A bike ride around the battlefields and cemeteries of Ypres
During the First World War, some of the most intense fighting took place in the fields around the town of Ypres, Belgium. Over a hundred years later, bomb craters can still be found alongside the many cemeteries of incomprehensible size. To take in all these sites of interest it is possible to follow a signed cycle route called the Ypres Peace Route. For more information and other local rides, find out here: https://www.fietsroute.org/cyclingflanders/route/Vredesroute.html
I was staying at a friendly, family run campsite: https://thofbellewaerde.be/. Which is situated on a quiet lane by the Hooghe Crater Cemetery. After a long drive from England; I was welcomed in and had a good nights sleep. Waking early on a fresh June morning; I treated myself to a ‘pain au chocolat’ with my morning coffee. I then set off through the fields of Flanders.
Personal tragedies in the impersonal numbers of lives lost
My ride began as well as could be. Soon leaving a well maintained bike path alongside main road, I turned onto a quiet lane, then gravel path. For a moment I forgot the brutal acts that occurred all around me. For they had happened over 100 years ago and today was a fresh and sunny morning in early June.
The helpful bike route signs helped me in the right direction at every turn. Quaint little cottages dotted alongside the road as fields of barley and cattle rolled away to the horizon behind them. I was on holiday, far from the daily grind of work and stress. As I cycled over a motorway on a deserted bridge, I literally felt as though I had been allowed to selfishly escape our modern rat race. I felt free but how naïve could I become?
When we think of the First World War now; we think of the lives lost as incomprehensible high numbers on the page of a history book. Or we visit a large cemetery like Tyne Cot which holds 11,965 lost souls or Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme that is the only marker to 73,367 men who now lie in unmarked graves. When the numbers are this high, we might forget every life was a life lived until cut short by this pointless conflict.
A mothers struggle to raise a child, a fathers toil to provide, the growing pains of a young man, friends, young lovers, years of experience and memories, hopes, dreams, everything; wiped out in a second by shell or machine gun fire.
Brothers in Arms
Turning a corner, a well manicured park rolled into view with a large concrete feature. I first thought it was some extravagant artwork for a private house until I saw the first of many information boards. Brothers in Arms Memorial was built to remember Australian brothers John and Jim Hunter and many other families torn apart by war.
John Hunter was mortally wounded in no-mans land but managed to crawl back to safety, to then die in the arms of his brother Jim. The central pedestal is 66 feet long, to signify the years Jim lived until he was reunited with his brother.
There are many other stories of families torn apart and destroyed by war. With some losing five sons, fathers dying of grief and mothers lighting a candle for men who will never be found let alone come home. To find out more, see my source: https://www.brothersinarmsmemorial.info/story
I found a plaque remembering three Australian brothers: George, Theo and William Seabrook. All dead in their first days of combat. With George and Theo being probably killed by a shell; their parents never knew what happened to them without even a body returning home.
Tyne Cot Cemetery
I paused to try and understand the loss of life, then pressed on with a heavy heart. The sunny rural scenery lifted the mood a little. The open countryside seemed so full of life under a early summer sun. At some junctions I had to double check with an online map to make sure I was on the right track, yet I soon found a signpost to help me. I bid a good day to other cyclists on their own journeys of discovery and stopped to read every tourist information board along the way. The frontlines in the Great War sometimes changed quickly, so it seemed every road and field was a place of tragedy. I cycled on for a few miles more without any sign of conflict; passing through the busy but beautiful town of Zonnebeke. If you needed to stop for refreshments; there were numerous cafes, restaurants and patisseries here.
The signage was not clear at a roundabout, so I doubled checked again with the website. In which I realised I had to follow a road then turn right onto a old railway cycle path. This took me out of town for a few miles before a sign told me to turn left along a country lane.
Ahead, a long stone wall appeared in front of me. Turning to the left again, a vast cemetery opened up in front of me. I had arrived to the Tyne Cot Cemetery.
Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing
The largest commonwealth war grave in the world. 11,965 men lie here, with 8,369 men being unnamed at the point of burial. I do not want to dwell on the macabre; yet what could cause such disrespect to even the dead?
As well as the men they could find, another 33,783 men are remembered whose place of burial is known only to them. I hope these old chums found some kind of peace and acceptance in their last moments of life. Remembering the good times and looking forward to a long peaceful rest.
Modern day Flanders fields
Catching my breath and pressing on again; I passed a freshly ploughed field. I could only laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Old crazed Kings with personal vendettas, empires and all the unstoppable machinery of war had nothing to show for their effort a hundred years later; but a ploughed field.
It is said nothing would grow on Flanders fields for five years after the end of the war. The earth had been so pulverised; that even the hardiest of plants could gain nutrient from the soil. Now, the fields groan with crops and the wild flowers are in abundance in the cattle pastures.
I would like to think that all the fallen chums can look down and be happy that mother earth has retaken the hard fought ground as it always will.
Returning to Ypres along a railway and canal bike paths
After leaving Tyne Cot Cemetery, the route took a long section across open country lanes. As if to give the spirit a respite after trying to comprehend such a heavy loss of life. Yet soon enough, the fields gave way to houses and I arrived to the town of Langemark. There are a few options here in terms of refreshments; yet be wary of opening hours and try to bring enough water with you at least.
If only relying on the signposts for guidance, take care here, as the route leaves the town to the north to visit the German War Cemetery. Here, over 44,000 German soldiers lie buried; some just teenage students sent to fight another mans war.
Leaving this cemetery, retrace your route into Langemark. After the first junction on your right; watch out for a railway cycle path leading in a straight line as far you can see. Turn right on to this path and follow it out of town and into open countryside once more.
The bravery of Thomas Whitham
In the middle of this open countryside, you will pass a small information board that recalls the courage of one man. On the 31st of July 1917, Private Thomas Whitham, of the Coldstream Guards; captured a German machine gun post. Not only under fire from the enemy, he risked being shot by his own side as he worked his way across no mans land. This action saved countless lives of his comrades for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Sadly, although he survived the war, he died in poverty at only 36 years old.
After a while the billiard straight railway cycle path ends at a road crossing. Take care here and cross two roads, before you then arrive at a canal bridge. Turn left and follow the Leperlee canal all the way into Ypres.
The city of Ypres or Lepers in Flemish; has been dated to Roman times. An important trading post for linen in the middle ages; this walled city has been an important part of the area ever since. During the First World War, the city was almost levelled to the ground. After the war, the imposing Cloth Hall had to be rebuilt as well as much of the town.
The eastern gate of the walled city is called The Menin Gate. Through which French and Commonwealth soldiers passed on their way to the front; many never to return. As I was doing this ride in early June 2023; the stonework of the Menin Gate was in the process of being refurbished. This work is due to be complete in 2027. The inside of the vaulted gateway serves as a memorial to 54,395 men who lost their lives on Flanders fields who were never found or identified. Yet another number beyond my comprehension.
Leaving the city walls by way of a diversion, I followed the city walls around the south of the city. Until winding my way out into open countryside once. The signage here was easy to follow. Where the route used a main road; a cycle path was available to keep you off the road. I was nearing journeys end now. Using yet another perfectly tarmacked railway cycle path; I soon returned to my start point at the Hooghe Crater.
Yet, which ever route you cycle in the area; I hope you can appreciate the importance of making the most of every passing second. Not worrying and enjoying the life; not feeling sad about modern day life but seeing the beauty in everything. I rode this ride in memory of my fallen forefathers. That night I raised and drank a beer, which I hoped they could somehow taste too. The woke the next day unlike them and made the most of that too, but only because of them.
Through the abject horror of their loss, I appreciate everything in the best way I can.
They shall not grow old, As we who are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, Nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun And in the morning, We will remember them. Lest we forget. – Laurence Binyon, 1914