Biking the Battlefields

I like motorcycles. Apart from the pleasure I get from riding I think that being out in the open puts me more in touch with the area I am riding through and I tend to notice far more than I would from the confines of an enclosed tin box. I am also interested in the Great War and an opportunity to combine two of my hobbies is never to be missed. And so it was that myself and four friends headed off to Ypres for November 11th.


We were a mixed bag, myself who has been a fairly regular visitor to the salient for the last twenty five years, two who had been a couple of times previously, and two for whom it was the first time.

After a ridiculously early start from home on November 11th we pulled in to the Grote Markt in Ypres at 2.30 in the afternoon, took advantage of that wonderful continental custom of parking bikes anywhere you like without anybody complaining, and set about finding some lunch. This was followed by a walk around the town before setting off for our hotel in Passendale and checking out the village bars.

[Image] That evening we returned for the 8 o'clock ceremony at the Menin Gate and although I have been before on busy nights it was the first time I had attended on Armistice Day and I was a little surprised at the size of the crowd. Although I enjoyed the ceremony I felt that quieter nights, like a wet Wednesday in February, with one bugler and half a dozen bedraggled spectators, is more poignant.

Then came what was, for me, probably the high point of the trip, members of the pipe band playing outside a bar on the square for the entertainment of the passers-by and obviously enjoying themselves. We stood there for quite some time just listening. Thanks lads.

The next morning came the difficult bit - deciding where to visit to combine my wish to visit somewhere new whilst allowing the first-timers to get a feel for the area and its history. In the end I led our merry band to Tyne Cot, which was an obvious first port of call being only a mile from our hotel, followed by Langemark, so that they could compare British and German burial customs. After lunch it was off to Hooge Crater museum then back into Ypres and whilst the others went around the In Flanders Fields museum I, having been there only three months earlier, repaired to a bar for a couple of coffees and to watch the world go by. We then took a run into Roeselare, a town I know fairly well, for dinner before returning to our hotel and infesting the bar.

Sunday morning dawned, and whilst waiting for those who had imbibed a little too freely the prevous evening to sleep off their excesses, three of us took a walk up to the Canadian memorial in Passendale. I stood there looking across the shallow valley towards the church and remembered reading that it took the Canadians two days to fight their way across that two hundred yards. I tried to imagine what it must have been like in 1917 but the peaceful Sunday morning scene in 2005, with neat houses and a mini supermarket, made it very difficult.

The party returned to full complement, I wanted go to Mons to see the plaque for the first British shot fired in 1914 and the one for the furthest advance, the Canadians again, in 1918, which are only a few yards apart on opposite sides of the road. That done it was into the town centre for lunch and a walk around. Sitting in Mons town square the view I had seemed to be little changed from 1914 and once I had got used to the fact that all the photographs I have seen were in black and white whereas I was viewing it in colour, it was easy to imagine ranks of Tommies marching through on their way to the front.

On then to Saint Symphorien cemetery. This is interesting in that, being laid out by the Germans, it is different to any of the other war cemeteries I have visited.

[Image] Although not totally absent, there is not so much of the serried ranks of stones, but rather the graves are laid out around the pathways winding around the small hill, with occasional groups, laid out in what I can only describe as grottos, dotting the site. Having found the graves of the first and last British soldiers to be killed, along with the last Canadian and the first VC of the war it was back to Ypres for the Menin Gate again, dinner and a return to Passendale for beer and bed.

On our last morning we took a run south to Ploegsteert, taking in the Irish Tower, Mesen church and Mont Kemmel, before returning to Ypres for last minute purchases of Belgian chocolates for our loved ones at home. It wasn't last minute because our loved ones were an afterthought but rather that you don't want to be carrying chocolate on a bike in the sunshine for any longer than you have to! Anyway, our time was up so it was a cruise up to Veurne, along the canal and Tobacco Alley, and on to Dunkerque for the 5.30pm ferry back to Dover. A high speed blast up the motorways got me home with ten minutes to spare before "The Somme" programme started on the television.

We were lucky with the weather. Although it got chilly as soon as the sun went down, the daytime temperatures were good and we were able to walk around the Grote Markt in a T shirt which was a surprise in November, and as a bonus, we didn't get rained on once.

All in all, a successful weekend, allowing me to go to Mons, and giving the first-timers an insight and something to think about. We shall definitely be doing it again.

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Copyright © John Childs, February, 2006.

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