Cycling the Ypres Salient I

What makes someone go on holidays to discover horrible things? It seems a little odd at first, but in history there is always good bad and both are significant; we should learn from the bad. Visiting S-21 prison and the Killing Fields in Cambodia was a very intense experience and one I will never forget, so I hoped visiting the Ypres Salient (the contested battlegrounds around Ypres between 1914 and 1918) would stir the same emotions.

We arrived in sleepy Ypres on Monday afternoon, checked into our hotel, visited the tourist office and immediately went for a beer just outside the Menin Gate. For those unaware, every night at the Menin Gate, members from the Ypres firefighters constabulary, trumpet the “Last Post;” the haunting dirge at all remembrance ceremonies. This Last Post has been performed here since 1919–every single day–except for a short period between 1941 and 1944 when Hitler banned the practice in occupied Belgium. First we visited the Flanders Fields museum to get a little more context before walking back to the Menin Gate for the 8:00 pm ceremony. The museum showed numerous photographs of Ypres in 1917; a barren field with scraggly spires of rubble. Ypres was a key battleground, a main junction protecting the French ports. The Germans shelled Ypres mercilessly, often with a significant advantage on the battlefield, but it never fell.

We left the museum at 7:30 for the 10 minute walk back to the Menin Gate and were surprising at the number of people present. There was a boys’ choir, adorned in red jackets, that took position on the opposite side of the gate. Throughout this structure were the names of Commonwealth soldiers lost in the war from 1914 to 1917, some 30,000 from places as far off as Burma, Punjab, and Indonesia.

The Princess Patricias from Winnipeg

The Princess Patricia battalion, many from Winnipeg, had an entire section dedicated to their lost or missing. All the soldiers whose names appear on the gate have no identified burial ground in the Ypres Salient or were buried without proof of identify, many too deformed to identify, exploded to pieces by shells or pulled into the mud like primordial quick sand only to become part of the ground on which they had trodden. Their names and lives live here; their remains elsewhere.

The choir sang and then it was time for the Last Post. Julia fought to keep the tears back, as the trumpets echoed solemnly amount names engraved in stone.

We awoke the next morning, had a quick breakfast then rode along a pristine paved pathway parallel to a canal and opposite several bulky industrial buildings. Ten minutes later we arrive a small cementery near where John McCrae famously penned the poem “In Flanders Fields.”

The John McCrae site

Beside a few hundred meticulously manicured grave sites, were several concrete bunkers where medics, including McCrae, worked around the clock fixing broken, mangled bodies from the front. After being unable to save a good friend, McCrae retired to write the poem that has signified the “Great War” and popularized the image of the popply. McCrae himself never knew of it’s popularity, dying near Ypres in 1918, still fixing mangled bodies. What was particularly moving was a row of soldiers, buried side by side, who perished on Christmas Day, 1916. In only two years, soldiers went from the “Christmas truce” to “Christmas death” but that was the nature of the First World War. It was an end of chivalry, of battle “ethics” and the beginning of modern warfare, where the noble victory was surpassed by victory at all costs. All advantages were explored, but technological advantage ruled the day and that hasn’t ceased. The bravest army can rarely compete with the biggest toys, or so we are led to believe.

We rode on, crossed the canal, then arrived at a memorial called The Brooding Soldier, also known as the “Canadian.”

The “Canadian” who stood firm against the first poison gas attack

It was at this actual location that Canadian troops stood their ground against the first poison gas attack during the Second Battle of Ypres. The Canadians stationed here witnessed French soldiers fleeing the battlefield and were ordered to shoot the French deserters, which they did. Minutes later they saw a cloud of gas lurching across the field. One of their soldiers who fortuitously studied chemistry at University, told the Canadians it was chlorine gas and to urinate on a piece of cloth and hold it to their noses and mouths or burn their lungs and die an excruciating death. The Canadians somehow found the pee (I would have thought another bodily function more natural) and fought off the subsequent German attack to once again hold Ypres. The Brooding Soldier faces the direction of the gas, which was the exact direction the wind was blowing on this day. It’s truly a somber place, but again, the garden was absolutely stunning, even for the grey dour day that was enveloping us.

We could only stay a short time because we had another fairly long ride to Langenmark and the German cemetery, but it was on this trail that we started to get turned around, upside down and inside out.

The “student cemetery” at Langenmark

Perhaps it was fatigue or the constant stench of cow farts, but when you have no real landmarks sometimes turning right seems like the logical thing to do even when the compass (yes, I carry a compass) says you should be going left. We trusted the compass instead of that fatty muscle between my ears and managed to find the cemetery, buried in a dark corner just outside the town, laden with tall near black tree trunks and bonnets of deep green leaves. We walked in and read the epitaph at the gate. There were over 40,000 German soldiers buried in this site and each headstone, a mirror smooth square of marble lying flat on the ground, contained over a dozen German bodies. The majority of soldiers lay unidentified in a “comrade grave” surrounded by large blocks with names of suspected soldiers interned below the immaculately mowed grass. On the far side of the cemetery, three German army soldiers were power-washing headstones, quietly and solemnly. What thoughts did they have: two invasions of Belgium, two defeats, care for the dead. What was truly haunting about this cemetery was its nickname: “the student cemetery.” The German fourth army, most of whom lay in this spot, were teenagers that fought and died in the first and second battles at Ypres when they should have been dating and going to dances.

From Langenmark we followed another long path to Tyne Cot cemetery, although once again we zigged when we should have zagged. The bike path along the “Gifgas” route just didn’t seem to be taking us towards Tyne Cot, so we chose the hiking path, which was exceedingly difficult given the tender condition of our ass muscles. Every bump in the road was like receiving a cane whack to the backside and I alone counted over fifty canings. We finally found a road and followed it until we saw Tyne Cot on a hill about 500 metres away, likely fed perfectly along the Gifgas route we deserted about twenty minutes earlier.

Tyne Cot

We rode up a steep hill with failing legs until parking our bikes at the rear entrance of Tyne Cot. Several thousand headstones were again perfectly placed in both circular and straight rows, surrounded by perfectly manicured lawns and flower gardens bursting with colour. The majority of soldiers at Tyne Cot died in a single battle, the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as the Battle of Passchendalae, one of the bloodiest and most horrific battles in history. Like the other cemeteries, many of the headstones simply said “A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR,” under a cross that stated “KNOWN UNTO GOD.”

Two unidentified Canadian soldiers of the Great War

Most of those boys we know are either memorialized at the Menin Gate or along the circular walls at Tyne Cot: those missing, unknown, mangled, deformed, and blown to bits boys who had names and families who cared about them. Some today still leave photos of their “great uncles,” or their “great grandfathers” at the base of their gravestone, yet it seems odd to look at the image of a twenty two year old and think of him as someone’s great grandfather. They’re forever frozen as boys and young men.

We left Tyne Cot increasingly moved and bothered by what we’d seen. But if our brains were overwhelmed, our asses were catatonic. Getting used to another bike is worse than bunion surgery, and I would know. We had a long ride to Zonnebeke and the Passchendaele memorial and museum. It was after 2:00 pm and I started feeling like another beer was in my near future, but Passchendaele was a must see. We rode on down another lonely road with little more than cows calling our presence: all was quiet.