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Flanders

On July 10th 2015 five OM’s plus three wives met in Flanders for the weekend. This trip, to look at some of the First World War sites, was organized and led by Peter Mcdonough, retired MHS master, who has led forty or more tours to the battlefields. Whilst there we had very much in mind the 193 Old Millhillians who died in the Great War.

We gathered at a pleasant hotel in Diksmuide, a Flemish town which had been completely rebuilt in the 1920’s after being reduced to rubble in World War 1. The hotel had served as a mess for German Officers in the Second World War and still had a bunker in the garden.

We managed to squeeze into two cars to get to our first visit on Saturday morning which was the Bayernwald Trenches at Kemmel. This is a carefully restored section of an original German trench system dating from 1916.  From here there was a commanding view right across to Ypres.

Thence to the Passchendaele 1917  Memorial Museum at Zonnebeke Chateau which proved to be a remarkable place - probably the biggest public collection of the First World War in West Flanders.

The Museum keeps the memory alive of the Battle of Passchendaele where in 1917 in one hundred days half a million casualties fell for the gain of only 8 km of ground. There were uniforms, battlefield archaeology and artillery. On the first floor one got a comprehensive overview of the First World War in the region by means of  historic objects, lifelike dioramas, and photo and film footage.

Realistically reconstructed dugouts showed how the British in 1917 went to live underground because there was nothing left above. One saw communication and dressing posts, headquarters and sleeping-accommodation.  The dugouts led on to a network of German and British trenches also convincingly recreated.  Also original shelters have been rebuilt here. It was a special experience of how life in the trenches evolved throughout the war years. Finally one was brought to an area of commemoration and reflection including a famous work of art by the New Zealand artist Helen Pollock, ‘Falls the Shadow’. We all felt that this museum was of the highest quality, full of interest and very moving.

A short drive away was the massive  Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial. The cemetery, based around old German pill-boxes, is the biggest of all the Commonwealth cemeteries in the world having 11,956 graves the majority of which are unidentified.    In addition the memorial commemorates nearly 35,000 servicemen from the United Kingdom  and New Zealand who died in the Ypres salient after August 1917 and whose graves are not known.

 Before we went we left a wreath in memory of Captain Charles Town MC, a Leeds Pal who had survived the first day of the Somme and subsequent battle only to die in the equally awful 3rd Battle of Ypres.     As we walked in the sunshine amongst all these graves we felt that this was a splendid and dignified place, beautifully kept – but immensely sad.              

               
In the evening we gathered with hundreds of others at the Menin Gate for the sounding of the Last Post by members of the Ypres Fire Brigade. Only two days previously this ceremony had been performed for the 30,000th time since it began in 1928. The crowds were such that we had to stand at the back unable to see what was going on but we could easily hear the moving strains of the bugles, bagpipes and a violin. It was only afterwards that we were able to lay our wreath in memory of   another OM, 18 year old pilot, Lt Noel Bishop.

On the Sunday morning we visited a German cemetery for a change. Here at Vladslo the remains of 25,644 soldiers are interred, twenty bodies under each flat stone. Rather dark and surrounded by woods it at first presented a sombre appearance but one of the group commented that the trees and the birdsong made it a really beautiful spot.

The cemetery also contains a pair of statues – The Grieving Parents– by Käthe Kollwitz, a noted German sculptress.She made the statues in the 1930s as a tribute to her youngest son, Peter, who was killed in October 1914 and is buried nearby.Quite close to Ypres is the Essex Farm Cemetery. It was here that Lieutenant-Colonel John MaCrae of the Canadian Army Medical Corps wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” in May 1915. We read the poem out loud as we stood by the dressing station where he had worked.  This cemetery is much visited and is close to the main road but an adjacent field full of poppies provided an appropriate and memorable setting.  We found the graves of two Old Millhillians here, Lt Frederick Pusch and 2nd Lt Charles Batty.

Finally we walked along the ramparts close to the Menin Gate where an exhibition called “Making Peace” opened in April. A large number of photographic posters pay tribute to people who – all over the planet – devote their time, energy and resources to the cause of peace. It gave plenty of food for thought. We certainly hoped that the grim history of this place would never be repeated.     Here we said our goodbyes before setting off for home.

The party consisted of Peter Mcdonough, Richard Harris, Edward Colquoun, Stewart and Gina Wernham, Nigel and Lynn Baker, Frederick and Lorraine Higgs.

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