Ypres Salient 2018: Day Four - Kathryn's history blog

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Ypres Salient 2018: Day Four

This morning we set out on our longest walk of the trip, from Wulvergem and onto the Messines Ridge. We parked alongside the church and walked out east, rising almost straight away onto a very windy hillside. The land on either side of the road was an open expanse and there was nothing to stop the wind whistling through. The car had read -2°c!

After a short while, and a stop to put on our waterproof trousers as extra wind protection, we turned off downhill to Ration Farm and La Plus Douve Farm. These two cemeteries are only a short distance apart, separated now by a shell crater pond. These farms were in the British supply lines behind the front and with the help of the small map in the guidebook, we could easily see how the network operated, bringing supplies out of Wulverghem and to the trenches. One unfortunate man buried at Ration Farm was believed to have drowned in the small Douve river.

The 48th South Midland Division, including the 5th Glosters, spent a short stint of time here between their stretches at Ploegsteert and the Somme in 1915. Having read their war diary, it was interesting to see this landscape where they served during the trenches' "quiet period".

From here we walked out along a tree-lined path onto a ridge which looked out north to Messines Ridge. Even in the hazy winter sunshine, there were brilliant views across to the ridge and one could easily imagine both the challenges and reward of capturing the high ground in 1917. The avenue of trees later served as a handy marking post so that we could see where we had walked out to earlier on.
Turning downhill towards Messines, the guidebook warned us that the track would be very muddy. Luckily, the cold temperatures meant all of this was frozen and it was much easier to walk! Somehow, though, we took a wrong turning and ended up out on the Mesen-Ploegsteert road. It didn't really matter as we could see the Irish Peace Tower up the hill ahead which was our next stop.

This tower, which was unveiled in 1998, serves not only as a memorial to the Irish regiments of the First World War, but also as a monument of peace among the Island of Ireland. The design isn't really to my taste, it is dark and the surrounding slabs of poetry are not particularly aesthetic. Nonetheless,  it holds a significant message and commands impressive views back into the valley from which troops fought up in June 1917, and from where we had walked.

Next we headed into Mesen  (the modern name for Messines) itself and briefly stopped in the church, before going on round to the visitors' centre, past the oversized and seemingly out of place Christmas Truce memorial. 

The visitors' centre is well worth a visit, as it has a small exhibition of interesting photographs and artefacts from Messines. For us, it also served as a nice place to stop and warm up before continuing our walk!

On through the village we came to Messines Ridge British Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing New Zealanders. The men here are buried on the slopes of the land they fought to capture, many of them undoubtedly brought closer to the prized high ground in death than they had reached in life.
It is also near this site that perhaps the most famous chaplain of all, 'Woodbine Willie' (Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy), won his Military Cross. He had out himself in danger, searching shell holes for the wounded and attending to them under heavy fire. His citation also praised his characteristic 'cheerfulness and endurance' which had 'a splendid effect upon all ranks'.

From here we walked out along the Messines Ridge, eventually coming to the Kruistraat craters, three of the mines which had been blown at the start of the Battle of Messines. One has since been filled in and only one of the remaining two can be viewed as barbed wire fences now surround them. We hopped the ditch to get close to it, filled like all the others with water. The farmer here was making use of this, with a pipe put in at one side to irrigate the fields.

Back along the road we came to Spanbroekmolen Crater, a much larger hole than the one we had just seen. Now surrounded by trees, yesterday's snow still remained on the steps to the craters rim and ice covered part of the Pool of Peace.

Mum and I have both visited the neighbouring Lone Tree Cemetery a few times so instead we walked around behind the crater site to Spanbroekmolen Cemetery, a further field over. This is the very definition of a battlefield cemetery, small and in the middle of a much larger field. All of the headstones bore the same date: 7th June 1917, the first day of the Battle of Messines. For me, this date is particularly poignant as it is my birthday, but it is also a date that all of the men who fought on the slopes of this ridge would never forget. A great victory was won, but at high cost and with the extreme damage wrought by the 19 blown mines.

Just further up there was another of the craters, known as Peckham Crater. Hopping another ditch and skirting it's barbed wire fence, we looked down into the crater-lake from the spoil heap on one side. By now, we have visited 9 of the 19 blown mines in this trip. Unfortunately, we don't have time to link up these craters with those we saw yesterday, by visiting those of Petit Bois and Hollandscheschuur in between. We'll save those for another visit.

We turned south and followed the footpath downhill off of the ridge and back into Wulvergem where we had parked the car. The sun was now starting to burn through the haze and by the end of our walk was up to the balmy temperature of 2°c! This was a really interesting walk, with brilliant views throughout.  Including a lunch stop and two detours (one accidental and one deliberate) it took us just shy of 5 hours. Not bad for 9+ miles and lots to stop and look at en route!

Our cheeks cold from the wind, we drove back into Ypres for waffles and hot chocolate. We then took a short walk (apparently we hadn't walked enough today!) down to Lille Gate and then back round the ramparts. In his memoirs Barclay Baron, the YMCA's regional secretary, wrote a colourful account of a hut based in the cellars of the Lille Gate, which served a rum and moat water cocktail. There is a door on either side of the gate, but I am not sure which (or maybe another) led down to the YMCA.

Along the ramparts, just past St Jacob's Church, we passed the site of another YMCA hut, this one in the ruined basement of what is now a school. The sun was starting to dip as we walked back into Grote Markt and was still very cold!

I write this now in Talbot House, my face glowing from the freezing wind on our walk. Somehow, we have made it to the end of our last full day here, in what feels like a blink of an eye! Tomorrow we are going to have a look around Poperinge before catching an afternoon ferry home.
Kathryn

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