The British And The Battles Of 1917
This is the obvious starting point for your visit to Messines. The information centre is located in the former town hall and explains the role of Messines throughout history, with the main focus on the First World War. The role of the New Zealanders during the mine battle of 1917 and the special symbolic value of the Irish Peace Tower are only a couple of the topics that are covered.
We move on to Messines Ridge British Cemetery where 1,503 soldiers are buried: 958 British, 322 Australian, 115 New Zealand and 56 South African soldiers. Only 549 bodies could be identified. In this cemetery you will also find a Memorial to the Missing, that commemorates over 840 New Zealand Expeditionary Force soldiers who were killed in Messines in 1917-1918 and who have no known grave.
Drive on about 2 miles to the village of Wijtschate, where in June 1917, the British undermined one of the highest German positions with 91,000 lb. of explosives. The explosion created 19 craters, the Pool of Peace being the largest and most impressive one. From the pool take a tour on foot to the nearby Lone Tree Cemetery and Spanbroekmolen Cemetery.
We make a short stop in the Kemmel Tourist Office (Polenlaan 1) to buy our tickets for the Bayernwald site. The Bayernwald site shows how the German army did very much the same as the Allies - dig mines and trenches and build bunkers. The site consists of two mine shafts, a trench system and four bunkers. A series of information panels give details of the events which took place here and explain what life during WWI was really like.
Up next is the hub of the WWI commemoration - the In Flanders Fields Museum. Instead of a ticket, we get a white bracelet with a red poppy. The recently renovated museum - located in the impressive Cloth Hall in Ypres highlights the story of the invasion, the trench war and the remembrance since the armistice, while focusing on personal stories. We take a deep breath and climb the bell-tower (231 steps!) to have a look at what were once the battlefields.
After dinner we attend the Last Post ceremony under the Menin Gate. The Menin Gate is a gigantic construction, but still not big enough to mention all the names of the fallen Commonwealth soldiers, who didn’t have a grave because their bodies were not identified. The Gate ‘only’ mentions 55,000 names on the walls. The other soldiers names are written on two other monuments. Every evening at 8 pm all traffic stops, silence falls and the bugle players of the fire brigade play the traditional final salute to the fallen soldiers.
We now get to the heart of the ‘Third Battle of Ypres’ or ‘Battle of Passchendaele’ as it is more commonly known. The name is a symbol of senseless military violence. The dugout tunnel with communication and dressing post, headquarters, workplaces and dormitories, gives us an idea of how the soldiers had to live underground, like moles, because there was nothing left above ground. It’s impressive, as is the Museum with its collection of historical artefacts, images, movies and dioramas. We end our visit to the museum outside in the trenches before heading into the park that surrounds the museum.
With its arched wall and colonnades in white stone, the Missing Memorial of Tyne Cot Cemetery instils respect. This is the largest military cemetery of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the world. Almost 12,000 soldiers are buried here. 12,000 white crosses, row after row. We stand in awe. On the Memorial Wall are the names of 34,957 missing soldiers who fell after 15th, August 1917. It’s almost inconceivable.
Deep in the heart of Polygon wood stands Buttes New British Cemetery and the New Zealand memorial to the Missing, containing the graves of more than 2,100 servicemen of which 1677 unidentified. On top of the butte (hill), there is the Memorial to the 5th Australian Division. Polygon Wood still contains the remains of several shelters. Each year on ANZAC day (25 April), the sacrifice of the ANZAC soldiers is commemorated during an impressive dawn service in this very location. Polygon Wood Cemetery lies just across the other side of the road.
We continue towards the village of Langemark. Here is situated one of only four German war cemeteries in Flanders. Behind the monumental entrance lie more than 44,000 soldiers, half of them in a mass grave. Among them over 3000 cadets and student volunteers, which explains why the cemetery is also known as the ‘Studentenfriedhof‘. The bronze statue of four mourning soldiers by Emil Krieger is very impressive. Slightly larger than life they immediately capture the eye, the moment we enter the graveyard.