Ypres Salient 2021 Day Two: Winter Walking in Zillebeke

I awoke this morning feeling a lot better than I had yesterday! The storm had also abated, leaving great conditions for a walk.

I drove over to Zillebeke, just south of Ypres, to follow a route from one of my favourite guidebooks, Walking Ypres, by Paul Reed. I really rate these walks, although very soon I'm going to need him to write a volume two!

The Zillebeke walk began at Transport Farm Cemetery. Located between some barns and the railway embankment, it's clear to see how it got its name. During the war, a number of dugouts were built into the bank beneath the railway, including ones used for an Advanced Dressing Station, some of the burials from which were the beginnings of this cemetery.

Among the burials here is Victoria Cross winner 2nd Lieut Frederick Youens of the Durham Light Infantry. His VC was awarded posthumously, earned near here in July 1917, when despite already having been wounded he endangered his own life several times in order to organise a Lewis gun team to repulse an attack, and then by throwing unexploded grenades out of their trench. One of these exploded in his hand, causing fatal wounds but undoubtedly also saving the lives of others.

Just across from the cemetery is Zillebeke Lake, an artificial body of water that was a significant (if undrinkable) resource for soldiers during the war. Today it is mainly used for leisure, with fishing stages and a cycle path that loops its circumference on the old trench lines. It looked beautiful in the Winter morning's sun.

On the north side of the lake ran a light railway during the war and I followed its path east to Hellebast Corner. Here, where a shed now stands as a bat sanctuary, had been a divisional HQ and a YMCA canteen, much appreciated so close to the front. One person who I wonder if they ever visited the YMCA here was Edmund Blunden, who, a memorial plaque notes, wrote his poem Zillebeke Brook about this area. It certainly brings to the fore the atmosphere that would have been here beetween the trench lines and the railway tracks.

THIS conduit stream that's tangled here and there
With rusted iron and shards of earthenware,
And tawny-stained with ruin trolls across
The tiny village battered into dross --
This muddy water chuckling in its run
Takes wefts of colour from the April sun,
And paints for fancy's eye a glassy burn
Ribanded through a brake of Kentish fern,
From some top spring beside a park's gray pale,
Guarding a shepherded and steepled dale,
Wherefrom the blue deep-coppiced uplands hear
The dim cool noise of waters at a weir.

And much too clear you bring it back to me,
You dreary brook deformed with cruelty,
Here where I halt to catch the day's best mood,
On my way up to Sanctuary Wood.

A short way further along the small path popped out onto the main street through Zillebeke village and I crossed over to the church. To one side, under the shelter of trees, is a scene that could have been in an English churchyard. Here men were buried during the opening months of the war as the defences around the Ypres Salient were formed and the burial ground has a real feel of them replicating home traditions.

Also interesting here are the two private headstones that stand instead of the typical Commonwealth War Graves ones. One is immense, really putting into perspective how simplistic the CWGC headstones are. It belongs to Baron Alexis George de Gunzburg whose Russian family had been exiled to Paris. He was sent to England to study at Eton and thereafter worked in London until he became a naturalised citizen and could join the army in August 1914. As he spoke both French and German, he worked as an interpreter, and was killed conveying a message during the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914.

The graves here are very much typical of the pre-war Guards regiments. de Gunzburg isn't the only Baron, joined by Lieut Henry Bligh Fortescue Parnell, 5th Baron Congleton, who also attended Eton. A third Eton man, Lord Bernard Charles Gordon-Lennox, is also buried here, the 3rd son of the Duke of Richmond. In a small space like this of early war deaths, it's easy to see how the Lost Generation narratives took hold.

After warming up with a quick look inside the church, I continued through the village to Tuileries British Cemetery, named for the tile works that had previously stood on this site. The cemetery is large, but the burials relatively sparse, mostly lining the walls. This is due to many of the graves having been destroyed and the replacement headstones - the 'special memorials' - are marked differently. The resulting expanse of grass in the middle was really wet, like a water-sodden sponge that gave up its moisture as I walked across.

At the far end of the village I came to another cemetery, China Wall, named after a trench line that ran along the far edge. Unlike the peaceful seclusion of Tuileries, this one was more exposed and neighbouring an industrial fruit farm. It was also given a different atmosphere by the building works that are ongoing, repairing the brickwork of the walls and shoring up some subsidence between the graves. This was a different sort of interesting, looking at how the CWGC care for and preserve their sites. Wooden boxes had been built to shield the rows of graves that stand particularly close to the perimeter wall.

From here I walked with the Linesman trench maps in hand, following where the paths trace and bisect the old ways. Across Ritz St and Wellington Crescent, past the Yeomanry Post, and then along a newer cycle path to veer off of Reed's route and to join up onto Canadalaan at Zouave Wood to stop in at Sanctuary Wood Cemetery. 

As odd as it sounds, I always think of this cemetery as one of 'the classics', the go tos for a first battlefields tour. I came here on school trips - like many making use of the eccentric museum next door - and it has the typical lay out one expects from Commonwealth cemeteries, the neat curves of headstones surrounding the summit.

One of the few that aren't in neat rows is that of Lieut Gilbert Talbot, after whom Talbot House is named, via his brother Bishop Neville. In fashion rather typical of his family's faith, his epitaph is in two parts. The first, 'Fear not I am he that liveth', from the Book of Revelation, and the second in Latin reading 'In thy light we shall see light', taken from Psalm 36.

At the top end of Canadalaan, past the closed museum and cafe, I came to the Canadian Memorial on the peak of Hill 62. Here I realised the strength of the wind I had been somewhat sheltered from so far and it was really cold! Nonetheless, there were still great views from which I was able to situate the walk I had done from Zillebeke into the landscape from the Kemmelberg, to the spires of Ypres, to the Hooge Crater Museum with its cemetery spilling down the hillside before it.

Taking shelter at the bottom of the hill's steps, I stopped for a quick bite of lunch and to brew a coffee on the camp stove. It's a real gamechanger to be able to have a warming coffee midway through a Winter walk and I walked with it in my travel cup down the trench line of Vancouver Avenue and onto Observatory Ridge, back towards the guidebook route.

The next cemetery, Maple Copse, I have been to once before. That time it was in the baking August sun, when I needed some shade. No such worries today, but the cemetery remains with its feeling of solitude, tucked away from all around it even as the copse's trees are bare. The Canadian graves that are here, like that of the Hill 62 memorial, are in tribute to their service in the Battles of St Eloi and Mount Sorrel in the summer of 1916. Small skirmishes in the grand scheme of the war, but important testing grounds for the Canadian Army and the Allied defence of the Salient. 

The walk from here took me back into Zillebeke village and across to Blauwepoort Farm Cemetery. Tucked in behind the goat enclosures just as the Sun was starting to lower was the sparse cemetery. I wandered here for a few minutes taking photos while a girl from the farm ran across from where she had been feeding the goats, past the cemetery and back into the house. I wondered about how it was just normal for her to have a field of buried British soldiers effectively in the garden and whether that changes your perspective on life generally. I have no answers, but I like when normal life continues around these little patches of history.

After this, I crossed back over the railway line and returned to the car. It was still relatively early in the day so I stopped in at a couple of cemeteries I haven't been to before, Divisional Cemetery and Belgian Battery Corner. Both of these are behind the lines sites and as a result most of the burials are grouped by unit. In Belgian Battery, where they mostly date from later in the war, many of these are artillery, and in Divisional, there are several New Zealanders buried together.

From here I returned towards Poperinge before the Sun fully set, feeling so refreshed and inspired by a simple day out on the battlefields. I've missed little adventures like this and it was great to explore a new patch of the Salient that I haven't walked before. 


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