I like history. The places I have enjoyed traveling to the most have always been places with lots of interesting history. Earlier this year, I visited Bruges for a few days, and took a day tour around the battlefields of WW1. I’m not much of a tour person – I generally prefer exploring on my own. However, I don’t know a lot about the history of WW1, and on the day I arrived in Bruges, I had a cold and I felt terrible. My intention to cycle the battlefields flew straight out the window.
I travelled from London on the Eurostar with my friend Anita. Most people seem to known about Bruges from the movie of the same name, and my knowledge of the area was similar. All I really knew was that it was near the battlefields of WW1. After visiting, I can confirm it isn’t in fact the most boring place in the world. We got to Bruges in the afternoon after nearly missing our train. The immigration at the Eurostar terminal at St Pancreas was painfully slow. I had a friend use it again a few weeks ago, and the situation doesn’t seem to have changed. I’d highly recommend getting there early to make sure you get through. After an energetic sprint to the train, we were on our way to Europe.
I made the amateur mistake of taking a small suitcase, which rattled away along the cobblestones as we walked to our accommodation. On the way, we found the famous windmills which sit along the river, and what we believed were some strange-sounding day owls (?). We also did some ferocious googling of ‘where to get the best pommes frites’ in Bruges. As it turned out, the best place was one of the little food wagons parked up outside the Belfort, so we bought some of those and munched away.
We had rented the top floor of a family house very close to the main square – Apartment Bruno. The view from the top floor was gorgeous. By this stage, I’d realised my intention to go biking the next day was not going to happen. Anita went for a walk while I, luckily, booked my tour with Quasimodo, who would pick me up from the apartment in the morning. After watching the sun go down from the apartment, we enjoyed a dinner at a local restaurant recommended by our host – Restaurant Cezar. The food was fantastic, and we both enjoyed local Flemish specialities – I sampled the meatballs, which were tasty and not overly rich.
The next day, I was up bright and early for my tour. A taxi arrived at 9am to pick me up, and then we were off to the battlefields of Flanders. Once the day started, I was so glad I had booked a tour… though the sun was shining, it was freezing. There was a cool wind whipping through the countryside, and my cold took full force. I know a bit about WW1 and the western front, but I suspect that – like a lot of New Zealanders – I know more about Gallipolli and that aspect of the war. I’ve always wanted to visit Ypres and the area surrounding it. Given I was feeling too sick to cycle around, was glad to be able to find a tour to take me.
As I found the tour very interesting, I’ve written up a bit about each site we visited, and provided links to information about their historical importance. Quasimodo is run by a Belgium man and his Australian wife. While their tours discuss events impacting all the different nationalities that fought in the area, they focus especially on the Australian and New Zealand history of the Ypres Salient.
LANGEMARK GERMANY CEMETARY
The largest of the four Germany military cemeteries in Belgium, with over 44,000 soldiers interred. It was different from the Allied cemeteries we visited… much more somber. There is a mass grave in the middle with something like 25,000 soldiers in it, with panels surrounding inscribed with the names of thousands of known dead German soldiers. Like the Allies, the German cemeteries were ‘consolidated’ after the war, meaning soldiers were combined into larger cemeteries at fewer locations. Whether true or not, the tale of the Kindermord bei Ypern (the Massacre of the Innocents – the death of thousands of German student reserve soldiers) originated at Langemark, at the first battle of Ypres.
THE BROODING SOLDIER
Formally known as the St Julian Memorial, it is located at Vancouver Corner and dedicated to the Canadian soldiers who held their line during the second battle of Ypres, despite being subjected to one of the first German gas attacks of WW1 on 22 April 2015. The Germans waited until wind conditions were favourable, and opened poison gas canisters that quickly overcame the French and Algerian forces on the salient, causing many of them to flee in terror. The Canadians hastily stepped in to defend their line, and 6000 of them (one in every three Canadians taking part) suffered the effects of poison gas, and 2000 died.
One thing Philippe (our guide) noted was this was not a one-sided war. France was actually the first country to use poison gas (tear gas) to attack the enemy, and the British also retaliated using gas at the Battle of Loos. Regardless of who was gassing who, it was (and still is…) a terrible weapon with effects that last for several generations.
After this memorial, we drove to the farm of one of Philippe’s friends. He explained that it is very difficult to get insurance for your farm vehicles in Belgium, as there is a great deal of unexploded material under the ground, and there is always a risk you might hit it. His friend had left out some unexploded shells and grenades for us to see, which the army would soon collect and blow up, which they do twice daily. They have to be particularly careful when retrieving and disposing of these shells, given that some contain mustard gas. He said it was a relatively common occurance to find shells on the side of the road as you drove around.
I found it very strange that you could look and see a beautiful, peaceful countryside, but you couldn’t wander in it, lest you come across some unexploded munitions. Something like 350 people have died as a result of injuries after WW1 ended, due to explosives detonating.
NEW ZEALAND MEMORIAL AT S’GRAVENSTAFEL
The first (of three) New Zealand memorials we visited was at S’Gravenstafel. It commemorates the relative success of New Zealand during the earlier stages of the First Battle of Passchendaele. This memorial has the following statement etched into it:
This monument marks the site of Gravenstafel which on October the 4th 1917 was captured by the New Zealand Division as part of the general advance towards Passchendaele.
The bottom of the memorial reads ‘From the uttermost ends of the earth’, which I thought was an interesting way to put it. Apparently, 17 000 New Zealanders were killed and 41 000 were wounded during the war – a 58% casualty rate. The First Battle of Passchensdaele was followed on the 9th of October by the disastrous Battle for Bellevue Spur, which saw New Zealand forces stuck in barbed wire and bogged down in mud, with over 1000 dead and 3000 casualties. A number of these men were interred at the next spot we visited, Tyne Cot.
TYNE COT CEMETERY
Tyne Cot was a very sad place. The sheer scale of it is overwhelming – it is the largest Commonwealth force cemetery in the world with nearly 12,000 graves, and among these are 520 New Zealand soldiers, 322 unnamed. The names of another 1,179 missing New Zealander soldiers are recorded on the panels flanking the back of the cemetery, alongside the names of around 33,000 other Commonwealth soldiers.
Some identified soldiers had personal messages on their grave stones, but Philippe told us that New Zealand decided it would not allow personal messages on grave markers, as no words could help ease the pain of losing a generation of men. There are also no New Zealanders named as missing on the Menin Gate memorial – which we visited later – and all New Zealander soldiers are buried or marked on memorials on or near the battlefields, as close as possible to where they fell. Tyne Cot was basically built as an overflow for the Menin Gate – which simply couldn’t hold the names of all the missing Commonwealth soldiers after WW1.
Similar to the earlier German cemetery, Tyne Cot was a consolidation of nearby cemeteries. An advanced dressing station was established in an old German pillbox bunker where the central cross now stands, and as over 300 men died there as a result of war wounds, the decision was made to make it a central cemetery.
There was a small visitors centre playing a loop of soldiers photos who perished in WW1 – I stopped watching it after seeing about nine New Zealanders pop up in a row.
NEW ZEALAND MEMORIAL AT POLYGON WOOD AND BUTTES NEW BRITISH CEMETERY
Polygon Wood was devastated in WW1, and there are memorials to both New Zealanders and Australians here in the Buttes New British Cemetery. The area was cleared by Commonwealth troops early in the war, and lost and regained several times over the years. I didn’t manage to get a photo of the Australian monument because it was overrun by a group of middle-aged chaps on some sort of long-winded war sightseeing tour, but you can see a photo of it here (along with some more information on the Battle of Polygon Wood).
The New Zealand memorial commemorates 383 officers and men of the New Zealand Division who died in Polygon Wood between 1917 and 1918. Most died in the trenches, and in the rough conditions in the Salient during the winter of 1917-18. Charles Holden, who designed the memorial (along with the New Zealand memorial at Messines Ridge, which we didn’t visit), is also well-known for designing many London Underground stations in the 20th century.
HOOGES MUSEUM AND CRATER
We then drove to Hooges Crater on the infamous Menin Road (now the N8) and passing Hellfire Corner on the way. Hooges Crater was formed on 19 July 1915 when the British detonated a charge of 1,700 kilograms of explosives, in a tunnel that had been driven by the special Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Engineers.
We visited a trench that had been reconstructed recently – with one end showing what a British trench looked like, and one end a German trench. Philippe went to great lengths to explain to us that no one in their right mind would want actually want to go into a real trench, so to use the display to imagine the size of the structure. He didn’t think we would really want to experience the danger, smell, trench foot and rats-as-big-as-cats inside the real deal, which was probably a fairly correct assessment.
After this, we had lunch at the Hooges Crater museum, which is a small family owned museum with a range of artifacts from the war, including a film shot by Australian soldiers in 1917. Many Australian soldiers are buried at the Hooges Crater Cemetery over the road from the museum.
Hill 60 was basically a rubbish dump made from the spoils of building the Ypres-Comimes railway line, along with the ‘Caterpillar’ hill opposite it. At 18M high, it was an elevated site on a relatively flat landscape, and so was a hotly sought after spot during WW1. It’s only about 4M above sea level now, having been blown up so many times.
The hill was most famously fought over during the Battle of Hill 60 and the Battle of Messines. The Battle of Messines is the more famous of the two, and was when the Allies detonated explosives underneath Hill 60 and the Caterpillar, resulting in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded (with the explosion being heard in London). Tunnellers and sappers, including many Australians, had been driving under the German line for months in preparation, burying mines for later use. One of the mines was 41 tonnes in size. When the explosives were detonated, the largest crater made was 80m wide by 15m deep. Around 10,000 German soldiers died that day, or later from their wounds, along with Allied soldiers who got too close or were killed in the battle that followed. Because there were so many tunnels under the ground where people died or suffocated following collapse, after the war the area was purchased by the British who handed it over to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It is looked after, but basically trees and shrubs grow where they want to – it is kept in a natural state (complete with sheep!).
THE MENIN GATE AND YPRES (IEPER) TOWN
The Menin Gate is so large that it is hard to get a good photo of it. It reminded me of a smaller Arc De Triomphe or Wellington Arch, which is probably because it was built in the style of a triumphal arch. I’m not sure the families of the people named on it would agree that WW1 was much of a ‘triumph’.
I didn’t spend too much time at the Menin Gate, as I wanted to have a quick look around the town of Ypres (or ‘Wipers’ to the Englishman that couldn’t pronounce its name in the early 20th century). It was larger than I expected, with a beautiful town centre that has been historically recreated, given everything was destroyed during WW1 (from Germany reparations money, no less – the German animosity over which helped lead to WW2). Weirdly enough, I read somewhere in the town that there was an annual parade celebrating cats, which was right up my alley… until I realised that it was commemorating a medieval tradition of throwing cats of the belfry of the Cloth Hall to ward off evil spirits. Hmmmm.
Ypres was so important during WW1 because it stood in the way of Germany’s planned advance across Belgium and France under the Schlieffan Plan. When Belgium, who was a neutral country (and allied to Britain), refused to let Germany advance to France through its land, it brought Britain into WW1. The Allies took Ypres back from the Germans early in WW1, and it remained the centre of operations for the allied forces in the Salient. Ypres now calls itself a city of peace – alongside Hiroshima – and is strongly anti-war.
ESSEX FARM CEMETERY
Our last stop for the day was Essex Farm Cemetery. This is a popular spot for visiting school children. The first reason is that it has the grave of the youngest known soldier killed on the Salient – Valentine Strudwick, aged 15. The second is that it is also the location of Advanced Dressing Station Ypres-Yser, where John McCrae wrote his famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, after the death of a soldier friend.
While the Advanced Dressing Station today looks nothing like it did during the war – the concrete was added after John McCrae had moved on, and it was basically just a pile of sandbags when he was trying to work there – it was an interesting place to visit. Poppies apparently tend to grow in disturbed ground, hence them growing up on the battlefields of Flanders during and after WW1. They also don’t live very long, which symbolised the short lives of many of the soldiers who fought in the war.
It was about a 45 minute drive back to Ypres through the countryside, and it was a good time to reflect on the places I had seen. A very sad day, but interesting – and I’m glad I had the opportunity to see those sites. Our dinner that night was nothing to write home about – the guy serving us did not seem stoked to have tourist guests. Afterwards, we went for a walk along the canal and admired the swans, before heading back to our apartment.
Anita had found out about a cool looking bagel restaurant, Sanseveria Bagelsalon, just around the corner from the hotel. We visited for breakfast in the morning. It was very popular, and not very big! It had a bit of a young hipster vibe, but the food was good and we managed to cram into a table. By the time we left, people were waiting an hour to be seated, so we were glad we went early. The rest of our morning was spent trying to find a pair of shoes for Anita and sampling Belgium chocolates, followed by the train trip back to Brussels, more pommes frites, and the Eurostar to London.
I really enjoyed our trip to Bruges, although ironically, I didn’t spend a lot of time there! However, being able to use Bruges as a starting point to visit the battlefields was great. While it is a bit of a pain to get there via public transport, I’d well recommend booking with Quasimodo for a tour – the day moved quickly, the history was interesting and the guides informative. You’ll get much more out of your trip by going on a tour.
Hotel: Apartment Bruno, Rodestraat 53, 8000 Brugge. From €105 per night.
Eat: Restaurant Cezar, Jeruzalemstraat 1, 8000 Brugge. Opening hours on website. Sanseveria Bagelsalon, Predikherenstraat 11, 8000 Brugge. Monday – Saturday, 8am – 5pm. Sunday – 10am to 3pm. The two Pommes Frites food trucks by the Belfort. There are also lots of delicious Belgian chocolate shops surrounding the main square.
Visit: Flanders Fields with Quasimodo. €67.50 per person. Note that for €15, you can stay for the Last Post service at the Menin Gate (you will have time to grab dinner in between the tour end, and the Last Post) and they will shuttle you back to Bruges – an excellent price.
Tips: Like much of Europe, shops don’t open until very late on a Sunday – usually not until after 12pm. Get your essentials the night before. If you aren’t interested in the battlefields, Anita rented a bicycle from one of the shops on the square and biked around the windmills to near the Dutch border.