Monday, 20 April 2015

Operation Normandy - Mon 20th April - Day 9

Our destination today was Ypres, some 120km drive. En route we would stop at a few World War 1 points of interest that we didn't get to when here in April 2014 (blog).

Our first point of interest (Map) was the Island of Ireland Peace Tower on the outskirts of Mesen. Approaching from the south on the N365, the tower rises up. Dedicated to the those soldiers of Ireland who died, were wounded or missing in World War 1. The 33metre high tower is lit up by the sun only on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the time that Armistice was declared. A bronze plaque in the park reads "From the crest of this ridge, which was the scene of terrific carnage in the First World War on which we have built a peace park and Round Tower to commemorate the thousands of young men from all parts of Ireland who fought a common enemy, defended democracy and the rights of all nations, whose graves are in shockingly uncountable numbers and those who have no graves, we condemn war and the futility of war. We repudiate and denounce violence, aggression, intimidation, threats and unfriendly behaviour."
More info on the memorial can be found here.

Next on our agenda was the Messiness Ridge British Cemetery, 2 minutes drive away, and can be seen from the Peace tower cemetery.
More info on this memorial can be found here and info on the battle here.
Our younger daughter who had been on a history trip to various World War 1 sites a few years back recommended that we visted a German cemetery to see the difference to Commonwealth cemetries. So our next destination was Langemark cemetery (map) approximatley 30 minutes drive or 21km away.

It was near here that the Germans first used poison gas on the 22nd of April 1915 (officially the Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge). Despite deploring this awful atrocity, the Allies did not take too long to employ this weapon themselves, at Loos just five months later.

As we pulled up and parked we had noticed several white flags on poles placed in the fields on either side of the road and cemetry.
The sign at the entrance to the cemetery reads :-
"The soldiers' graves are the greatest preachers
of peace. (Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Peace Prize laureate).
This military cemetery for war dead of the First World War was laid out by the Volksbund back in the 1930s. Even back then, the construction of this site was funded by grants from Germany, just as today the Volksbund is reliant on the donations of its members and friends in order to maintain
this special commemorative site. Young people from
throughout Europe help on international youth camps, where they maintain the site and build bridges of understanding.
In the 22-days-battle of the Yser and Ypres, the 4th Army fought on the German side. For the most part, it was made up of poorly trained volunteers: students, school pupils and apprentices. The front got bogged down here on lath November 1914 until the end of the war in 1918. There were countless losses on both sides. In Germany, the site soon became known as the student cemetery. After the war, the official Belgian burial service transferred the German war dead from the Langemark region and reburied them on land on the northern exit out of the town where the cemetery was laid out. At the time, the war cemetery was home to some 10,143 war dead cluing 6,313 victims identifiable by name. Between 1956 and 1958, the Belgian burial service closed countless cemeteries and transferred more than 30,000 other German war dead to Langemark. Today, 44,304 victims lie here. After 1970, the Volksbund renovated the grave signs (slabs) of the individual graves.
In 1984, the Volksbund redesigned the communal grave containing the more than 24,000 formerly unknown soldiers. In addition, they attached plaques to the wall around the cemetery, bearing the names of the 12,000 dead resting in peace here and whose names had been determined over the past 60 years.
The dead of this cemetery admonish to peace."
During World War 2, the site was visited by Adolf Hitler, which was witnesed by a local man from Wytschaete, south of Ypres, a young boy at the time, he recalled a convoy of big black cars and lots of German officers in their grey uniforms driving near his family's farmhouse. He hid in the wood owned by his family and watched Adolf Hitler walking nearby with his entourage of officers. In the First World War Hitler had served with the Bavarian Reserve-Infantry-Regiment 16 and had been in action south of Ypres in the area of Wytschaete on the Messines Ridge.
Adolf Hitler spent two days visiting the Ypres Salient battlefields. His tour included the town of Ypres and Langemark military cemetery.
Also at the entrance were the old canisters used to hold the gas.

On entering the cemetery you walk along a pathway from the car park through a specially designed tunnel which is intended as a place to spend a few moments of reflection on entering and leaving the cemetery. There are five automated computer screens showing archive film from the Great War.

Outside you’ll see a sign post with various place names - these are relevant to gas attacks - the same type of gas that the Germans first used in the great war.

From there you walk down a tree lined avenue to the entrance to the cemetery.

Inside the entrance building there are the names of hundreds of those known to be buried in the cemetery but not in identifiable graves.

These are carved on oak panels in a room on one side of the entrance building. The other side of the entrance building contains a room with maps carved into the oak panelling, a Visitors' Book and information about the work of the German war graves agency.

From here you the enter the main part of the cemetery. The first thing to strike you is how different the cemetery is to the Commonwealth ones. In front of you is a mass grave containing some 24,000 unkown German soldiers. In contrast to the white headstones of the Commonwealth graves, everything here is very grey and dull. Oaks were planted as a canopy which also makes the site feel overcast. Around the rest of the site there are stones, laid flat, marking the graves of known soldiers, some containing up to 12 people.

The area over to the right towards the carpark has the actual bunker/trench system the Germans used.

When we had entered the cemetery we had been rather fortunate to talk to a Belgium researcher who was a mine of information on the cemetery. He informed us that hardly any Germans ever visited the cemetery, but mainly British and Commonwealth, along with Belgian and French. He made the visit a truly fantastic experience as with out much research we would not have known about some of the facts. He pointed out that the white flags we had seen were the markers as to the German postions on the 22nd April 1915, prior to the horrendous gas attack.

From here we made our way to Ypres (map) where we had booked two nights on the camping car site at Jeugdstadion (website).

We have been before to the site last year (see blog), but then we had stayed on the touristic places, but to be honest we prefer the camping car section. Cost for two nights was €34 including electric. Free wifi which can be a bit hit & miss is included and there is a small toilet block. You can also make use of the larger toilet and shower block. There are also the usual services for motorhomes. The site is accessed by a card system. If the office isn’t open there is a room next door where you either enter your booking info or make a reservation. You are issued with a key card which will let you in to which ever part you have paid for. Unfortunately the automated booking system didn’t work for us as someone had missed a space in our booking info so we had to wait 40 minutes for reception to open at 3pm.
We had a quick snack and headed off on a short walk in to Ypres via the Menin Gate. The campsite is well located just a short walk from the Menin Gate and the town.
We then watched the nightly ceremony at the Menin Gate.

1 comment:

  1. This is a really nice motor home, even if it is an old one. With how old it is and the kind of shape that it is in just goes to show how long they last. I wonder if they are selling there motor home and how much they would be asking for it.
    Campervan Hire Alice Springs