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Friday, 27 September 2013

Bruges - Day 3

Another nice gentle start to the day today and I went for breakfast at 9am before taking a slow amble down to fetch the coach. I collected the group at 11am for today's excursion to Ypres and the Last Post, via a couple of war graves. Lorraine has a short DVD, produced by a previous passenger, which we played on the coach and was a very good introduction to the day, telling a brief story of what happened in and around Ypres during the First World War and quoting the numbers of the fallen soldiers at each major location.

Our first visit was to the German War Cemetery, Langemark.


I chose to come here to show a comparison of British and German Cemeteries. There are two main differences that I can see. One is that the German headstones are lay flat, whereas those of the Commonwealth are upright. The other difference is that in the German cemetery there are usually multiple names on one headstone. With the Commonwealth graves, if it was possible to identify a body, therefore giving it a name, then that soldier would have his own grave. It was only the unidentifiable bodies which were in a mass grave. 

Very occasionally, we have people who are offended by a visit here and it is usually because they have very close ties to someone who fought for Britain in the First or Second World War. Today however, everyone was very interested to see it and to quote one of our ladies, 'they were all someone's Son'.

The origins of this military cemetery began with a small group of German graves in 1915. Between 1916 and 1918 the burials at Langemark were increased by order of the German military directorate in Ghent. From the mid 1920s the private German war graves organization, the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (VDK) and the newly established Official German Burial Service in Belgium began to renovate German cemeteries in Flanders. At that time this cemetery was named “Langemarck-Nord”. This was done to distinguish the cemetery from the other 15 German burial sites in the Langemark area. The VDK secured private funds in the form of sponsorship from its members and was able to carry out significant work on two cemeteries in Flanders, namely this one at Langemarck-Nord (10,143 war dead) and another further north at Roeselaere called Roselaere-de Ruyter (2,806 war dead). In 1930, with the setting up of a register of German military cemeteries in Flanders, more work was carried out at the cemetery and it was renamed “German Military Cemetery Number 123”. Oak trees were planted; the oak is the national tree of Germany. The oak trees have grown very tall over the past 80 years and dominate the sombre atmosphere of this cemetery. The cemetery was officially inaugurated on 10th July 1932. The cemetery is now called “Langemark cemetery.


Our next stop was at Tyne Cot Cemetery. Tyne Cot Cemetery is the resting place of 11,954 soldiers of the Commonwealth Forces. This is the largest number of burials contained in any Commonwealth cemetery of either the First or Second World War. It is the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in the world. The dates of death of the soldiers buried at Tyne Cot cemetery cover a period of four years, from October 1914 to September 1918 inclusive.
 

Tyne Cot cemetery first came into being in October 1917 when the ridge where the cemetery is now located was captured by the British Army. One of several German blockhouses was large enough to be used as an Advanced Dressing Station. As a result of casualties not surviving their wounds in this medical Dressing Station there were 354 burials near the Dressing Station. Most of the graves in the vicinity of the Cross of Sacrifice will, therefore, be identified as they died of wounds in this place and were subsequently buried here. The graves of these burials are for soldiers, including some Germans, who died between 6thOctober 1917 and the end of March 1918 when the German Army attacked and retook this ridge of high ground south of Passchendaele village. The cemetery was then again in German occupied ground from 13th April until 28th September 1918, when the Belgian Army captured the ridge in the final push during the last weeks of the war.

Of the 11,954 burials in Tyne Cot cemetery, 8,367 are unidentified British or Commonwealth servicemen. This is about 70% of the total graves in the cemetery. These graves are marked with headstones which are inscribed with the words “Known unto God”.
Approximately 90,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers died in the Ypres Salient but their identities could not be established at the time of burial or their graves were lost in subsequent fighting. The names of these 90,000 unidentified men of the British and Commonwealth Forces are inscribed on four memorials to the missing in the battle sector known as the Ypres Salient. One of these four memorials is the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.
 

The Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing bears the inscribed names of over 34,000 British and New Zealand soldiers whose remains are still missing in the Ypres Salient.
Three soldiers who were awarded the Victoria Cross (V.C.) are buried in this cemetery. One is Canadian. Two are Australian soldiers, who were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions during the battles to capture the ridge in October 1917.

Captain Clarence Smith Jeffries, V.C. Captain Jeffries was serving with the 34th Battalion Australian Infantry during the Battle of Broodseinde Ridge which began on 4th October 1917.

A few days later on 12th October he was taking part in the next phase of the battle when he was killed. He is buried at grave reference Plot XL, Row E, Grave 1.

Sergeant Lewis McGee, V.C. Sergeant McGee was serving with the 40th(Tasmanian) Battalion Australian Infantry, taking part in the attack on the Broodseinde Ridge on 4th October 1917. For his gallant actions in knocking out German blockhouses in the vicinity of HAMBURG FARM he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Sergeant McGee was killed in action on 12th October in the next phase of the Battle of Broodseinde Ridge. He is buried in grave reference Plot XX, Row D, Grave 1.

Private James Peter Robertson, V.C. Private Robertson was serving with the 27th Battalion Canadian Infantry (Manitoba Regiment) when he was killed on 6th November 1917.
His body is buried in Tyne Cot cemetery at grave reference Plot LVIII, Row D, Grave 26.

As visitors enter and leave the Visitors Centre they will hear a name spoken aloud by a female voice on a continuous speaker system every few seconds. Each name read out is one of the thousands of soldiers commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing, followed by his age. The majority seemed to be aged between 16 and 21 and this Cemetery and Memorial have much more impact than any other, not only because of its sheer size, but also by hearing the soldiers names spoken.
Many of our passengers had never visited any war graves before. They had all considered themselves well informed of the Great War but they all commented that you just don't comprehend the scale of it all until you visit places like this and see for yourself the lines of thousands of headstones or the lists of tens of thousands of names on a wall. It is, an incredibly moving experience and I don't feel it any less each time I return.
From here we went on to Ypres and tried to lighten the mood a little. We were here for some free time. The majority visited the 'In Flanders Field' museum. It seemed we had wet their appetite for more. We had a pre booked dinner in the Novotel hotel which was excellent, then headed out to the main square where there was the Grenadier Guards Marching Band.
 

They were fabulous. I sat on the cobbles watching them and as far as I know all our passengers came too. They finished in time to march down the road to the Menin Gate where they were also involved in the Last Post. When they left the main square, I tagged along behind, marching with them, almost hanging off their coat tails!


They were just brilliant! We stayed for the ceremony of the Last Post.

 
 
After quite an emotional day we arrived back in Bruges where Lorraine and I had a beer and unwind before bed. It had been a fantastic day.