Last May I made a journey through France and Belgium following the First World War 'Poppy Trail'. Then, with the help of a tour guide, I made an emotional discovery
Last May I decided to visit the Somme and follow the 1914/18 ‘Poppy Trail’ that I had heard so much about, and to find my Grandfather’s name engraved on the Menen Gate; just one of the fifty odd thousand names recorded there of having no known grave. I crossed from Dover to Calais with www.seafrance.com and drove through the beautiful and undulating yellow-rape countryside of the Somme, trying to imagine it ninety odd years ago.
Before I left, I arranged the services of an English speaking guide, Olivier Dirson, who I found on his website, www.cheminsdhistoire.com . He can take a party of up to seven, but that day it was just me and in advance of my visit, he promised to research my grandfather’s Middlesex regiment. He is based at St. Quentin in France, so I decided that that would be my starting point as it enabled me to stay at the lovely Château Domaine de Vadancourt. This is in a small village just outside St. Quentin called Maissemy. The Château has an interesting history associated with the war. The English used it as a hospital and the wounded that died are buried in the nearby War Graves cemetery. With the changing tide of the fighting, the Germans later held English prisoners there. My guide picked me up the next morning with some exciting news that he had managed to find the actual handwritten report by the CO of the 3rd. Battalion Middlesex Reg. covering the time my grandfather died and the actual location.
We started the ‘Poppy Trail’ by visiting the nearby rebuilt town of Péronne, with its first class museum dedicated to the war - ‘L’Historial de la grande guerre’. This is housed behind an imposing castle entrance. It also has a delightful shop and cafe with a stunning and photogenic lake-view. This ‘trail’ passes so many beautifully maintained cemeteries, finishing at the Thiepval Memorial, Picardie, which is the tallest in the Commonwealth. Here are engraved the names of a further 72,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who have no named graves.
One kilometre from Ypres
Because of his prepared research, my guide then took me to a ploughed field just one kilometre east of Ypres; an emotional moment as this is the actual place where my grandfather died in 1915. The flat landscape lined with the attractive woods and farm buildings and with a traffic hum from the busy A19 seemed at odds with my picture of what would have been the utter devastation. To help me understand the area I bought an excellent publication in a series called, ‘Major & Mrs. Holt’s War Maps’.
Ypres and the Menen Gate
We then continued into Ypres to visit the Menen Gate. Ypres was flattened by the war and a decision was taken to rebuild exactly as it was before the destruction with the atmospheric cobbled streets and the beautiful 13th-century Cloth Hall painstakingly restored by the sixties. This magnificent building was the largest medieval construction in its time, and contains the ‘IN FLANDERS FIELDS MUSEUM’. This thought-provoking exhibition covers the War and the part Ypres played. I’m glad my guide took me there as I came away with a better understanding of those dreadful years and the museum provided a background of disturbing facts.
We then visited the still-remaining First-Aid bunker at the ‘Essex Farm’ cemetery where John McCrae wrote the poem, ‘In Flanders Field’, inspiring the ‘poppies’ now symbolic of our Remembrance Day. It is also here I saw the grave of Rifleman Valentine Joe Strudwick who enlisted and died at the age of 15.
That evening I returned to St. Quentin and ate in a huge marquee where they were holding the annual food festival in the large town square. For a future visit to this rebuilt historical town I took note that there are seemingly dozens of cafes including my hotel’s recommended restaurant, ‘Le Troubadour’ in the Place de Palais de Justice.
The next morning I decided to spend my final day and night at Ypres, staying at the agreeable Best Western Hotel Flanders Lodge just outside Ypres. There are also two hotels I passed just off the centre that looked inviting - The Albion Hotel on St. Jacobsstaat and the Hotel Regina, Grote Mart 45, conveniently near the museum and the Menen Gate. That evening I ate at the restaurant Ter Posterie, Rijselsestaat 57, finding the prices very reasonable and the choice excellent. My final wish was to attend the Last Post held under the huge domed Menen Gate.
This ceremony has been held every evening at 8pm since 1928, apart from being banned by the Germans in the Second World War; but the very same evening that Ypres was liberated by the Polish forces, the ceremony took place despite heavy fighting in parts of the town. My evening visit was accompanied by about 700 people, including two coach loads of teenagers and lasted for some 30 minutes; the laying of wreaths was moving.
The next morning I returned home via Dunkirk with www.norfolkline.com and took time on that beach thinking of the events that happened there 70 years earlier; I also thought back 95 years to that ploughed field some sixty kilometres away, just outside Ypres, where I was able at last to pay my respects to my grandfather.