It was three years ago today that myself and my father travelled to Flanders fields for our first ever trip to the Ypres Salient, the Salient which was to forever be immortalised by those men, British, French, Commonwealth and German troops who fought and died there. Having sailed from Hull to Zeebrugge on a nights crossing the North Sea, I never expected or realised that the Salient would have such an impact on me as it was going to. The Somme to me as a youngster was always the killing ground, the place where men were needlessly slaughtered on a industrial scale. This childish perception was soon about to change.
The Ypres Salient is seen as the main area and focus of the Great War from a British perspective. Surrounding the remnants of a constantly shelled wasteland of a town, Allied troops dug trenches around this last free area of Belgian territory. British and Commonwealth troops defended the Ypres Salient throughout the duration of the war, engaging the surrounding German forces in costly defensive and offensive operations, the Battle of Passchendaele being one of those campaigns which now has a certain degree of infamy surrounding it. As a consequence historians over the last century have debated whether the loss of life sustained on both sides was justified in regards to the conditions, and the sheer futility of the campaign in regards to its overall strategic objective. General Von Kuhl, who commanded the German forces in the Flanders area described the Battle of Passchendaele as ‘the greatest martyrdom of the war, no division could stick it out in this hell for a fortnight.’ This sacred arena in which so many men of many nationalities lie unmarked is now a place of poppies, tractors, rebuilt farms and those who dare to confront the indeterminable agony of the not so distant past.
The journey to Passchendaele began in June 2016. I was watching the England Vs Wales match in the European Championship in a bar in the town of Albert on the Somme. Myself and Papa had gone on our first expedition to the Somme in our centenary pilgrimage and had been absolutely transfixed by the place. As we watched the game i got into conversation with a Stoke City supporter, who had not been allowed to travel on the train to Lens where the match was being played. He asked about the trip, how it was going and when we were heading back home. He then said, “Have you been to Ypres?”. I replied that I hadn’t been yet and that was when father said to me, “What is Ypres son?” I explained to him about the town and the sacred and notorious battlefields that surrounded the area. This was a brief explanation, and it was somewhere I would have to read about properly to truly understand.
But I had already started. On my Confirmation day back in 1997, I was given a bit of spending money and I went into town. Visiting a local bookshop, I found a book called the ‘Great Battles of the Great War’ written by Anthony Livesey, which to an eleven year old captured the imagination especially with the illustrations contained in the book. it depicted Captain Hankey’s Worcesters on its epic charge towards Gheluvelt breaking into the Chateau grounds on October 31st 1914. The capture of Fort Vaux during the Battle of Verdun and the carnage at La Boisselle on July 1st 1916, remembering the golden spire of Albert depicted in the distance as the the Machine gunners created havoc on the advancing British Infantry.
But there were two other illustrations, the opening attack of the Battle Of Messines on 7th June 1917 and one of the failed attacks towards Passchendaele village, in mid-October 1917, the illustration of the assault on Passchendaele was unique as it depicted a battalion of troops trying to advance in a rain sodden lunar landscape, shell craters filled with water with the dead surrounding the battlefield. The German pillboxes in the distance waiting to receive their attackers with machine gun bullets. One could only imagine the carnage and hopelessness of those soldiers on both sides who were in such an ordeal. However it was probably not a accurate description of what happened but the illustrations captured the mind of one who was reading it.
As 2016 progressed towards the winter, I read and studied, and read and studied some more. I bought countless books, trench maps and pretty much immersed myself in the Salient. When we finally arrived in Belgium, we were driving on the bypass (that pretty much sadly cuts straight through the Passchendaele Battlefield) my Father asked me where we were going to go first, and to be honest I was not sure myself. We decided to go to Passchendaele and to Tyne Cot.
The largest Commonwealth Cemetery in the world. Overlooking the town of Ypres in the distance it is one of the most comforting yet most harrowing concentrations of futility that I have ever set my eyes upon. 11,900 British, Commonwealth and German Soldiers rest in this place, only 3,606 have a named gravestone above them. Surrounding them is the beautiful Tyne Cot Memorial, etched in stone are the names of 34,952 British and Commonwealth troops who died in the surrounding fields from August 1917 to the conclusion of hostilities in November 1918 who sadly have no known grave. One name in particular for me stands out, Second-Lieutenant John Morgan Blake of the 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment, he was involved in the assault of the Polderhoek Chateau on the 4th October 1917, he was one of seven officers in the Devons that were killed that day. I received his name in my British Legion Passchendaele Centenary Poppy Lapel Badge box. He was the first person I tried to find on the Salient and I did. Everytime I visit Tyne Cot I make a personal effort to see his name to let him know that I have not forgotten his sacrifice. I was lucky to make a little detour to visit him on the Eve of the Centenary of the Armistice, and always have a poppy cross for him at my Church’s War Memorial on Armistice Day.
On the final full day of that trip 3 years ago, after the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, Me and Papa decided to make another trip to Tyne Cot, we walked into the cemetery together and climbed onto the pillbox which now has the Cross of Sacrifice on the top of. There we watched the sun slowly descend over the Ypres Salient, as it had done for these men a century ago. Their legacy and bloodsoaked inheritance had not yet quite disappeared over the horizon just yet. It was a beautiful still evening with just enough heat left in the day. We were on our own and yet we weren’t. The spirits of those men, known and unknown shared that sunset with us. The Sun went down, but as we went back to Britain the next day, Myself and Papa certainly remembered them. We have been every year since, and in God’s good time we shall return once again to Passchendaele.