Today was a day in the Belgian Battlefields, those in which Australian saw action in their early days in the Western Front.
We started with a drive for almost an hour to the north past the cities of Lille and Armentieres. (We didn’t however have time to look for the Mademoiselle from Armentieres). Finally, we arrived in the little village of Messine. Action here was part of the battle for the Ypres Salient and is situated along one of the ridges that curls around Ypres. The Germans were firmly entrenched on the top of the ridge. The allied tactics here were interesting. The British tunnelled under the ridge and laid huge 23 huge mines that when exploded, would destroy the German positions and demoralise the survivors. We visited the site of one of these huge explosions along Menin Road- now a water filled crater about 30 metre in diameter.
At Messine, we visited a New Zealand Memorial and two cemeteries that were situated well off the road and surrounded by farmland. The smaller, The East Bethleem cemetery held only 44 graves. They were all Australians of the 42nd Battalion,except for one Englishman.This is quite a land of contrast as the farmers were out in their tractor, mechanically planting cabbages right up to the cemetery wall and the grassed path the led across the farmland.
We took a little time out to visit the rather cute town of Poperinghe. It was here that the Everyman’s Club (TOC-H) movement was founded. The original building is now a museum, but unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to visit and do justice of the entry fee.
From here. we went into the city of Ieper (called Wipers by the British during the war) and had lunch in one of the cafes in the market square. Apart from the very large cathedral, there are twp very imposing buidings in thsi square. The first is Menin Gate, the towns easterly exit. The stone tablets on the gate record the names of 54338 Commonwealth servicemen who have no known grave. In this number 6176 Australian names are recorded.
Adjoining the market square is very imposing Cloth Hall. It was originally built in the 13th Century and was skeletonised by artillery fire throughout the Great War.Reconstruction took place between the 1920’s and 1962. THis area of the world was a centre for the fabric industry and lace making in the days of the Hanseatic League. The cloth halls were the ‘market place for the merchants.
We passed the site of Hellfire Corner on the way to Zonnebeke where there is a great museum in a restored chateau.. The chateau was was one of the landmarks on the Passchendale battlefields. It has a good description of the fighting, especially because it presents the Belgian perspective which we hadn’t encountered up until now. In the grounds of the chalet, an historical group from England were providing a live history display, acting out life in the battlefields in costume.
The war damage in thjis ara was incredible. I have seen war time pictures of Ypres with its (now called Ieper) with its buildings and cloth hall destroyed. Amongst the rubble, the street pattern was still clearly evident. At Passendale however, even the street pattern was destroyed.
The last part of our day was spent visiting the Australian 5th Division memorial at Polygon Wood. My grandfather’s 57th Battalion was incorporated into the 5tth Division and it was at Polygon Wood where he received his first wound in the war – shrapnel from a shell explosion to the head. The memorial is at the top of the Buttes – the mound of an old rifle range
Nearby is Polygon Wood cemetery whhich is laid out in something of a haphazard fashion, suggesting the need for speed as the dead from the battle were buried quickly. It contains one German grave.
Nearby , is the massive Tyne Cot cemetery, the largest commonwealth war graves cemetery in the world . It contains nearly 12000 graves, of which some 1800 are Australian (including two Victoria Cross winners thjat stumbled upon. On the war at the rear of the cemetery are the names of another 37000 missing whose names are not listed on the Menin Gate.
This has been an awe inspiring day. The scope and enormity of the actions, death and casualties in this area is just unbelievable!