Exercise Belgian Scholar 2011
The idea of a Staff Ride to Belgium studying WWI had not really crossed my mind as I had always associated WWI with France and The Somme. However, Belgium turned out to be both a fascinating insight into the start of WWI and a real eye opener into the hardships of war.
The team comprising 2620 Sqn, TIW, 3 FP Wg, Station Graphics and a Station photographer gathered at the Squadron early on the Friday morning for the trip via the Euro Tunnel to Belgium. As we approached Ypres our ‘tour guide’ Major Gary Walker started one of a series of excellent and informative briefs so that we were aware from the ‘get go’ of our surroundings.
Having arrived at the excellent Flanders Lodge Hotel and stowed our gear we walked into Ypres itself for the first stand at the Menin Gate. Sir Michael Oswald, the Honorary Air Commodore of No 2620 Sqn had also come along and set a cracking pace into town despite being nearly 90!
Arriving at the Menin Gate in Ypres the team were briefed on the significance of both the town and the Gate. Ypres in the middle ages was the 3rd most important city in Flanders and the magnificent Gothic Cloth Hall is a reflection of this, the centre of the hugely important cloth trade. The Menin Gate stands on the site of one of the old town gates through which thousands of soldiers passed through on their way to the front, many of course never returning. Opened in 1927 the memorial bears the name of 55,000 soldiers who have no known grave, lost between the outbreak of War and 15th August 1917. Ypres and the surrounding area had been reduced to a rubble and mud-filled swamp… hard to imagine when strolling through the very elegant and sophisticated town that it is today.
An early reveille followed the next day and the coach departed for Dixmunde, to visit the Death Trench and Ijzer Tower. Two more stands were presented and we learnt how this town was also reduced to rubble. This area was the scene of the famous battle in 1914 – the Battle of the Ijzer – when French and Belgian troops finally stopped the German advance, but at a dreadful price. The trench is a kilometre-long network of revetments and was one of the most dangerous Belgian positions on the Western Front, situated just 50m from a German bunker. The Ijzer Tower is a 22 floor monument which commemorates the heroic struggle of the Flemish people to achieve their national identity. The first tower was built in the 1930s as a memorial to the Flemish soldiers that died at the front but was mysteriously destroyed in an explosion just after the end of WWII, the new structure being completed in 1965. The tower is devoted to an insightful museum on the themes of ‘War, Peace and the Emancipation of Flanders’.
The afternoon started at the superbly maintained Essex Farm Cemetery. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains these cemeteries along with many others throughout the world. The Essex Farm Cemetery contains the headstone of Private Joe Strudwick who, aged just 15, was the youngest known casualty of war. In addition, it was also where Canadian Medical Officer Colonel John McCrea was stationed when he wrote what is perhaps the war’s best-known poem, ’In Flanders Fields’ from which derived the remembrance emblem of the Poppy. This cemetery was at the site of a dressing station and was named after a small cottage that stood beside the Boesinge road, a major road for transporting casualties.
The final part of the day, and stands four and five, found the team on the Messines Ridge. This area was in a strategic position just south east of Ypres and had been held by the German Army since December 1914. It was the scene of one of the most spectacular and successful operations on the Western Front, a tactical success brought about by careful planning, engineering skills and knowledge of the local geography. In January 1917, General Sir Herbert Plumer gave orders for 21 mines to be placed under German Lines. Over the next five months more than 8,000 metres of tunnel were dug and 600 tons of explosive placed in position. The simultaneous explosion of the mines took place on the 7th June and could be heard in London. Its blast killed 10,000 soldiers. Two mines failed to explode, one of which is unlocated and still buried beneath the local farm land.
After arriving back at Ypres the team prepared for the daily memorial service at the Menin Gate at 8pm. A solemn and humbling occasion, visitors assemble underneath the Gate and the last post is played. Sqn Ldr Jonathan White, the OC of No 2620 Sqn laid a wreath at the Gate as a token of our thoughts during our visit to the area. The daily ceremony is organised by the Last Post Association and focuses visitor’s minds very much on the human costs of WWI and perhaps successive and current conflicts.
The last day was spent at Abele Airfield just outside of the town of Poperinge, known universally during the war years as Pops. Soldiers came here to rest from the trenches. Pops became a haven of shops, restaurants, dance halls and coffee houses; it provided a much needed respite for soldiers during the War. The TIW team presented an excellent overview of the aircraft of WWI and the use of reconnaissance, fighter tactics and early bombing efforts.
Prior to arriving at the airfield we stopped off at Brandhoek New Military Cemetery to view the grave of Capt Noel Chavasse VC and Bar, MC RAMC. Having been awarded 2 VCs, in addition to his MC, we all felt his last resting place was worthy of our homage.
As we departed Belgium we felt far better informed from our experiences. For many of us the numbers of soldiers who died, the extremes of their living conditions, the methods and technology of battle and the barriers to just surviving had made us all think. It was a very quiet trip home but we all had been touched by our time in Belgium.
Our thanks went to Major Gary Walker whose enthusiasm and knowledge ensured our trip was well informed and memorable. Also to SAC Ben Ives our driver who negotiated some fairly tight ‘battlefield’ roads.
Written By: Sqn Ldr Paula Willmot MCO