This year saw us take our fifth consecutive group to Ypres to commemorate the Armistice and there really is nowhere else that creates such an ambience over this period.
Ypres was held by British and Allied forces for the duration of the First World War and in that time the town was practically destroyed. In fact if you were in the Grote Markt on horseback at the end of the war, you could see from one end of the town to the other as the level of destruction was so great. But today it has been rebuilt in its original image and is hardly distinguishable from how it looked in the late summer of 1914.
Arriving in the town on the afternoon of the 10th November a certain atmosphere is present in the air. The town is always busier than usual and veterans from our armed forces sit in the many cafes and bars proudly wearing their regimental berets and reminiscing about old times. Unfortunately there are no ‘Great War’ veterans left but it is to their memory, and that of the fallen, that this congregation gathers in the Flemish town.
On the morning of the 11th, after a hearty breakfast to set us up for the day ahead, we joined the crowds gathering at St Martin’s Cathedral to join the ‘Poppy Parade’. Veterans, associations and the general public form up in lines, many proudly wearing a relative’s medals, and at around 10:45 the parade sets off for the Menin Gate where a special ‘Last Post’ Ceremony is held at 11:00am.The streets are always lined with observers all the way to the Menin Gate and this year was no exception.
The service under the Menin Gate lasted around forty minutes. Many in our group had either served their country and wanted to remember fallen friends or, like myself, had lost a family member in the Great War. After the buglers of the Last Post Association play the Last Post we crossed the road under the Menin Gate and laid our wreaths. To end the ceremony, poppy petals fall from the roof of the Menin Gate to ‘Oh Valiant Hearts’ and then the pipe and drum bands march off. It is a wonderful ceremony to take part in at anytime of the year but all the more special on Armistice Day. I would say it is as good as the one at The Cenotaph, London on Remembrance Sunday.
Later that afternoon our group always attends the ‘Great War’ concert held in the stunning St Martin’s Cathedral. Singers, pipe and drum bands accompany the town’s famous Ypriana Band. So popular is this annual concert that they now have two shows and people come from all over the Flanders region to attend.
This is after all a battlefield tour, and the next day, the 12th, is our touring day. This year the tour looked at the ‘Stolen Lives of the Salient’. We visited a number of graves of the fallen who, prior to the war, led famous or interesting lives. These included Irish Nationalist MP William Redmond, Ronald Poulton Palmer, the Harlequins and England Rugby Union Captain, and Baron Alexis de Gunzberg.
No tour of the Ypres Salient is complete without a visit to Tyne Cot Cemetery. This is the largest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the world with just under 12,000 burials. We walked the cemetery in extremely cold weather; no one faltered but they were pleased to have a hot drink served back at the bus.
On our final day we visited the Welsh Cemetery (Caesar’s Nose). One of our group had a Great Uncle buried here and it was a pleasure to take her to visit his grave before we set off for the Eurotunnel terminal and our train back to the UK.
Battlefield touring is all about remembering the fallen and this tour certainly does that. This year has seen the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and although not connected with the town of Ypres, many of the fallen of the Somme had served at one stage in the Salient.
Next year, 2017, is a special Armistice tour as around this time the Third Battle of Ypres came to an end. Our Armistice tour will look at the famous battle of Passchendaele in detail, as well as remembering the fallen at the 11th hour of the 11th day at the Menin Gate. For more details visit our website.
Lest We Forget