Just over 50 kms from Brugge (Bruges) and 40kms from Lille sits an area of farmland. There are blossoms and Cyprus trees and, at this time of the day, the birdsong is glorious.
This is Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing. A big title, yes, but a fitting one for the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world – in any war.
The area around Ypres and Passendale (or Passchendaele) stood smack bang in the middle of Germany’s planned sweep through the rest of Belgium and into France in WW1. As such, it was considered strategically important by both German and Allied Forces. From late in 1914 (the first battle of Ypres) both sides dug in for the duration.
I won’t bore you with the war history – suffice to say countless lives were lost for very small gains. In the worst of the battles in 1917 – the Battle of Passchendaele – over half a million lives were lost.
If you look across the fields now you can see barely a rise in the ground, yet any tiny undulation was fought for and defended. Tyne Cot stands on one of these, with German bunkers or shelters still part of the cemetery.
Tyne Cot is the resting place of almost 12,000 Commonwealth servicemen – over 8,300 of whom remain unidentified – their graves are marked with the inscription “A soldier of the Great War…known unto God.”
Yes, those numbers are correct. These men all died in the fighting around Ypres (Ieper) between 1914 – 1918, but most fell during the Battle of Passchendaele, or Third Battle of Ypres, in 1917.
The Memorial Wall
The stone wall around the cemetery – the memorial wall – lists the names of almost 35,000 servicemen of the UK and New Zealand who died between August 1917 and November 1918 and who have no known grave.
The numbers are actually worse than this. The original intention was to list all the names of British servicemen who died in the Ypres area on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres (see below) but they ran out of space to do so. An arbitrary cut-off date of 15 August 1917 was decided on, with the remainder of the names being listed at Tyne Cot.
Four graves here are for unnamed German soldiers treated here after the battle. Their inscriptions are in German.
Standing here in 2018 it’s hard to fathom the vast difference between the area as it is now – green, leafy and full of birdsong – to the chaos, filth and noise these men must have died in. The ground was virtually liquefied by shelling and the trees long turned to matchsticks.
It’s fair to say that Ypres (or Ieper) has been pretty unlucky over the years when it’s come to wars.
Even before it was literally flattened in World War 1, it was the scene of a number of battles and sieges – dating all the way back to the first century when the Romans took a liking to it. In the 13th century, a huge fire took most of the city out, in the 14th century it was besieged in the Norwich Crusades, and in 1678 it was captured (briefly) for France by Louis IV.
Ypres became part of the Hapsburg empire early in the 18th century, before being captured again by the French 80 years later. Then, of course, came the three battles of Ypres (deliberately mispronounced Wipers by English soldiers) in WW1 – which obliterated the town.
Ypres became a symbol of all the British were fighting for – and a place of pilgrimage after the war. Using money paid by Germany in reparation the town was rebuilt. Some buildings so closely resemble the original that it’s hard to believe that they haven’t been here all along.
Ypres these days has the title of “city of peace” and is a sister city with Hiroshima – both cities sharing some devastating commonalities. Ypres is where chemical warfare was first used and Hiroshima…well, we know that story.
Aside from its importance as a place of memorial, Ypres is also popular with war and family historians.
The Menin Gate in Ypres is a memorial to the missing. The names of over 54,000 Commonwealth servicemen who died in the battles around Ypres up to August 15, 1917, and whose graves are unknown are listed here.
To honour the fallen, every evening at 8 pm sharp the Last Post is played under the Menin Gate Memorial. The ceremony has taken place every day since 1928. The night that we attended was the 31,012th ceremony.
The playing of the Last Post is generally followed by the laying of wreaths by families of the fallen or other associations. The ceremony is then concluded by the buglers playing the Reveille – to mark a return to daily life at the end of the homage.
According to the website, the Menin Gate was chosen as the location for the ceremony because of its special symbolic significance. It was from this spot that countless thousands of soldiers set off for the front, many of them destined never to return. If you want to know more about this incredibly emotional service, duck across to The Last Post website.