The 2018 tour took in the Armistice Centenary commemorations in Flanders, marking 100 years since the war on the Western Front came to an end, and not surprisingly, bringing huge crowds to Ypres, the epicentre of the Salient and a deserved focus for the ceremonies at the famed Menin Gate.
Travelling to Belgium was a much more relaxed affair this time around, with the six strong group of myself, Mick, Moggy, Jon, Digger and Pete taking the decision to plan our own travel independently, and the 6.45am departure was certainly a welcome improvement on 4am for starters. Cheap first class train travel between Doncaster and King’s Cross was also a bonus, meaning we had time for a couple of early beers in London before boarding the Eurostar to Lille.
From there, a short minibus trip saw us arrive in Ypres late afternoon, to the centrally-located Gasthof T’Zweerd, a small family hotel just off the main square.
Saturday’s ‘bespoke’ tour was with the local company Battlefield Exploration, our tour guide, Ypres-born Johny, picking us up right outside the hotel and then onto the first stop of the day, the Vladslo German War Cemetery, site of the pair of sculptures entitled “Grieving Parents” by German artist Käthe Kollwitz, who lost her youngest son to the war and who is buried nearby. The site was very peaceful, with the cemetery surrounded by woodland, but there were already a growing number of visitors arriving as we headed off to our next destination – always good to see the casualties from both sides being remembered.
The second stop was at the so-called Dodengang (Trench of Death) at Diksmuide, a series of trenches and dugouts in a windswept, barren location by the banks of the Yser canal. These fortifications were manned throughout the war by the Belgian Army, their daily lives made ever more perilous after the Germans erected a huge concrete bunker just 50m away where they had managed to cross the canal.
Our final visit of the morning saw us stop off at Poelcapelle British Cemetery, a ‘consolidation’ cemetery which holds 7,478 Commonwealth servicemen, including 6,321 unidentified burials – many from the Third Ypres battle better known as Passchendaele. Here, we paid a special visit to the grave of Driffield soldier Private Herbert Woolfitt, of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, who was killed on 26 October, 1917, aged just 21.
Lunch stop-off saw us make a welcome return to The Volksbond, Zonnebeke, a great little bar and restaurant just across the road from the Passchendaele Museum.
The founder of Battlefield Exploration, Wouter Feys, had kindly invited us to the opening of the new Brothers In Arms Memorial Park near Zonnebeke, a project he had been involved in from the start. Not sure what the VIP guests made of us mingling with them at their champagne reception, but it was nice to be there to see this touching new memorial unveiled.
Final visit of the day was to nearby Polygon Wood, and the Buttes New British Cemetery, another impressive site among the trees, and a place of particular importance to the ANZACs, with many Australian and New Zealand casualties buried here.
Sunday, 11 November, was spent in and around Ypres, with a plethora of ceremonies large and small marking the Armistice Centenary, the Grotemarkt square was packed out for the day with visitors of all ages from around the world. Maybe Ypres will be a bit quieter in future years when we visit again, once the Centenary interest has waned slightly, or maybe it will continue to grow as a tourist destination thanks to the proliferation of tour companies and the seemingly ever-growing poppy ‘Lest we Forget’ industry?
The Eurostar trip home was certainly more bearable than the endless round of stops endured on our usual coach tours, and after enjoying a leisurely ‘recovery session’ on the Grotemarkt in the morning, we boarded the minibus after lunch for the trip back to Lille. First class on the King’s Cross to Doncaster route was amazingly quiet, although the final stage of the trip, from Doncaster onwards, was livened up by the presence of a young lady apparently under the influence of some dubious substances, which resulted in her wanting to start a running fight with a complete stranger. Thankfully there was a guard on the train who dealt with the situation calmly and professionally - you have to wonder what would have happened if the train was driver-only...
So, next up… Arras in April 2019? Looks like we’re down to a group of four for that trip, which is a shame, but if the local bars have Elton John and Kiki Dee on the jukebox, and sell Belgian beers, we’ll struggle through.