My Top Ten Places to Visit in Ypres - Kathryn's history blog

Sunday, 1 December 2019

My Top Ten Places to Visit in Ypres


Following on from my recent post of my top ten places to visit on the Somme battlefields, this post looks at the must-see places in the Ypres Salient. I'm sure to have missed several important places, so tell me your suggestions in the comments below.


It's an obvious place to start, but a trip to Ypres really isn't complete without going to the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. If approaching the city from the east you will drive under Sir Reginald Blomfield's archway which bears the names of more than 54,000 soldiers who died and whose bodies were lost in the region between 1914 and August 1917. Returning here in the evening, one can attend the daily Last Post ceremony and moment of silence.


Leaving Ypres through the Menin Gate and heading north-east, the landscape of the Ypres battles opens up. Tucked away on the far side of Langemark village on the Pilckem Ridge is the peaceful German cemetery. More than 10,000 soldiers are buried here, brought in from across the Salient after the war. Unlike many of the German cemeteries in France, the headstones here are laid flat rather than being upright crosses. It is beautifully shaded by oak trees; the national tree of Germany.


To the south on Passchendaele Ridge is the Memorial Museum in Zonnebeke. This is one of my favourite museums on the Western Front and has undergone a really good renovation to make it both really informative and engaging, supported by an audio tour. The dug-out and trench experience is a little too well-ordered and artificial, but it nonetheless remains a really good introduction to the area's history, and especially to the Third Battle of Ypres and the significance of Passchendaele.


I find one of the most atmospheric places in the Salient to be Polygon Wood, just a kilometre away from Zonnebeke. The site has two cemeteries, as well as memorials to the Fifth Australian Division and the New Zealand missing, yet most poignantly for me are the surviving concrete bunkers and fortifications around which the wood has regrown. On my most recent trip to Ypres this was one of the best places to use the Linesman trench maps as remnants of the original trench lines can still be seen and the aid of the app allowed me to link up the concrete structures. This is also a lovely wood to visit and is home to a number of red squirrels.


Another great place to walk in the Salient is The Bluff. A raised wooden platform guides you along the crater-pocked landscape. Information boards and outdoor screens provide context to your visit on land that was fought over in the early months of 1916, before being mined in 1917. A number of small Commonwealth cemeteries surround the area; a region of the battlefield that has a noticeably different atmosphere from the open plains towards Passendale. Nearby Hill 60 and the Caterpillar Crater are also well-worth a walk out to, linking this area into the land fought over at the Battle of Messines in June 1917.


In the centre of the Messines battlefront is Bayernwald, a sector of restored German trenches. An entry ticket can be purchased for a few euros in nearby Kemmel for a self-guided visit around the trench lines and mine-shaft entrances. Some information panels give insight into the life of the German Army in this area, which they occupied up until June 1917. From above the trenches there is also an impressive view out across No Man's Land and downhill to the old British lines at Vierstraat.


Of the nineteen mines blown on 7th June 1917, one of the largest remaining craters is Spanbroekmolen, now preserved as the Pool of Peace near Wytschaete. Digging the mine had commenced 18 months prior to its detonation, with a 90,000lb charge of ammonal being used to obliterate the German front line. This crater is enclosed by hedges and scrub, meaning that it cannot be seen from the roadside, but instead its vast diameter opens up before you as you take the small pathway in to the viewing platform at one side. Two Commonwealth cemeteries nearby (Lone Tree and Spanbroekmolen) contain the bodies of those killed in the mine's explosion prior to the successful British attack.


Continuing to the south-west one comes to the only truly hilly area of this region, known as Heuvelland. The most prominent of these small, steep inclines is the Kemmelberg, rising up on steep cobbled roads above the village of Kemmel. It is imposing today, but during the war it would have been even moreso, as it had 360 degree views out across the battlefield. One one side of the hill there is a French ossuary containing the bodies of French soldiers who fought here in April 1918. At the top is another French memorial, taking the form of Nike, the Goddess of Victory who stands proudly over this strategically important mound.


Travelling west into the British rear positions, the village of Brandhoek between Ypres and Poperinge was used by dressing stations and field ambulances to care for the battle wounded. The three Brandhoek New Military Cemeteries are the resting place for many soldiers who died from their wounds, giving these ordered cemeteries a different feel from the battlefield cemeteries to Ypres' east. All three are worth a visit, located along the same road, but one notable grave worth stopping at is that of Captain Noel Chevasse, the only man to be awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery twice during the First World War.


At the western side of the Salient is Poperinge, which served as a rest town for troops between their stints serving around Ypres. Thousands of soldiers were billetted here at a time, with a number of amusements being established to entertain and comfort them throughout the war. One of the most special of these is Talbot House, a haven for troops established by the chaplain Rev. 'Tubby' Clayton. The house remains open today, both as a museum and a guesthouse, making it an ideal place to stay for a battlefield visit. Clayton's spirit definitely lives on in the house, with the special chapel in the 'Upper Room' being preserved just as it was during the war. It makes an ideal place to return to after a tiring day on the battlefields, much as it comforted weary soldiers a century ago.

Do you agree with this list? Or is there anywhere else you'd consider a must-visit in the Ypres Salient? Add your own in the comments below.

Kathryn

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