Touring the battlefields

Menin Gate in Ypres
Menin Gate in Ypres
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The grandchildren of those who died in Flanders are leading renewed interest in the First World War. Stephen McClarence reports.

They stream down the cobbled street past the Old Bill pub, hundreds of them, heading for the Menin Gate for a ceremony that has taken place every night since 1928 and will be repeated at 11am tomorrow, Remembrance Sunday.

They pass Tommy’s Souvenir Shop and the Poppy Pizzeria and Over the Top Tours – names that, in a more touristy town than Ypres, might smack of tasteless cashing-in on tragedy.

Ypres, in Flanders, bore the brunt of German shelling during the First World War. It was reduced to rubble, with not a house or a tree left standing. When peace was restored, Churchill suggested it should be left as it was, a grim reminder of the waste of war. The people of Ypres thought otherwise and their town was painstakingly rebuilt in all its medieval charm. Today, you’d never guess that few buildings here are more than 90-years-old.

Ypres, now renamed Ieper, is the base for a coach tour I’ve joined to see some of the key sites around Passchendaele, the Belgian battlefield where, in 1917, almost half a million men died in just four months. As the centenary of the start of the war looms in 2014, and interest in it never seems to wane, there’s likely to be a big demand for such tours.

I joined one in London, we drive to Dover and take a P&O ferry to Calais. On a sunny afternoon, the White Cliffs gradually recede into a long, white band on the milky horizon: many a soldier’s last glimpse of home on his way to the trenches.

Ypres is a big draw for “peace tourism”, as war-related travel is often self-consciously restyled. Its main square is dominated by the vast Cloth Hall, a Gothic building housing the In Flanders Fields Museum, a major commemoration of conflict.

It reopened this year after the sort of hi-tech redesign that many a perfectly good existing museum thinks will increase accessibility. “We’ve adapted the exhibition to the new generation who will come here,” says Piet Chielens, the museum’s head of exhibitions. “We thought we needed to talk to young people in a different way, with more images and less text, and make it more interactive so they get involved.”

I visit it twice, but it rarely involves me. With its doomy musical soundtrack, it seems confusing and unfocused, with no clear narrative (maybe in itself a reflection of the nature of war). There’s too much reliance on holograms of actors playing soldiers, and a puzzling preoccupation with battlefield landscapes. Maybe I’m too old to grasp it. I connect more with the “real” exhibits – enlistment posters, name tags found on bodies, a postcard scrawled in the trenches by a soldier a fortnight before he was killed.

The nearby St George’s Memorial Church distils the sadness of war more simply. Plaques erected by British schools remember pupils and teachers who died on the battlefields: 97 from Bury Grammar School; 116 from Ashville College, Harrogate; 447 from Uppingham School; 749 from Marlborough.

“The First World War is part of the collective memory of Europe,” says Piet. “The Second World War happened everywhere, but the First was concentrated in one particular area. People say, ‘How can we be moved by an event that happened so long ago?’ You will see tonight at the Menin Gate.”

At just before 8pm, perhaps 500 people are waiting at this memorial arch which bears the names of 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were never found – men from Australia, Canada, India; the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, the Northumberland Fusiliers, the Leicestershire Yeomanry.

“Interest in the war is a lot more than it used to be,” says Rene Declerca, chairman of Entente Ieper, a veterans’ association. “It’s mainly from the grandchildren of soldiers who died, rather than the children. The soldiers’ children didn’t talk about the war, but now the grandchildren are researching it.”

A clock strikes eight, the sun is going down, and four buglers play The Last Post. Despite the fusillade of clicking camera shutters, the trilling mobile phones and the presence of so many people clearly going straight off to dinner, it makes a powerful impression.

Next day, we explore the rest of Ypres, a delightful town with pavement cafes and interesting wall-walks, and drive to Passchendaele through the broad, calm Flanders countryside. We pass red-roofed farmhouses and fields with small war cemeteries tucked in the corner.

They hardly prepare you for Tyne Cot, the world’s biggest and most visited Commonwealth military cemetery. Some 12,000 trim, white gravestones stand to attention here, facing the rising sun. Two-thirds have no name on them, just “a soldier of the Great War... known unto God.”

A recorded voice reads a roll-call of the 35,000 missing: “John Septimus Morris, aged 20...David Goodley, aged 20... Edward Hoggs, aged 21...” Their names are on a huge, curving memorial, along with that of Private JH Barritt of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. Stuck next to it is a paper poppy, drenched by the rain and bleached by the sun.

In the cemetery’s museum is a letter from a woman whose fiancée died at Passchendaele: “The thought that Jack died for his country is no comfort to me. His memory is all I have left to love.”

We also visit Poperinge, a small town where Talbot House, a cross between a club and a YMCA, offered soldiers a brief, morale-boosting break from the trenches. Its beautiful garden adds to its sense of peace. “Come into the garden and forget about the war,” said a sign. It must have been a welcome invitation. And perhaps a little optimistic.

Getting there

The Coach Tourism Council (0870 850 2839, www.findacoachholiday.com) links more than 100 British coach tour companies. Many offer short breaks to Flanders and other First World War battle sites, and most pick up passengers from or near their homes.

One of the leading battlefield-tour operators, Rotherham-based Leger Holidays (0844 504 6250, www.leger.co.uk), has a five-day Victoria Cross Heroes coach tour from £379 per person, B&B, including visits to Ypres, Tyne Cot and other Flanders sites.

Tourism Flanders-Brussels: 0207 307 7738, www.visitflanders.co.uk