Journey to Ypres, Belgium

I tagged a visit to Ypres onto a weekend trip to see friends in Belgium. Having never been, I was keen to see the area where my cousin Peter (first, thrice removed) had fought during World War I and find out a bit about life on the Western Front.

After leaving Brussels at midday on Easter Sunday, our first stop was at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917.  It was here I was hoping to learn more about the New Zealand Division’s role in the area, and in that respect I was a little disappointed.  To be fair, our journey through the exhibits was at the speed of a four year old’s attention span, so I couldn’t stop and linger,  but I didn’t see a huge amount about the Kiwi involvement.  I guess, (as my husband pointed out), the New Zealanders were a very small number compared to other nationalities, even though the battles here at Passchendaele included the “blackest day” in NZ history.

Replica of a command post in the tunnels - Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917

Replica of a command post in the tunnels – Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917

On the lower floor of the museum is a replica dugout and tunnel system with (a bit scary for the kids) sound effects – I found this section fascinating (and please excuse the dodgy photography).

Bunks in the tunnels - Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917

Bunks in the tunnels – Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917

The small bookshop was a surprise – a great array of books available on a New Zealand theme and I had to stop myself from grabbing the lot!  I restrained myself to just one:  Massacre at Passchendaele: The New Zealand Story by Glyn Harper.   The other thing I bought was a Zonnebeke trench map (28 N.E. 1, Edition 7. A Scale 1: 10,000), in the hopes that it would be useful as a guide while reading historical accounts of the battles in the area. Plus, I love maps.

Outside the museum it looks like some construction work is underway, and I wonder if it is part of the outside trench replica that I’d read about, which will be completed for the 2014 commemorations.  If you’re bringing kids, it might be an idea to pick up food/snacks on your way, as the onsite eating options are limited and a bit pricey. Our kids, fueled by a breakfast of chocolate Easter eggs, turned up their noses at the gloriously green gloop offered at the bar (a very tasty chervil soup, though it sounded like the waitress called it “gerbil soup” which worried me initially – I had to check that it was  “vegetarian”) and consoled themselves with freshly baked bread.

Before we headed to Ypres, we managed to find the New Zealand memorial at ‘s Gravenstafel, just outside Zonnebeke, which commemorated the Kiwi involvement in the Battle of Broodseinde on October 4th, 1917.

New Zealand Memorial, 's Gravenstafel, Zonnebeke

New Zealand Memorial, ‘s Gravenstafel, Zonnebeke

This Monument marks the site of
Gravenstafel which on October the 4th
1917 was captured by the New Zealand
Division as part of a General Advance
towards Passchendaele

“From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth”

My daughter placed a small remembrance cross at the foot of the memorial.

There were many other places I wanted to stop at, including Tyne Cot cemetery, but unfortunately rumbling young tummies forced us on to Ypres.

Our hotel for the night was located on Grote Markt in the centre of town,  and after filling up on dinner and waffles (not necessarily in that order), we walked to the Menin Gate for 8pm to hear the Last Post.  Completed in 1927, the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient of World War I and who have no known graves.  Nearly 55,000 names are inscribed on the memorial, and if a soldier’s remains are found and identifed, his name is removed.  Except during the German occupation of the town in World War II, the Last Post has been played every night at the Menin Gate since 1928, as an expression of gratitude by the people of Ypres to all those who gave their lives for Belgium’s freedom.

It was a cold but beautiful clear night, and the trumpet sound filled the air and lingered over us.  Gets me every time I hear it.  (I had to turn around and ‘shhh’ at a man talking through it  – even my kids were quiet, so not sure why he needed to be yapping on!)   A special wreath-laying took place afterwards, accompanied by bagpipes.  I didn’t recognise the first piece that was played, but the second was ‘Amazing Grace’. Again, very moving.

Last Post at Menin Gate, Ypres - March 2013

Last Post at Menin Gate, Ypres – March 2013

The next morning my 8 year old son and I took off to see In Flanders Fields museum, a few minutes walk from the hotel.  It’s an amazing place, telling many personal stories in an audiovisual way that both of us enjoyed. (I don’t think my 6 and 4 year olds would have liked it as much, however.) We climbed the bell tower  and braved the freezing wind to take in the views over Ypres and beyond.  There are further developments at the museum planned in time for next year’s commemorations.

View over Grote Markt towards Menin Gate, from bell tower, Ypres

View over Grote Markt towards Menin Gate, from bell tower, Ypres

Before we left Ypres, I visited Menin Gate again to view some of the names there of the missing, but didn’t find any New Zealanders.  Later, I found out that the names of the NZ missing are listed elsewhere. Doh!  (The New Zealand Remembrance & Battlefield Tours website has a great list of Kiwi-related memorials and cemeteries.)

There are so many sites to visit and we had so little time, but our quick look has made me excited to read up more and then visit again. Soon!

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7 Responses to Journey to Ypres, Belgium

  1. Gaylene Harrison

    Hi there,
    Really enjoyed reading your blog post as my husband and I are visiting at Easter this year. It has made me even more excited about our trip. We are also hoping to visit Bastongne on the way to Luxenbourg.
    We will be staying in Brussels and are trying to work out the best way to travel to the places you mention. Obviously we will need to catch a train to Ypres but wonder how easy it is to get from the centre to places like Paschendale, NZ memorial (Grafenstafel) etc. We too are Kiwis interested in our history and what happened over this side of the globe during the war.
    Kind Regards
    Gaylene

    • Hi Gaylene, thanks for your comment. I’m not sure about public transport to Passchendale, etc, though there are battlefield tour companies around – perhaps there may be short tours/transport from Ypres? If/when I have time, I’d love to do one of the Australasian-focussed 4-5 day tours, follow in our troops’ footsteps. There are a few tour guides/companies on Twitter, maybe ask them for suggestions? Andrew Macdonald is a London-based Kiwi military historian: @AnzacMe. Have a fantastic time on your trip!

      Maggie

  2. Tom Rochester

    Hi thought I would just put a note on here for the person on the thread going in Easter 2014.
    I am not a kiwi but have visited the area around ypres a few times last time we went we used Chris at this web address http://lestweforget.vpweb.be/?prefix=www being a small independent he has a massive enthusiasm and will research and tailor your indervidual trip, if you are on face book he also runs a page on there to. I particular enjoyed looking at a local farmers harvest of steel in a barn
    If you have no car you will struggle to get around the battle field as they are 3-7 miles outside of ypres and on a 14 mile front so a guide will be best.
    Enjoy your trip
    Regards
    Tom

    • Thanks for your comment and suggestion, Tom!

    • gaylene Harrison

      Hi Tom, Thanks for the information and recommendations you have provided for our trip at Easter they have been very helpful. As we have not visited the area before it is quite hard planning the smaller details but your suggestions about transport should enable us to make the most of our time.
      Kind Regards
      Gaylene

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