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A Hungover Bus Tour

Written on: Sunday April 26th, 2009

Small reprieve this morning with a later wakeup call but by 9am-ish we're all breakfasted, checked out of the Peace Village and loaded onto our respective NZ and Aussie buses having swapped many stories of the previous nights drunken antics / casualties. Today is pretty much completely a guided bus tour of the entire area of the Ypres Salient, so I'll just go over the main highlights in no particular order;

We visit several Commonwealth/Allied cemeteries, the first of which also contains an Indian grave and several German graves, markedly different being made from a darker stone and more squared off at the top rather than the curving Allied headstones. We also pass several cemeteries and memorials of other countries including a Scottish Celtic Cross, Canadian memorial and a French cemetery. We also pass Mt Kemmel, an important Allied strategic holding during the war, and briefly stop near Polygon Wood again to hear about the assault on the area.

At Langemark we stop at a major German cemetery. Here there are around 55,000 German soldiers buried, 25,000 of them in one mass grave under a garden. Their names are recorded on large stone pillars surrounding the garden, along with the names of two British Officers buried with them. Whenever further German remains are found in the area they are added to the crypt via rear access. The rest of the dead are buried in graves throughout the field. These graves are marked with simple dark stones lying flat on the ground and bare the names of up to 20 men, as the Germans buried their dead together to symbolise brotherhood in Death as well as Life. There is also a wall containing thousands of German missing, soldiers with no know grave. It's strange being at a cemetery of 'the enemy' but in the end they were just men, going about their terrible job just as our men went about their terrible job. I think the Mayor of Featherstone, whose letter to the Mayor of Messines was read out the day before, put it best when she said "It doesn't matter what country they fight for, when a soldier falls, a mother weeps". And this insanity of mankind continues, and it always will. Nobody wins, they just die.

We also stop Zonnebeke where heavy fighting had taken place. Here we have a look through a museum to WWI and walk through a reconstruction of an Allied Bunker. At 6 foot I mostly definitely would not have wanted to live down there. Everything is very cramped and dark. The beds are probably the worst, stacked 3 high and around 5 foot long and 3 foot wide, each bed was made of chicken wire stretched across wooden frames ... and designed for two men. Spooning anyone?

For lunch we stop and an old cheese mill/factory/thing and are served what the soldiers of WWI would have eaten on a good day; a local Belgian beer, some beer based soup, a pie type thing made with carrot, potato and corned-beef mince topped with pastry. For desert we get a small orange and raisin cake thing. All in all its pretty good and I suspect a lot better and warmer than the soldiers would have got on even their best day.

After lunch we head to Tyne Cot cemetery. This is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world and holds many tens of thousands of fallen. Before entering the cemetery itself there is a small museum type thing that contains information about the countryside during the war. There are two large composite photos on the wall. Basically they're comprised of several aerial photos of the Ypres Salient patched together. One shows the area before the war, the countryside with forests and farmsteads, towns and roads. The other shows the area after the war, a muddy, cratered landscape containing absolutely nothing. All the forests are burnt and gone, the towns reduced to dust. Nothing remains, everything is gone. Utter destruction of every single sign of civilisation. Intense.
Inside the cemetery itself we see graves of Victory Cross holders and a few mass graves containing 20 or so men. There is also the final wall naming New Zealand missing.

Our last stop on the guided tour is a cemetery that also marks the place where the famous "In Flanders Fields" was written. Here we also see a group of concrete Allied bunkers that were used as aid stations originally. Again, uncomfortable for anyone over 5 feet tall.

Finally at about 2.30pm we head back to Ypres for some last minute chocolate shopping and a relax in the sun before bussing back to Lille in France for our 6.30pm Eurostar high speed train back to London, St Pancras.