SALIENT CYCLING: CENTENARY OF THE THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES
Events commemorating the Great War have been a feature of the cycling calendar - not to mention many other calendars - since 2014. Steve Dyster took part in one, riding his Pashley Roadster from Wellington Barracks to Compiegne via Nieuwpoort, Ypres, Vimy Ridge and the Somme. Here’s some thoughts for a short tour around the Ypres Salient, which the British and Empire forces aimed to break out of in 1917.
The best way to tour the terrain over which the great offensive of 1917 took its course is by bicycle. Apart from that being blindingly obvious to any cyclist, it is the best way to get understand the landscape and to link sites in a sensible order. Bless the Belgian’s, they worked that out ages ago and have produced a whole host of routes with maps and guides - all aimed at the cyclist who wants to take a look. In the inimitable style of “cycling by numbers” can be linked to make the day as long or short as you desire.
Ypres or, in Flemish, Ieper, is a small city and as cycle-friendly as any - which means very. (I have used Ypres in this article). From its cobbled heart around the great market place - where you’ll find a very good introduction to the war in the area in the Cloth Hall, as well as a tourist information office stuffed full of cycling ideas and guidance - to the outskirts of the city takes but a few minutes. You will soon get used to being allowed to cycle against the flow on most one way streets and motorists stopping at crossings.
The sad fact is that whichever way one goes from the city one will find more than enough evidence of the enormity of the destruction that befell the soldiers and civilians in this area. Graveyard tourism is not my style. Having lead tours to the area and visited alone, I tend to be selective. Recently I have chosen to miss some of the most “popular” destinations. The “hidden” and largely unvisited cemeteries are ignored by the major tour businesses, but have their own stories. I have taken to leaning my bike against the wall and selecting a couple of names from the register and visiting graves “unknown” to me.
Of course, many people visit the area for personal reasons. A lost ancestor or a relative who fought and came through it all, combined with a little research, can take you well off the beaten track.
So what of the cycling? You cannot go wrong, really. Heading south towards Mesen (Messines) follows a rising road as far as Wijtschaete. You are expected to use the cycle lanes, though the road is, in my experience, hardly ever busy. By the time you reach the village, you will already have passed some memorials and cemeteries. Next trip, I intend to search out the intriguing “Bayerwald Duitse mijngangen loopgraven en bunkers.” I’d recommend that visitors take a look at sites associated with all sides and participants.
From Wijtschaete, rather than making a bee-line for Mesen, hang a right and follow the signs for The Pool of Peace. Far from being peaceful in 1917, this is the water-filled crater of a mine blown under the German lines at the start of the Battle of Mesen. As you’ll have worked out, attempting to break out of the Ypres Salient was impossible without control of the hills to the south. From here a gentle country lane takes one into the valley and up into the small town of Mesen, passing Messines Ridge British Cemetery on the way.
As well as a good spot for a coffee, Mesen is packed full of interest. The carillion still chimes a familiar tune, and beneath the Church is a crypt reputed to have been used by Corporal Hitler as a shelter. On the outskirts is the Isle of Ireland Peace Park and Tower. Irishmen of all political and religious persuasions took a prominent role in the fighting here.
Continuing south towards Armentieres, across the border in France, the terrain returns to flat agricultural land. The battles of 1915 were fought around here. Uniformly disastrous for the British and their Allies, famous memorials are around Ploegsteert; the famous Christmas Day truce and footie match is commemorated; nearby is the farm where cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather had his billet. The failures of 1915 continued further south in France, but keeping things Belgian, head back north, probably via Wulvergem and Kemmel. Heading up the Kemmelberg one will appreciate the challenge of the steep climb and pave combination. Bum on saddle and good cadence should see you ok - if you don’t like going up, wait until you descend - especially if it has been raining.
The Kemmelberg is covered with Great War sites, so there’s plenty of good excuses not to rush. Most famously, from a British perspective, Sir John French, Douglas Haig’s predecessor, had his HQ in the scenically located hotel. French was dismissed in 1915. From here it is largely downhill to Ypres.
In fact, Ypres sits in a shallow saucer. The hills are highest to the south. Those to the east and north would barely register in the mind of anyone who has cycled outside of England’s fen country. Yet, there, wherever one rides there is Ypres, made plain by the restored towers of the Cloth Hall and Cathedral, in a landscape of peace, but always there.
The Vredesroute or Peace Route sets out southward from Ypres, but turns east near Voormezele. From here it follows the ridge as it curves round to Passendale and returns to the city via Poelkapelle, Langemark and the towpath of the Ieper-IJzer Canal. Easily split in to two days, though equally easily ridden in one, the route tries to follow the German front-line. Needless to say, you will come across a vast number of cemeteries, monuments, museums and cafes. The coach trips generally do not follow the route, rather cutting across country to get to the next major site.
My Grandfather was hit by shrapnel as he advanced through the mud of 1917 on his way to this ridge. Despite the best surgery could manage, a fragment of it remained in his head, a fraction away from his brain, for the rest of his life. Apart from that and damaged thumb and fingers, he returned home safely. There is a memorial mentioning the King’s Royal Rifles, in which I believe he served, at Hill 60.
A glance at the map rapidly identifies places of interest; Tyne Cot and Hill 62/Sanctuary Wood are, perhaps, the most renowned, but there are many, many more; Polygon Wood, Hooge Crater, and too many more to mention, let alone visit, with only minor diversions. Tyne Cot, is a frightening place in many ways. The ranks of gravestones are enough to convince one of the huge cost of a few miles advance, but the wall which shelters the site has the names of the missing - at least of those not recorded on the panels of the mighty Menin Gate back in city. Passendale village is also worth a visit, though many will head for Poelkapelle. In its CWGC Cemetery is the grave of Joseph Condon, killed in battle at the age of fourteen. Beyond Langemark - where the German Cemetery is a stark contrast to the British cemeteries, - the route descends to the Ieper-IJzer Canal, near Boezinge. The towpath takes one nearly to the centre of Ypres, passing Essex Farm Cemetery on the way. Here, in the bunkers in the canal bank, John McRae, operated on wounded soldiers and wrote his famous poem; nearby is the grave of Joe Strudwick, aged fifteen.
Doesn’t all this death get a bit much? Well, yes, but, if you find it does, then this part Flanders has plenty more to offer - and themed cycle routes to suit most tastes. A tour of Trappist Monasteries and associated beers is probably best undertaken by tandem-stokers with a tea-total skipper, but nature reserves, sandy beaches and the areas non-war history might prove just as attractive.
One of the most compelling places to visit in the area is Talbot House, Everyman’s Club, founded by Army Chaplain “Tubby” Clayton, with the aim of giving ordinary soldiers a place for a bit of peace and quiet and recreation - other than estaminets - while behind the lines. Situated in the centre of Poperinge, one can still stay there. A centre for brewing and hop-growing, Poperinge was taken over by the British Army during the war, it has returned to its traditional trades. Even behind the lines there are cemeteries around the town, but the major emotional challenge is hidden in the yard - the post at which soldiers sentenced to death at court-martial were executed.
If you fancy a longer ride, with a sandy beach half-way, but with a good dose of the Great War on the way, a ride up the Ieper-IJzer canal, then along the banks of the IJzer to Diksmuide and on to Nieuwpoort and its sibling, Nieuwpoort-aan-Zee, is full of interest. Apart from the attraction of the broad river - and consequent easy going (there is reference to the IJzer Valley, but you’ll do well to spot the sides of it) - the Dodengang has trenches preserved in concrete and a museum about the war at this northern end of the Western Front. Held by the Belgian army for most of the war, the slither of the country that remained in their hands was preserved from invasion by flooding the surrounding land and fighting a watery battle with the enemy on the opposite bank.
Keeping along the river eventually takes one past a Belgian Military Cemetery to the Goosefoot Locks, which were opened to flood the land in 1914. Nieuwpoort has the market square and other attributes of an old Flemish town. The grand memorials by the locks include ones to King Albert I and British servicemen with no known grave.
A rail path will take you back to Diksmuide - a short-cut - for a return along river and canal, but I often follow the Nieuwpoort-Dunkerke Canal as far as Veurne - itself a very attractive little town, once you get to the market square. Thence, road or path alongside the Lovaart, to Lo and a cycle route back to the Ieper-IJzer Canal for the final kilometres back to town.
There is one “must do” in Ypres. Attend the last post ceremony, held each night at the Menin Gate.
As a centre Ypres (Ieper) is perfect for battlefield touring. One might get the impression that every Belgian owns either a cafe or a brewery - with the exception of those who make cakes and chocolate - but you will appreciate exploring the restored ramparts and buildings and partaking of the hearty food. Study the beer menu and chose food to go with your choice. Water is also available.
More on events commemorating the Third Battle Of Ypres 1917 - 2017 http://www.visitflanders.com/it/binaries/Flanders%20Fields%20-%20A%20place%20to%20remember_tcm16-72106.pdf
A wide variety of maps are available, but i generally use Sportoena Fietsroute-Netwerk map. All locations above are on sheet 1A.
Of course, having everything arranged by experts is wonderful. There are a number of tour companies, amongst the best is, in my opinion, Green Jersey French Cycle Tours www.greenjerseycycling.co.uk/ Owner, Charlie Bladon is not only an enthusiastic cyclist, but a knowledgable enthusiast for battlefields history.
There are numerous guidebooks to the various sites, depending on how much you want to know. I have tended to stick to the old “Before Endeavours Fade” by Rose Coombes, but there are many more available.
PUBLISHED JANUARY 2017