Well today is the final chapter in my travel journal about our amazing trip to Normandy and Ypres. We visited so many sites in our five day trip that it is sometimes hard to believe we were able to see them all, and so many more remain to be seen on another trip. We’re already planning a return to France and Belgium in the spring of 2015 to learn more about WWI and I’m sure it will be just as memorable.
Read More: Western Front 2015: Trip Summary
For today let me show you the last few sites on our Battle Plan, and one that was added en route.
Our first stop after the visit to Perth Cemetery was the Sanctuary Wood Museum at Hill 62. This small, but absolutely filled to the brim with artifacts, museum is privately owned by the grandson of the farmer who reclaimed this land, his land, when the local people returned to Ypres.
In 1919 that farmer returned to find a section of British trenches which, after clearing of debris and casualties, he left as he found it. This is now one of the few remaining places in the Ypres Salient where an original trench layout can be seen as most have been filled in and ploughed over by the farmers that owned the land they were on. Although there is some debate by historians as to whether the remains are original or not, and some pieces of it have had to be reinforced to withstand all the people that visit each year, I thought this was the best part of this museum. We were able to walk through parts of the trenches but if you visit and have room to bring rubber boots with you they’d be good to have. It was quite mucky in parts-though I can imagine that is what the soldiers would have had to contend with day in and day out.
Inside the museum there are so many artifacts such as pieces of equipment removed from battlefields, casings and shells, photos from the time, and even wooden sign posts pointing the way to the front lines. It was almost hard to know what to look at first.
After our visit we stopped at the Sanctuary Wood Cemetery but at this cemetery we decided to leave our cameras in the car to just take a quiet walk through. This cemetery is the resting place for almost 2,000 Commonwealth soldiers, 1,350 of which are unidentified.
The next stop on our Battle Plan was Tyne Cot but on our way in to Sanctuary Wood we saw a tour bus up on a hill on another road so we decided to investigate. There we found the Hooge Crater Museum (now on the list for our next visit) and the Hooge Crater Cemetery, resting place for 5,923 Commonwealth soldiers.
With the afternoon coming to an end on us it was time to visit one of our last two stops- the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world, Tyne Cot. In a past post about WWI cemeteries I wrote about the cemetery itself which is the final resting place for 11,956 soldiers and contains a memorial to another 35,000 missing soldiers.
While the cemetery itself is beautifully laid out and maintained it was the visitors center that I found so moving. Officially opened in 2007 by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and Queen Paola of Belgium, this small and simple center could easily be missed, but shouldn’t be. Walking up the path to it you begin to hear names being spoken every few second. Each of these names is for one of the 34, 887 soldiers from the United Kingdom and New Zealand forces who are commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing. I still get goosebumps thinking about it.
Once inside the names continue to be spoken as you take in the simple, yet powerful, exhibits. Admittedly when I walked in I didn’t think there was much to see but once you start looking you realize that although the exhibit is small, every single artifact and bit of information was purposely picked to tell a story. It was at this center that I learned about the design and history of the Commonwealth cemeteries which sparked my desire to learn more when I got home and led to the series of posts I wrote a few months ago about them. Along with that information were many letters- letters home from young men to their families, and sadly many letters to families telling them their sons were missing or confirmed killed.
For me though there was one quote on the wall that summed up everything I had been thinking but wasn’t able to quite put into words for the whole trip. How many mothers, fathers, wives, girlfriends, children, and other loved ones had this very same thought as John Low’s fiancee…
Our final stop in Belgium was the Essex Farm Cemetery which is the resting place for 1,200 soldiers. It is also here that the poem I learned long ago, In Flanders Fields, came alive for me. In May 1915 Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Army Medical Corps wrote his poem after he performed the burial service for his friend, and fellow soldier, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. His poem has become one of the most enduring poems of the First World War and made the poppy a lasting symbol of self-sacrifice in war.
And with this last stop, at Essex Farm, it was time to bring our trip to a close and head back to the train bound for England…but we’ll be back.
I think to say that this trip brought WWI and WWII alive for me would be understatement. I never really liked history in school and only really paid enough attention to get through the tests in class. I would have said that military history with all the guns and military tactics would have been even less interesting than the bits of history about people that I could get into only if I really, really tried. But this trip, this trip brought it all together and taught me that these wars were about more than military tactics, bunkers, gun emplacements, and artificial harbours. It was about the people behind all those. All the soldiers that fought, lived and died during these events. All the families that buried their soldier, whether a father, husband, fiance, brother, and always someone’s son. And all the people who saw their country and livelihoods destroyed yet picked up the pieces when the war was over and built new lives and new towns.
I really can’t thank you enough L for meticulously putting the Battle Plan together for us. What was once a list of places on a spreadsheet with addresses and a timetable is now a summary of our trip, with each place now meaning something to me that will have a lasting impact on the rest of my life. Thank you so much. I can’t wait to learn more about this part of our history with you.
To follow along on our adventures on our trip exploring WWI and WWII sites of Normandy and Belgium, please feel free to check out these posts:
Previous Post: St. Martin’s Church and Hill 60
First Post in this Series: Hitting the Road and Taking the Eurotunnel Shuttle Under the English Channel