Ypres Battlefields Tour
Following the Front Line from Passchendaele to Mesen
7 October 2022
Whilst contemplating joining the Club’s annual October trip to take part in the Mouscron Randonnée, 4 of us thought it would be interesting to ‘bolt on’ a visit to the infamous battlefields of Flanders – scene of the bloodiest fighting of the First World War. We based ourselves in Kortrijk (along with the rest of the HC Mouscron crowd) and drove the 20km to Ypres to start our tour.
Our route would take us out of Ypres by the southern gate, across the Kasteelgracht and out to Passchendaele, roughly following the front line as far as Mesen, before turning back, taking in the Kemmelberg and returning to Ypres through the famous Menin Gate. Today, the area is ideal cycling territory; mostly a mix of quiet rural roads, farm tracks and typical Belgian cycle paths.
The Battle of Passchendaele commenced on 31st July 1917 and was the bloodiest battle of the First World War in Flanders: 500,000 lives lost in 100 days. Allied forces, advancing eastwards, sought to take Passchendaele, which is located on a ridge east of Ypres. Heavy rain and mud made movement difficult and prevented artillery being brought to the front. The 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions finally advanced into Passchendaele on 6th November 1917.
‘The Long Road to Passchendaele’ monument depicts silhouetted soldiers marching towards Passchendaele. The silhouettes represent troops of all nations and an adjacent signpost shows how far the soldiers were fighting from home.
Our route into Passchendaele follows that taken by the Allied troops, entering the village by Canadalaan (Canada Avenue), past the memorial to fallen Canadian soldiers at Crest Farm. Now at the northernmost point of our route, we turn south-east and begin to follow the frontline towards Mesen.
Tyne Cot cemetery, located at the southern end of the Passchendaele battlefield, is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world; there are almost 12,000 graves here and a further 35,000 names recorded on the adjacent memorial. The cemetery stands on the site of German fortifications, occupying an elevated position overlooking the surrounding countryside; German pill boxes still stand in various parts of the site.
Brothers John & Jim Hunter fought at the Battle of Polygon Wood. John was sent out to investigate a piece of shiny metal in no-man’s land. As John crawled out, he was severely wounded by the explosion of an artillery shell. He managed to crawl back to the trenches, but died in his brother’s arms. Jim took his brother’s body to a temporary cemetery at Westhoek and buried him with his own hands. He promised to come back after the war and return his brother’s remains to Australia. But when he returned in 1918, the terrain was so badly destroyed by artillery shelling that he had no idea where the graves were, or where to start digging for the body. Jim was himself wounded, but survived the war.
The Sanctuary Wood Museum houses a collection stereoscopic viewers, giving 3D images of the horrors of war; an impressive display of artefacts recovered from local farmers’ fields and an area of preserved and rebuilt trenches and tunnels to explore - even Pete agreed it was well worth the €8.00 entry fee. There is a cafe on site, but be warned, the kitchen will probably be closed…
The Canadian Hill 62 (Sanctuary Wood) Memorial commemorates the actions of the Canadian Divisions in defending the southern stretches of the Ypres Salient between April and August 1916. My grandmother’s brother, Percy Syder, fought there with the Canadians, having emigrated to Ottawa in 1915.
On arrival at Hollebeke we purchased fresh bread rolls, ham and cheese and made sandwiches on the picnic bench at the front of the shop, all washed down with copious amounts of cold Coke. After a brief stop, we were back en-route for Mesen, with good roads and few planned distractions, we could get our heads down and make up some time.
Mesen (Messines) is officially the smallest city in Belgium. Early in the war, between December 1914 and February 1915 a young German soldier, with minor injuries, was cared for at Bethleem Farm. During his rehabilitation he made various watercolours, including one of the destroyed church of St. Nicholas. The artist? Adolf Hitler.
Messines was the location of the most famous truce on Christmas Eve, 1914. The truce began with carol singing from both sides and concluded with an impromptu game of football held between the trenches.
The event is commemorated by a statue of a German and a British soldier in the city, and a memorial commissioned by FIFA, where it is possible to have a kick-about between replicas of the German and British trenches.
Now on part of the Gent-Wevelgem route, we were headed for the Kemmelberg, but with time against us, and the prospect of many cobbled climbs tomorrow, we opted to cut short our route and head back towards Ypres. We picked up the last part of the club route from Kemmel, via Zillebeke and into Ypres along Frenchlaan to the Menin Gate. The Menin Gate Memorial commemorates more than 54,000 men whose graves are not known, amongst them is one Percy Syder.
This was a great day out on a bike with excellent riding, fascinating history and poignant stops along the way. There’s a lot to see and do, so allow plenty of time, we managed the 80km route in a little over 8 hours! Thanks to Steve, Pete & Paul for making it a day to remember.
Our intended route
Our actual route (with a couple of unplanned diversions)
Distance: 50 miles
Speed: 13.5-15.5mph (depending on whose Strava you look at - Ed)