November, 1999

Ypres (or Wipers) is a small town located in the in the Flanders area in the north - western corner of Belgium. It was a strategically important area for the British Army during the First World War and saw 4 long years of terrible fighting. It has significant connections with the RAMC and Captain NG Chavasse, so it was with this fact in mind that three unit members from 208 (Liverpool) Field Hospital (Lt Parry, SSgt Longstaff and Cpl Jones) decided to set out and explore some important locations within the Ypres salient.

SSgt. Longstaff at Sanctuary Wood Trench Museum

On the morning of 9 November after having worked out how to start the temperamental hire car, the three explorers arrived at the preserved British trenches at Sanctuary Wood/ Hill 62. These are the only set of trenches preserved within the Salient and gave a good idea of what a trench system looked like with saps, listening posts, trench mortar positions, dugouts, shell holes and blasted trees all left as they were at the end of the war. A small museum is co - located here with many artefacts displayed as well as stereoscopic (3D) viewers of some extremely gruesome photographs that you will definitely not see in the history books!

Moving just up the front line the party came to the Hooge Crater Cemetery where there are 5,892 graves, of which 60% are unknown. It was in this area where the first flame-thrower attack by the Germans in the war took place and the location where Captain Chavasse won his Military Cross in June 1915 for "untiring efforts in personally searching the ground between our line and the enemy's for which many of the wounded owe their lives" A small but impressive museum is located here, housed in a former chapel which was built as a memorial to those who fell in the war.

Lt. Parry  and Cpl. Jones on Hill 60

The party then decided to visit the notorious Hill 60. A man made feature (it was created out of the spoil from the nearby railway cutting), the hill is named because it is 60 metres above sea level and was a tactically important spot as it had very good views over the surrounding countryside. This meant that both sides were desperate to control it, consequently it changed hands many times during the war and was regarded as an extremely dangerous place to be. The hill today is pock marked and scarred by massive mine craters, caused by the extensive mining operations and detonations in the area. A number of bunkers still exist to this day.

After visiting the rather shabby museum at Hill 60 (the owner must have been going for true First World War authenticity as rainwater was leaking all over his exhibits) the party decided to move to the town of Ypres for lunch.Well within range of German artillery, Ypres itself was completely flattened during the war and was rebuilt from scratch afterwards. The fabulous Cloth Hall (which was only finished in 1962) contains the new "In Flanders Fields"museum which is well worth a visit. Upon entry, the visitor is given a swipe card to use at multimedia terminals with which to follow the progress of a participant who had a connection with Ypres and it`s salient during the war. By a stroke of coincidence, SSgt Longstaff received a card which detailed the exploits of Captain Chavasse!!

After refreshment with the ubiquitous chips and mayonnaise, it was decided to visit Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the world with 11,871 burials (70% unknown) After a slight detour to the site of the first gas attack and the statue which commemorates the event, the party arrived and were able to join in a moving remembrance ceremony at the cross of sacrifice, built on the remains of a German Blockhouse. Two other bunkers are present near the entrance, both used as aid posts in the final stages of the battle The cemetery is so large because the decision was taken after the war to concentrate all of the many graveyards in the area into one place.The main thrust of the attack on the infamous village of Passchendaele took place in this area October - November 1917. The sheer scale of human suffering is almost impossible to comprehend, row upon row of beautifully kept graves testifying to the savagery of fighting which took place here. It was almost a relief to leave.

The explorers then moved past the small hamlet of Weiltje near to the area where Captain Chavasse won the bar to his V.C. on 31 July 1917.After setting up his Aid Post in a captured German dugout he was wounded in the head during an attack. Most men would be pleased to receive such a wound, being able to return home with honour, but Captain Chavasse returned to his aid post after treatment at the Main Dressing station at Weiiltje. For a further 2 days and nights without rest or food he carried out further treatment on the wounded using captured German medics, but the situation was critical. He received at least 2 further serious wounds over that time but refused to leave his post. Several times he scoured the surrounding area under heavy fire for wounded, eventually receiving a mortal abdominal wound from a shell which penetrated the dugout on 2 August. He was then evacuated to Brandhoek Casualty Clearing Station No 32 and died there on 4 August, a truly brave and remarkable man.

Another medical notable was the Canadian Colonel John McCrae who was moved to write the famous poem"In Flanders Fields" after the death of his friend Lt Alexis Helmer at the Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station on 2 May 1915. The Dressing Station itself is still there and consists of a large bunker by the main Ypres canal, alongside the Essex Farm Cemetery. 1,088 men are buried here consisting mainly of men who were evacuated but unfortunately died of wounds in the Dressing Station.

The last visit of the day was to the Spanbroekmolen Crater as dusk was falling. This Crater was caused by 91,000 lbs of high explosive detonated on the morning of 7 July 1917 underneath the German main line as the opening move in the successful Battle of Messines Ridge. Placed there by miners who had been tunnelling for a year, the mine formed the biggest crater in the Ypres salient which today is filled by the "Pool of Peace", purchased by the Christian organisation Toc H in 1929. A small, lonely cemetery is located nearby, made even sadder by the fact that most of the British soldiers within were killed by the mine which went off 15 seconds too late

After nearly experiencing an all too real First World War experience by nearly getting a sensitive part of his anatomy caught on some barbed wire, SSgt Longstaff then drove the other members of the party in to Ypres again to witness the Ceremony of the Last Post at the Menin Gate. Taking place every night at 2000 hrs by members of the towns fire service, the last post is sounded on bugles donated by the Royal Corps of Transport. It was a truly moving experience which every soldier should see at least once. The Menin Gate is a massive edifice into which the names of some of the soldiers who have no known graves in the salient have been engraved. There are over 55,900 of them, including Lt Aiden Chavasse, younger brother of Captain Chavasse, who went missing in action 4 July 1917 after taking part in a raid on the German line. Another 34,888 names are inscribed on the walls of Tyne Cot, casualties from the "big push" in the autumn of 1917. The scale of such human suffering is almost unimaginable.

To finish off, from the unexploded shells by the roadside to the 150 + Commonwealth War Graves Commission Graveyards , reminders of the First World War abound near Ypres. If ever there is a place to show how important the Army Medical Services are in wartime, this must be it. The Liverpool RAMC Association organises a regular tour to this area of Europe at this time every year to pay their respects to the fallen in general and to Captain Noel Chavasse RAMC, V.C and bar, in particular. New Travellers are always made welcome.

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for a direct email link to the author of this article, SSgt. Longstaff

Copyright © R. Longstaff, March, 2000.

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