and the horrific experiences that men on all sides had to go through made us feel more than ever grateful for what they did a hundred years ago.
Tom Allen (Ch III)