Last weekend, I took a trip to one of my favourite places in the world and remembered those brave men and women of the Great War.
Anyone who visits Ypres, never really leaves. Yeah, so you get on board your ferry or your shuttle and you physically go, but you never really leave. I am aware that I am starting to sound like a verse of the Eagles song 'Hotel California' but genuinely, its a true statement.
I remember visiting Ypres for the first time when I was at university. My family and I used to go to France on regular trips and I was just starting a new module on the First World War as we were about to travel once again across the English Channel. My lecturer Francis, a lovely man who encouraged all his students like no one I have ever met before gave me a list of places to visit. Mum and Dad have always been brilliant with exploring different places! My dad always says the same thing to me, "I don't care where I go, as long as I have clear directions!". Francis had written down the Flanders Field Museum, The Menin Gate, Hill 62 and Hooge Crater. We set off to Ypres from Calais where we were staying at 8am and got to the town square by 9am! The minute we parked I saw this stunning and breathtakingly sombre stone arch and as I approached I was gobsmacked. From a distance you think the walls all have a patten on them as part of the intricate design. It is not until you get up close you realise that those patterns are thousands upon thousands of names of men who fought in the Salient that have no known grave.
The memorial, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield with sculpture by Sir William Reid-Dick, was unveiled by Lord Plumer on 24 July 1927. In total there are 54587 names engraved upon all the walls which come from every regiment who fought under the British Empire and Commonwealth in the Great War. The Menin Gate will be closed from April 17th for two years, information on the renovation can be found here.
Further information about the Menin Gate can we found on the CWGC's website here, too!
Back to my walk down memory lane! Anyway, I walked around Ypres and I genuinely felt like the ground grabbed me by my ankles and I never left. From that point on I wanted to learn and know everything I could about the Great War. I visited as many times as I could! Any opportunity to come back was an opportunity to submerge myself in such a cataphoric but significant moment in world history. I had travelled to various different sites to do with the Great War, however nowhere grabbed me the same way that Ypres had. I never felt that connection any other place. This was strange to me because I had, to my knowledge, never lost anyone in the conflict. I knew that my Turkish grandfather had fought in the Egyptian Army and that my English grandfather was too young to fight in the Great War but too old for World War Two, but that was it. It was not until Covid that a connection would be realise!
My mother called me one day and said 'I have been on Ancestry and I keep finding this man, William Thomas Boakes and it says he has a son, William Henry Boakes with the same birthday and date of death as my dad' I answered 'Ok? You said you don't really know much about Granddad's (her fathers) family. Could it be your grandad?'. She went silent! It felt like ages till she replied. 'The thing is, it says he died in Flanders'. Now it was my turn to go silent. 'You want me to have a look?' was all I could think of to reply.
I found that William Thomas Boakes 373858, , Post Office Rifles, Husband to Eliza Boakes and father to William Henry Boakes. Then I carried on scrolling! William Henry Boakes, father to Marion Margaret Boakesm my mum! Then I noticed something else that I found was odd, he died on the 1st June 1917, 1st June is and my brother's birthday. Looking up his records on Ancestry, which you can do here I decided to find out more! Where did he fight? Did he have a grave? Or is he listed on a memorial as missing, which you can also do here. We discovered that my great grandfather thankfully did indeed have a grave and he was buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.
As November rolled around Ian and I decided to take a trip to Ypres to track him down. I ordered a wreath from the Royal British Legion, which you can do here and off we went. Lijssenthoek in itself is an interesting site. During the Great War, the village of Lijssenthoek was situated on the main communication line between the Allied military bases and the Ypres battlefields. Due to its close proximity to the Allied lines but far away enough that it was not under direct fire of the enemy, it became a good place to have a casualty clearing station.
During the war the area was also known as Remy Farm and many of the structures were used for medical facilities such as wards, operating theatres and stores. Lijssenthoek became so intricate and an integral part of the medical chain of evacuation that the neighbouring railway was extended into the grounds to allow for the wounded to be transported there. They would also be used to take the wounded back to the French coast and off home to Blighty. The site was so important that King George V visited Lijssenthoek to view the facilities on offer to the wounded and recovering troops.
By the time my grandfather died in the hospital there, it had four established casualty clearing stations with 4,000 beds. I know virtually nothing about his time there. I do not know if he arrived there and had already passed, if he, like so many were in so much pain that he was pumped full of morphine and a kind nurse held his hand and told him he would be alright. Was my grandfather in his thoughts in those last moments? I know it says on his card that he 'died of wounds', the only solace I can take from all of the information I am gathering is that he has a known grave and I hope was not in any pain when he passed. So many unanswered questions I will probably never know, but I want to try and piece together those moments of his life. For many years before I knew about Great Grandfather William, it was the medical side of the war that fascinated me. In fact, for many years I was a re-enactor with The Great War Society and our unit were a CCS. To have this little connection to a man I never knew was another reason I wanted to carry on the journey I felt so passionate about.
Standing in front of his grave for the first time was moving beyond words. What struck me the most about the location of his grave was how peaceful the view was. I know it probably sounds a little silly but the fact that he is facing a big open tranquil field gave me so much peace. Then another feeling came over me, sadness and to an extent, guilt. I had been to this cemetery before. It is the second largest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and I was almost certain that no one in my family had ever visited, because no one knew he was there. He had been there for over one hundred years, alone, without his family and I just hated that. As I placed my wreath on his grave I sat down in front of his grave and in my head I spoke to him. I told him who I was and how I would sorry I had not found him before, but I promised that from now on, every Remembrance I would be here, with him.
As well as this I made the conscious decision that I wanted to 'do my bit' for the CWGC to say thank you for looking after him for all this time. His grave was so tidy, it was weeded and it had a lovely plant at the base. So the minute I got home I signed up to be a volunteer with them. I am now a guest speaker and I love what I do. It really does feel it is my way of saying thank you to them. I cannot stress the hard work that they do in maintaining the various different cemetery sites around the world. People always assume that France and Flanders has the most CWGC graves around the world. In truth, the country with the most graves is here in the UK. They are a charity and rely on donations, some government and private funding and it is that money and dedication that goes towards keeping the memories of those just like my grandfather alive. As well as this, Lijssenthoek opened a unmanned visitor centre in 2012 and it is a great resource for anyone interested in tracing their family, medical advancements in the world or just the part that the area played in the Great War.
So......This bring me back to the start of the post, how I found myself travelling back to this special place. Sorry for the waffle, and I do not mean the yummy Belgium type. On Friday I ventured across the English Channel once more, with my husband Ian, my mum and my mother in law. You see, this story has taken another turn. Ian has since discovered he has a great uncle who died in July 1918 and he was part of the Cyclist Corps. He is buried in Houchin and wanted to find out as much as he. Ian's grandfather had always told everyone he was an orphan, so why did he keep his three brothers, all of which seemed to have signed up and fought, a secret from everyone else? Was it that the pain of losing his brother was all too much? Probably! Mum thinks that her father never spoke about his dad because it was just too painful and I cannot even begin to imagine how that must feel.
So, as always, I was left to book the travel and accommodation. Originally we were booked in a hotel, but then this stunning accommodation became available called The Menin Gate House. I loved the idea of being so close in the centre and also going self catering for a change. The family seemed to think it was a good idea, so off we went. As we got off the Eurotunnel we nipped into Carrefour and purchased our food shopping for the weekend. Then it was an hour to Ypres! As we approached the accommodation, the Menin Gate was right there, beautifully lit! All of a sudden the sat nav told us we had arrived. I could not believe what I was seeing. The Menin Gate was literally on our doorstep. There was parking right outside the front and a code to get into the building. I was so excited I could not contain it. The owner Benoit is incredible! He called to make sure we had arrived and and said he would pop by the next day to say hello and see if we needed anything. When I walked in and looked around the apartment my jaw quite literally dropped! It had everything a Great War historian would love.
As a proud member of The Great War Group (you can check them out here) I was sending excitable messages in our WhatsApp chat and to my joy, others had stayed there too and said how amazing it was. We quickly packed the shopping away and sat and had a well-deserved cup of tea. My mother in law is 80 and we were aware she had done a lot of travelling. However, she was so enthralled by all the cool things on show that she was not ready for bed before she had had a good look round. Benoit has two incredible properties you can rent out. I thoroughly recommend them and you can check them out here.
At breakfast the next morning, I was still exploring the apartment, especially as our room had an original 1927 order of service for the opening of the Menin Gate. As we sat down for our breakfast we decided that it was the perfect time to plan exactly what we were going to do. Mum, knowing Ypres pretty well had made a suggestion that she would get some lovely ham hock and chicken from the market that happens every Saturday in the square and we would have that for dinner. My mum loves to cook that the kitchen and its facilities alone were a holiday feature for her.
Before we left, Benoit popped by to say hello. He is the chairman of the Last Post Association and has some amazing stories to tell about the different people who have attended the services over the years. People such as the Pope, the late HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip the Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Anne and various other heads of state. As we chatted to Benoit he kindly invited us to be his guests at the service that night. I was blown away and couldn't believe we would be there at the front with them. This service as been an integral part of the history of the town for nearly one hundred years. The sound of the Last Post has been a constant under the Menin Gate since 2nd July 1928. The only time in the history of the service that locals would not have been able to attend or hear the Last Post was during the Nazi occupation of Ypres from 20th May 1940 to 6th September 1944. The Last Post Association is a non profit organisation that aims to remember the fallen of the Great War in the Ypres Salient and you can find out more about their cause and mission here.
Due to the rain, we decided to take a trip to the Flanders Field Museum. We were conscious that Ian's mum had not been to Ypres before and we wanted to give her a well rounded view of the war in the area, so we took a short walk to the cloth hall. The museum has changed a lot since I first started coming to Ypres. However, I love the interactive features and I think it really brings the area alive for people who want to know about Ypres during the Great War.
Before the Great War, the Cloth Hall was known as one of the biggest commercial building in Europe for the sale of cloth and the original structure dated back to the Medieval period. During the war it was devastated by artillery fire and became a symbol of the utter devastation the war had brought upon the town. From 1933 to 1967 the Cloth Hall was meticulously reconstructed to match its pre-war state and now is such a beautiful centre point for the town. You really do not know where to look in Ypres, at one end you have the Menin Gate and then at the other you have the Cloth Hall. To think it was literally flattened in the war is truly remarkable.
After this they decided they would return to the house and relax so Ian and I went onto do something we had been wanting to do for such a long time and had never been able to do, the Kazematten Brewery Tour! As we started the tour we were handed a class of their one of their own brews and sat to watch an introduction video about the brewery, its origins and why it is situated where it is. I was really excited about this! The Kazematten Brewery is now situated in the Ypres casemates (the translation of kazematten) where the soldiers newspaper The Wipers Times was written.
The Wipers Times was a soldiers trench newspaper constructed by the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters who were stationed at the front line in Ypres. The story goes that they found an abandoned printing press and so decided to put it to good use for the morale of the men. The called it The Wipers Times because phonetically the word Wipers was how many British soldiers said Ypres and therefore it became 'Tommy slang' for the area. When you arrived you was handed the first of three glasses of the different brews that they offer, each called The Wipers Times and have different strengths. While we sat sipping the first of our beverages, a video introduction told us about the history of the building. I love that 'atmospheric' part of history. Just sitting in the very place where the paper was written, sipping a beer named after it was absolutely fantastic!
When you are taken into the brewing room, you walk past a period printing press that would have been exactly like the one used to produce the newspaper. The Wipers Times is such an interesting paper too. Even though the name is synonymous with the war time newspaper, it was actually only one of six names given to publications made by the Foresters along their travels. Other names included 'The "New Church" Times', 'The Kemmel Times', 'The Somme Times' and then 'The BEF Times'. At the end of the war its title was 'The "Better Times"'. After the tour we were given two more Wiper Times brews, the Blonde and the Trippel. I am not a big drinker but I loved the Trippel. It was a darker with a slightly herbal flavour which was lovely.
As we returned home for dinner, we were all eager to be ready for when Benoit arrived to take us to the Menin Gate for the Last Post. As we stood by at the front of the crowd, Benoit kindly began to tell my family about the history of the Last Post and the Menin Gate. Then he passed a small card to me and asked if I would take part in the service and read the Kohima Epitaph. I just froze! However, I pulled myself together and realised that this was an honour that I really could not turn down.
“When you go home, Tell them of us and say,
“For your tomorrow, We gave our today.”
There is actually a really interesting story attached to the Kohima Epitaph. Kohima is actually a small town in India that saw horrendous fighting during the far East campaign in World War Two. It was such an important battle because the allies were able to block a strong offensive moving into Myanmar. The 2nd Divisions memorial in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery bears the words of the Epitaph. Interestingly it was actually written in 1914 by codebreaker John Maxwell Edmonds to remember those who had died in the early stages of the Great War and was not called the Kohima Epitaph. That name was simply coined because of its later association with the cemetery in the Indian town. While standing there I felt an overwhelming sense of pride, nerves and also sadness. I looked around at the names on the walls, many of them belonging to young men who had family that now may not even know they both existed and that they are remembered on the memorial. I can honestly say, as I stood there that I read that epitaph for my family present, my great grandfather and of course, those who never came home who were remember on the memorial itself.
The next morning was check out day! We were really disappointed to say goodbye to the Menin Gate House. However, while sat at the table on the night we arrived I had booked a return visit for my birthday in November so I knew I would be seeing the house again. Our first stop of the day as St Julien Memorial, also known as 'The Brooding Soldier'. The memorial was constructed to commemorate and remember the Canadian First Divisions participation in the Second Battle of Ypres which took place between 22nd April to 25th May 1915. Their heroics saw the soldiers come face to face with new and often invisible killer on the Western Front, Poison gas! The memorial was designed by Frederick Chapman Clemesha and was selected following a design competition organised by the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission in 1920. I have been wanting to return to this site for a long time and take some pictures of its stunning stonework. It is just so poignant and captivating. It is incredible to think it has stood on this ground for one hundred years this year on the 8th July.
At the end of the war, The Imperial War Graves Commission granted Canada eight sites, five in France and three in Belgium, on which to erect memorials and each site represented a significant Canadian engagement in the war. The Brooding Soldier is also situated on a junction that was used by British and French sectors. You can see, at different points of the memorial that there are arrows on the floor around the base of the soldier that point towards other major strategic points where fighting took place. The soldier's hands resting are on the butt of his down-turned rifle in the 'arms reversed' position, a pose used as gesture of mourning and respect for the fallen performed at funerals and services of remembrance. As I stood in front of the memorial there was a sense of quiet and stillness that came over me. I always feel like this when I come out to Ypres or even to the Somme, this sense of tranquillity and silence in an area that was once full of carnage and terror. It is quite surreal.
As I looked up from my standing point, it dawned on me that we were only a stones throw from another important and yet totally different war memorial, the cemetery at Langemark. Visiting Langemark is such an important next stop for three main reasons. Firstly, it is the site of the first gas attack in 1915 which is so beautifully remembered in the form of the Brooding Soldier. Secondly because, as you can see from the pictures, the German idea of remembrance and memorial is seen as a very different experience and form of expression that that of the allied forces. Then lastly, Langemark cemetery appears smaller than other more well known cemeteries such as Lijssenthoek but in truth it is the final resting place for some 44,000 German soldiers who fell in the area. Just beyond the iron wreath (pictured right) is the mass grave of 24,917 servicemen, the names of those men and other missing German soldiers is on the blocks you can see around the grass.
There is something so haunting about Langemark. It has a totally different feel to the British and Commonwealth cemeteries you see around the world. The black stones, sombre crosses and statues of four mourning soldiers do not convey the same sense of 'glorious dead' as we see in the CWGC sites. However. they do show the incredible sense of loss and mourning that is shared by all of those who experienced the grief brought on by the death and destruction of the Great War. The bronze statue of the four figures in this cemetery was created by the Munich sculptor Professor Emil Krieger and they are meant to represent the loss amongst comrades.
When we left Langemark, I wanted to show my mother in law the contrast between what we had just seen in a German cemetery and how the Commonwealth cemeteries had been constructed. The difference in the architecture of the British and German cemetery has always fascinated me. The concept of how and why the different countries remember their dead, what are the inspirations behind it? What social, political and religious iconography and stimuli led to the imagery that was used. With this in mind, there was only one place I felt conveyed that, and that was Tyne Cot.
To say you will never see anything like Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing is not an emotive and exaggerated statement. The name "Tyne Cot" is said to come from the Northumberland Fusiliers, seeing a resemblance between the many German concrete pill boxes on this site and typical Tyneside workers' cottages, hence 'Tyne Cot'. As well as this, it contains the graves of 11,965 soldiers, 8,373 of those graves are listed as unknown. There is also an incredibly moving and poignant memorial arching across the cemetery which contains the names of almost 35,000 officers and men whose graves are not known. The memorial, designed by Sir Herbert Baker with sculpture by Joseph Armitage and F.V. Blundstone, was unveiled by Sir Gilbert Dyett on 20 June 1927.
Once we had visited Tyne Cot, it was now time to make the drive to Houchin to look for James Fennelly. We of course made a stop off at Lijssenthoek on the way, we always do before we leave. Saying 'bye grandad, see you soon' has become a bit of a family tradition now and I think it is such an important one to keep up. he deserves our total respect, as do they all. Driving to Houchin my mind started to wander and I began to think about Ian's relative James. What was he like? Why was he in Houchin? Where did he fight? What was his role? We still know very little about him and yet, the one thing we need to know, his grave is so very important. As I said before, for us as a family, having a grave is something many people do not have and for that we are grateful and this now extends to Ian's family too.
James was part of the Cyclist Corps and seems to have been in the war from the start. Just like my grandfather, Ian and his family did not know James existed until recently and sadly, travelling to Houchin we realised there was still so much we needed to know about him. In fact, it was not only him but the Cyclist Corp, Houchin and the area that saw his final days play out we still know very little about. It was bitter sweet for Ian to find this out. He lost his dad about ten years ago and James, being a direct relation was even unknow to his father. therefore a piece of the family puzzle he would never be able to pass to him. However, what is nice, just like for my grandfather is that now his grave will never be forgotten and always visited, as it should always have been. As you can see in the photo, Ian and his mum placed a poppy wreath down for James. As they did, I went and sat in the car after I paid my own respects. I wanted them to have a moment to reflect and be together as a family. I always find these moments are so deeply personal.
After our time at Houchin, we made our way to the Eurotunnel to venture home. We were all exhausted both physically and mentally but that was largely down to the emotional journey we had all been on that weekend. I love visiting the Western Front, but it is hard to forgot the unimaginable horrors that were experienced there, and neither should we. We should always remember the sacrifice that was made by men like my great grandfather and Ian's uncle James. Who knows where we would be without them.