On Thursday we did a WW1 Belgian battlefields tour with Visit Bruges. We were picked up at 8:30 by Nathan in a nice comfortable van. Normally there would be more people on the tour but he had a cancellation so we were the only ones one the tour, so it ended up being a very personalised tour.
We hit the Belgian motorways and zipped off into the old battlefields, with Nathan telling us a lot about the war, the local area and more about the participants in the war and his opinions on why it all happened. It’s quite amazing that everywhere you look there are remnants of the war. The Allied and German stakes used to hold barbed wire in the war are still used in wire fences, as are old narrow gauge railway tracks.
The are old concrete bunkers all over the place, and depending on which way the entrance to the bunker points you can work out if it’s Allied or German. Some bunkers have been incorporated into houses, there are concrete blocks from the war everywhere and they are used in all sorts of builsomgs
Over the last 30 years they have started to find a lot more things as basements and foundations of modern building go even deeper into the soil than they used to and they still find around 40-60 bodies every year.
All throughout the area they have metal boxes around trees with either red or blue colouring around them so you can follow the old front lines, blue being Allied and red German
Our first stop was a German war cemetery at Langemark. During the war the Germans put 25,000 school aged students on the front line most of them are buried here. The German government hid the slaughter from the news back in Germany and it was later used as a propaganda tool during WW2.
All commonwealth war graves are maintained and owned by the well funded commonwealth war graves commission. Almost all the commonwealth sites we visited were being cleaned or having some maintenance done on them. Apparently The German sites are owned by the local municipal governments and get some funding for maintenance from Germany.
Whilst we were there, there was a group of German school students on a school trip, and some soldiers from the German army doing some pressure cleaning. I had a chat with the sergeant on duty, he mentioned they were medical officers on a 2 week trip to clean the cemeteries. He was a little surprised an Australian would bother to visit a German cemetery and showed us some sections that had non Germans there and also pointed out on the wall one particular name that was more shiny than the others since many people visit and rub that one name, one of WW1s flying aces. Werner Voss, something I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t bothered to chat with him.
After this visit we visited The Brooding Soldier, A Canadian memorial to the 18,000 soldiers killed in the first German gas attack. This was the first chemical warfare attack in the world and historically had no direct impact on the outcome of the war, except to make it more horrible for everyone involved. The gas was unreliable and would often blow back onto those who let it off. The injuries and pain it inflicted was horrifying.
Nathan then stopped at a friends garage and showed us all the things he had collected over his lifetime since childhood, Grenades, Shells, guns, shoes etc. His grandfather had shown him as a child how to disable unexploded ordinance.
People are still Injured or killed from time to time, and he stopped by the side of the road at one point to show us an unexploded shell someone had left out for the army to collect and safely dispose of.
We visited Tyne Cot cemetery which is the largest commonwealth war graves cemetery in the world and has 1353 Australians buried there, the most Australian soldiers buried anywhere in one place. I was a little confused as first as I thought Villers-Bretonneux in France held that record but Villers commemorates all Australians who died on the Western Front in WW1. The cemetery has an amazing visitors centre with speakers all around that play back the names of all the soldiers killed. It’s a very moving experience
We drove over to Zonnebeke to visit the Passchendaele museum. Went through the Dugout and Trench experiences and smelt the different types of gases used in chemical warfare. Parts of the trenches are damp and smelly to give you a more realistic idea of how horrid they would have been. They also show the various construction techniques that differed between the Germans and Allies. There was also a great display on some of the different artillery equipment and shells. Also talked about how modern military equipment combined with 19th century tactics and the inability of the senior command to understand what was happening led the massacre that WW1 really was.
This area had been so utterly destroyed during the war it resembled a moon scape and there were doubts it would ever be agriculturally productive ever again. Farmers returning after the war couldn’t find their farms as all landmarks had been obliterated. Farmers still pull up tonnes of iron every year during harvest and it’s called the Iron harvest.
We drove into Ypres for some lunch and Nathan took us to a cafe where we had a meal of ham and salad, beer and of course Friets.
After lunch we went to the “In Flanders Fields” museum, another fantastic museum with so much to see. We had less than an hour here, but I could have spent all day. At least we loaded up on a few maps and books to look through later even though I’ll regret it probably when trying to get all this luggage home.
This museum is close to the Menin Gate with the names inscribed of all the Australian soldiers lost in Flanders, as well as replicas of the lions that were relocated to Australia after the war and are in our war memorial in Canberra.
Last stop- Hill 60. This is the site of the explosion detonated by the Australian Tunnelling Company. It was the largest explosion in the world at that time, was heard in Paris, and registered as an earthquake. There is a memorial here to the Australian Tunnelling Company.