Spring Battlefields 2019 Day Five: Second Ypres - Kathryn's history blog

Monday, 1 April 2019

Spring Battlefields 2019 Day Five: Second Ypres


Today is forecast to be the last day of sunshine so I made the most of it by heading out on my bike to explore the front from the Second Battle of Ypres.

I started off riding north-east from Poperinge, stopping first at Gwalia Cemetery. Like the cemeteries I visited yesterday evening, this was one created by the many camps and field ambulances located in this area west of Ypres during 1917. There's a real mixture of graves here, with a number from the Tank Corps, as well as others from the Royal Engineers, British West Indies Regiment, in addition to those from the New Zealand forces.

In the next village of Elverdinge I came  to another field ambulance cemetery, Ferme-Olivier. This one was of an earlier date, being used from June 1915 to August 1917. Prior to the advances of Third Ypres, this was at the limit of the German guns' range, menaing that the camps here were not entirely safe. 

On 29th December 1915 the 3rd battalion of the Monmouthshire Regiment were on parade here when a single shell from a naval gun killed 41 soldiers. They are all buried here together.

Next I rode on into Boezinge and onto the Allied line following their retreat at the Second Battle of Ypres. By 25th May 1915 the Belgian and French troops who here held the line had been pushed back to this west side of the canal. Crossing the bridge, I came to the Carrefour des Roses, a memorial to the two French territorial divisions from Brittany and Normandy who were victims to the first use of poisoned gas on 22nd April 1915, the opening day of Second Ypres. Everything in this small memorial park has been brought from the soldiers' home regions in France.

By the edge of the next field is a memorial to the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge. Ledwidge was killed near here while serving with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers on 31st July 1917, the first day of Third Ypres. He was killed by a shell while they were road-laying in support of the battle and is buried just up the road at Artillery Wood Cemetery.


While my route today was mostly focussing on Second Ypres, it is impossible to ignore that this same ground was fought over multiple times during the course of the war. This next cemetery, Artillery Wood, contains British burials from July 1917 to March 1918 and was enlarged after the Armistice to bring in bodies from the surrounding area. Contrastingly, the French burials from around this area were moved after the war into the large French cemetery at Potijze which I visited on my first day here.

Heading north from here I came to the hamlet of Steenstraat which contains a number of memorials to the fighting of 1915. During the infamous first gas attack, this village was reported to have been protected by the wind and not overly affected by the gas. That certainly wasn't true today as there were some quite strong crosswinds as I was riding through. This memorial was to the Belgian 3rd Regiment who held the line here.

This area was the junction in 1915 between the French troops to the south and the Belgian Army to the North. To mark this there is a Franco-Belgian memorial on the west side of the canal. The original memorial erected here in the 1920s was a graphic depiction of soldiers affected by poison gas. However, this was blown up by the occupying Nazis during the Second World War, as they took offence to the use of gas. No explanation of that horrid irony is necessary here. In the 1960s the memorial was replaced by the present one, a 15-meter aluminium cross dedicated to reconcilliation. I don't particularly like this memorial, and it is very much of its time, with its dark minimalism. Nevertheless, it is now a very striking sight that can be seen from afar on the flat landscape, commemorating both the unity of Belgian and French forces, and post-war reconciliation with Germany.


Turning up "Grenadier Street" here I passed an old concrete bunker and then the memorial to the Belgian 2nd Grenadier Regiment who also fought off the effects of gas in their attempts to hold the canal. This memorial was interesting as it had additional plaques dedicated to Grenadiers who had fought here during 1915 but had died many years later, seemingly disconnected with the war. Still, it was their war service for which they were remembered and the Grenadier Regiment with which they were connected.

From here I rode east towards Langemark, across incredibly flat land. This section of the Pilkem Ridge, while higher than Ypres, is incredibly wide open. It is easy to see why the Germans wanted to advance over to the west side of the canal in order to have this expanse behind their lines.

Going through Langemark, I headed towards Poelcapelle on the sector which had been manned by the French 45th (Algerian) Division, and turned right at the N313 in the direction of Ypres. This was the border between two more armies on the Allied side, with the Algerian forcesto tthe north of the road and the Canadians to the south. The Canadian memorial here at Vancouver Corner, which I have previously visited, was tribute to this effort at Second Ypres. While the plaques on this Brooding Soldier mark the April 1915 battle, it is also very close to this sight that the Canadian forces were again fighting at Passchendaele in the Autumn of 1917.


Continuing on this road, with the most lovely tailwind off the ridge, I next came to Seaforth Cemetery, Cheddar Villa. The burials in this cemetery all date from the last week of April, 1915 and as its name suggests, more than 100 of them are Seaforth Highlanders. The second part of the name was the cemetery's original title, taken from the name given on the trench maps to a farm which stood in this area. The one just over the back was known as Mouse Trap Farm.

The final cemetery I stopped at on my way into Ypres was White House Cemetery. This is a much larger plot, as not only does it include burials from throughout 1915-1918 in this part of eastern Ypres, but also contains bodies that have been brought in from Dickebusch and Vormezeele. I visited these villages on day two and I'm not sure why some of the burials were brought here after the war, as both have cemeteries of their own.

In Ypres, I stopped for some late lunch and enjoyed the sunshine in Grote Markt, although it is much cooler today. I was then feeling really tired so I headed back to Poperinge, stopping off en route at Red Farm Cemetery near Brandhoek. This is a little cemetery which contains just 46 burials from the Spring of 1918. Today it looks oddly stuck in the middle of a quite heavily wired field just off the road.

I returned to Talbot House for a couple of hours' rest before driving back into Ypres to attend the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate. Although I have been a number of times before and laid a wreath there in 2012, I like to make the effort to attend on each of my trips to the area. I had been thinking that the Salient was very quiet while I'd been here, although the ceremony was very well attended tonight. It was lovely to be at the Menin Gate during sunset, and the red sun was reflected onto the arched ceiling of the memorial, poignantly fading as the ceremony progressed.

Losing the last of the light, I drove back into Poperinge for the night, worn out from another day exploring the battlefields. Tomorrow I'm sticking with the theme of 1915 battles and driving south into France to visit the battlefields of Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge.

Kathryn

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