Battlefields on a Bike – Belgium’s Top Ten Visited Great War Locations on a Motorcycle

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My trusty Honda Blackbird

In the next article in the Battlefields on a Bike series, Chris Cherry takes a look at Belgium’s Top Ten visited Great War sites and explores why every visitor to the battlefields should pay a visit as part of their own tour of Flanders. Each location is accessible on a motorcycle and a tour of all ten can be done with about six hours of riding and about three hours of visiting. What better way to spend a weekend in Spring?

The Last Post at the Menin Gate

The Menin Gate

The Menin Gate (Ypres Aspect)

The ceremony is conducted by The Last Post Association, which is a voluntary organisation. The Association founded the Last Post Ceremony back in 1928, and is still responsible for the organisation of this unique daily act of remembrance. It also administers the Last Post Fund, which provides the financial resources necessary to support the ceremony. It is a tradition that the Buglers of the Association should wear the uniform of the local volunteer Fire Brigade, of which they are all required to become members. The Last Post traditionally marks the end of the day’s labours (Reveille being the opening). It has also now come to represent the final farewell to the fallen. The town of Ypres has committed to sound The Last Post at 20:00 daily in perpetuity. Recently, the ceremony includes a daily invited group from around the world to lay poppies and wreaths as part of the ceremony, which lasts around twenty minutes. The ceremony now also includes a request not to applaud the bugling. Access on a motorbike is straightforward. You can park next to the gate, in the town square after 18:00 or in a marked car park space. Arrive by 19:15 for the best view, but the bugles can be heard all around. Stay afterwards to meet the buglers, or to read some of the names (even better if you do it out loud).

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The Author riding through the gate

In Flanders Fields Museum

In Flanders Fields Museum is located in the famous Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle) in the centre of Ypres (Ieper). In 1998 the original Ypres Salient Memorial Museum was refurbished and renamed In Flanders Fields Museum. It now contains an upgraded range of interactive displays and activities to educate the younger as well as the older visitor. Parking is the same as the Menin Gate. It opens at 10am and often closes quite early (as is typical in Belgium in general).

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In Flanders Fields Museum in The Cloth Hall

Tyne Cot Cemetery

Located in the north east area of the salient, on the Passchendaele battlefield is the biggest military cemetery in Belgium and is, in fact, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world..

‘Tyne Cot’ or ‘Tyne Cottage’ was the name given by the Northumberland Fusiliers to a barn which stood near the level crossing on the Passchendaele-Broodseinde road. The barn, which had become the centre of five or six German blockhouses, or pill-boxes, was captured by the 3rd Australian Division on 4 October 1917, in the advance on Passchendaele.

One of these pill-boxes was unusually large and was used as an advanced dressing station after its capture. From 6 October to the end of March 1918, 343 graves were made, on two sides of it, by the 50th (Northumbrian) and 33rd Divisions, and by two Canadian units. The cemetery was in German hands again from 13 April to 28 September, when it was finally recaptured, with Passchendaele, by the Belgian Army.

The cemetery was greatly enlarged after the Armistice when remains were brought in from the battlefields of Passchendaele and Langemarck, and from a few small burial grounds.

At the suggestion of King George V, who visited the cemetery in 1922, the Cross of Sacrifice was placed on the original large pill-box. There are three other pill-boxes in the cemetery.

There are now 11,956 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War buried or commemorated in Tyne Cot Cemetery. 8,369 of the burials are unidentified but there are special memorials to more than 80 casualties known or believed to be buried among them. Other special memorials commemorate 20 casualties whose graves were destroyed by shell fire. There are 4 German burials, 3 being unidentified.

The memorial wall forms the north-eastern boundary of Tyne Cot Cemetery and commemorates nearly 35,000 servicemen from the United Kingdom and New Zealand who died in the Ypres Salient after 16 August 1917 and whose graves are not known. The memorial stands close to the farthest point in Belgium reached by Commonwealth forces in the First World War until the final advance to victory.

The car park has a pea-gravel surface, so take a puck for the sidestand.The visitor centre is worth a visit, but the scale of the burials will leave an everlasting impression.

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The Tyne Cot Memorial Wall contains approximately 35,000 names of soldiers whose graves are unknown, or who were denied a burial by the war.

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Over 11,000 burial plots. Here being tended by the CWGC

Hooge Crater (Krate) and the Museum

Hooge crater is located just outside of Ypres. You will cross Hell-Fire Corner (now a roundabout) on your way to the site. Also hereabouts is Hill 62, the Canadian memorial and the private museum. The trenches are original, but are very weather worn and don’t truly reflect the layout and construction of trenches anymore. The site of a massive crater, the cemetery sits in the small valley formed from Hill 62. The crater itself is located nearer to the road, but has long since been filled in. Easy parking and the museum has a cafeteria for a pit-stop.

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Hooge (Hooghe) Crater Cemetery

Hill 62 Museum

Hill 62 Museum – original trench positions, if not necessarily constructed originally as part of their preservation

German Cemetery at Langemark (Langemarck)

Located in the Passchendaele battlefield of Langemark-Poelcapelle, the German Cemetery is geographically smaller than Tyne Cot, but the number of burials is greater (some 44,000 buried here). The Belgians favoured (at the time) a minimal allowance for land for burial and so the Germans constructed mass burial plots and crosses used on both sides. There is also a mass burial “pit” at the entrance. Visited by Adolf Hitler in 1940, the site is a focal point for German commemoration and remembrance, perhaps in the same way that Tyne Cot or The Menin Gate are for the Commonwealth. Hitler had served in Langemark as well as on the Messines Ridge (Mesen). The site had been neglected, but when I visited, the German Army were working hard on clearing and tidying the site. Incredibly moving, a legacy of the victims of war, irrespective of nationality.

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Fortified Bunker/Pillboxes retained as part of the memorial

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The entrance and mass grave site

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Original emplacements guard the approached to Langemark

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Most graves are in fact multiple burials due to the Belgian authorities being unwilling to grant land for burial. The number of graves exceeds those in Tyne Cot, including the Memorial Wall

Essex Farm (Major John McRae)

Boezinge is a village in the province of West Flanders, north of Ieper on the Diksmuidseweg road.  The land south of Essex Farm was used as a dressing station cemetery from April 1915 to August 1917. There are 1,200 servicemen of the First World War buried or commemorated in this cemetery. 103 of the burials are unidentified but special memorials commemorate 19 casualties known or believed to be buried among them.

It was in Essex Farm Cemetery that Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Army Medical Corps wrote the poem ‘ In Flanders Fields’ in May 1915.

The 49th Division Memorial is immediately behind the cemetery, on the canal bank.

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Essex Farm Cemetery

Hill 60

Hill 60 was the most disputed piece of territory, possibly on the entire Western Front. An artificial hill made of railway spoil, it commanded a modest view over the surrounding countryside. Famed for the mining operations, the massive explosions along the ridge to Messines and the capture-recapture attrition, resulting in unimaginable casualty numbers. Today, a quiet, location, in a housing estate. It provides a moving, almost surreal location to visit. Tarmac car park and memorials across the site.

Hill 60 Inscription

Hill 60 Inscription – read before you enter the site

Lijssenthoek Cemetery

The second largest cemetery in Belgium, sited between Poperinghe and Ypres, along the British “Sacred Way”. Formed from a variety of casualty clearing stations, dressing stations and field hospital locations throughout the war. A new visitor centre provides detailed information and parking for bikes is provided.

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Lijssenthoek Cemetery

Talbot House Poperinghe (Toc H)

Originally a site provided by Tubby Clayton as “E’very Man’s Club” to counter the perceived debauchery of an army at rest behind the lines, in times of peril. This club was open to men of all ranks as a meeting house to enjoy some polite comforts of home and hearth. It is open today where visitors can tour the building and occasionally watch performances of plays and shows, made locally. Parking in the main square, there are many famous photos of the Pop square and the “Poperinghe Fancies”.

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Talbot House “Toc H”

Messines Ridge

The ridge at Messines (Mesen) was the site of prolonged and brutal, bitter attrition to capture and hold the high ground that stretches for three to five miles from Hill 60 to the village of Mesen. The Germans were literally blown from the ridge by a series of nineteen mines (although twenty-one were laid). The shock passed and the Germans resistance was incredible. Although the cemetery is small in comparison to the scale of the battle, this is more to do with the conditions and the fact that so few bodies were recovered. Near the Messines Ridge Cemetery is the new Peace Centre, and peace park in commemoration of the Irish soldiers who fought on he ridge. New trench excavations show how close to the ridge the British trenches were and how desperately overlooked they were (the Germans could see right into the trenches. To the right of this photo is the location of the new excavations.

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Messines Ridge British Cemetery (although many New Zealanders are buried here)

There are other sites to see, of course. Polygon Wood, Railway Wood, Sanctuary Wood, The French Cemetery, the Liege Forts, Nieuport and the trenches on the beach, the Memorial Museum in Passendale, Harry Patch’s memorial, the Canadian Memorial at St Julian, Ploegsteert Wood and others. These are just the top ten by visitor numbers, but it could be due to accessiblity, reputation, the events, or even the locations near to roads. Why not just go an explore for yourself and make up your own top ten?

Coming soon…France Top Ten on a Motorcycle

One for 2014 in Britain especially – St Symphorien Military Cemeteries

Why not leave me a comment, or suggest your own addition. What have I missed out that you would want everyone else to see?

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