End of the Great War—A Flanders Fields Tour
By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert
On 27 December 2018, along with 2 traveling companions. I went on a fascinating Flanders Fields Tour. We were guided by Johan Serpierters, who will guide our 2019 75th Anniversary of D Day Tour. To say he did an outstanding job is an understatement—incredibly knowledgeable, he is not overbearing with facts—he has the rare talent of making the history of the war come to life.
The Great War (as it was known then) lasted from 1914-1918—it ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and this remembrance date eventually became Veterans Day in the US. I am sure there will be an increased interest in this area, as 2019 is the 101 year anniversary of the end of WW I.
The WW I sites are not as well preserved as the many sights at Normandy for D Day, but it was really interesting to learn about the war on the northern portion of the western front.
Most of us really do not know much about the war in terms of battles fought over a 100 years ago, so, let’s learn some about what caused the war, who were the key participants, and (the real reason for this blog) a little more about the northern part of the Western Front, which is nicknamed Flanders Fields, after the famous poem from that era.
Some Causes of World War One and the Incident that Sparks the Great War
I believe most historians won’t provide an easy answer to the question: What was the cause of war? Some key events, combined with a scramble for more land and power and conflicts between Europeans countries all contributed to a path towards war.
Here is a partial list that, in my judgement, led to the war:
The 1870 Franco-Prussian War, where a unified Germany defeated France and took the Alsace-Lorraine region, leaving the French eager to reclaim this area and wanting revenge.
The expansion of the German Navy that was a direct threat to Great Britain’s dominance of the seas.
The competition to get more colonies by many European nations.
The rise of rampant nationalism—our country is better than other countries, more powerful and we deserve more.
The number of constantly changing mutual defense treaties and secret alliances, all in a struggle to tip the balance of power towards one country over another.
In this highly charged, competitive atmosphere, all it would take was one incident to trigger war. It came with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the heir to the throne of Austro-Hungarian Empire. After a month of demands to resolve this incident were not successful, and getting assurance that Germany would support the Austria-Hungary, they declared war on Serbia. This starts the wheel rolling—there is a series of declarations of war.
There is no way out—a disastrous 4 year war results.
The Main Players in the Deadly Great War and the Major Conflict Fronts
Starting in 1914 and ending in 1918, there are officially 33 countries at war in this conflict. There are really 9 countries that are they key nations during this war.
On the Central side, they are Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.
On the Allied side, they are the British Empire, France and Russia initially. In 1917, Italy and the United States join in on the Allied side.
Russia drops out of the war in 1917, after the Tsar is overthrown in the October Revolution by the Bolsheviks and the Lenin led government sues for peace, which is signed in 1918. This is the start of the Russian civil war (Reds (Bolsheviks) vs Whites (monarchists)) that eventually leads to the communist government winning the struggle in 1923 and establishing a new country—the USSR.
The war is conducted in 4 main areas of Europe. There is the Western Front (Belgium, France) the Eastern Front (Russia), the Turkish Front (Dardanelles, Gallipoli) the Italian Front (Dolomites of the Alps).
The Western Front’s northern area is in Flanders, Belgium.
The Flanders Area of the War
Flanders Fields is the English name for the 5 major battles of Ypres (Ieper is the Flemish name that appears on the road signs and most maps). Ypres had a major strategic advantage of high ground that provided a military advantage to the side that held that territory.
Flanders and Ypres became important after the German advance was halted by the Allies in the First Battle of the Marne in France during September 1914. The Marne was the first major battle of the Great War.
Realizing the Marne area was a stalemate, both sides began the “race for the seas”—trying to out flank each other in the northern sector of the Western Front. Ypres became the focal point of this race, after the Belgians flooded the northern part of their country around the Yser River plain, effectively eliminating this as an avenue of advance for the German army. The allies stopped the advance at Ypres in 1914 and for 4 years, the static trench warfare became norm in the Ypres salient.
During WW I, 5 major battles were fought here.
Trench warfare was about as miserable a fighting environment as you could imagine. Constant mud and dirt, vermin, disease and wet and cold were just the day-to-day living conditions. Add to that barbed wire, artillery shelling, machine guns, and later in the war, gas attacks, tanks and even bombing or strafing from airplanes.
Most of the fighting was for only several hundred yards or so—one side would gain ground to only lose it later. It was the ultimate stalemate for most of the war.
We had several interesting stops:
Hill 60—this man-made hill (dirt from a railroad track bed) is only 150 feet high. It was originally captured by the Germans in the first battle of Ypres. While there are only small remaining bunkers and craters at the site, the most impressive thing to me was realizing that the trench lines were only 20 meters apart in some areas. These two pictures below show the location of the trench line only 20 meters apart (These photos are close-up shots of the trench lines markers—there is 20 meters between photos)!
Hill 60 became a major part of the 2nd Battle of Ypres. The British tried to recapture the hill by tunneling under the trench lines and exploding 19 large mines in 1915 but soon lost it back to the Germans.
Seeing the hill, I really got the sense of the closeness of trench warfare and how the command “Over the top Lads!” must have spread terror into the soldiers as they rushed against the enemy trenches after the explosions of artillery or mines The underground tunnel war continued until 1917. At most, this battle of Hill 60 was for about 300 meters of ground. Here are some photos:
Kemmel American Monument—this is a tribute to the 27th and 30th American Divisions that fought in this area. The memorial commemorates the first use of American troops in Belgium in August 1918.
Christmas Truce Monument and Tourist Information Center—located in the small town of Mesen (Messines), there is a very interesting collection in this small museum of the Tourist Information Center. I found the pictures of the war the most interesting—it really brings home the utter destruction of the battlefield areas and to the local towns and some of the equipment used in WW I.
Outside of the museum, is a life-sized monument of a German soldier and a British soldier shaking hands during the Christmas truce of 1914.
Ireland Peace Park—this is a memorial site and graveyard for the Irish soldiers who died while fighting in the Flanders area. The dominate feature is the round tower to symbolize reconciliation of religious and political differences as protestant (Northern Ireland 36th Ulster ) and catholic soldiers (16th Irish) fought together during the Battle of Messines.
It was striking to me the quotes on some of the grave markers about the futility and worthlessness of World War I (Please read the stunning captions to these markers)
The Menin Gate—this impressive gate now occupies one of the old city gates of Ieper (Ypres). It was opened in 1927 and is the most famous memorial of the British Commonwealth in Flanders. It lists the names of 54,896 soldiers reported missing in the 1914 to 15 August 1917 in the Ypres salient. The remaining 35,000 missing are remembered in the panels of the Tye Cot Memorial in Passendale.
Every evening at 8 PM (2000 Hours) there is a moving ceremony called the “Last Post” where the traffic stops and buglers play the “Last Post.” This homage ceremony is a final salute in memory of the allies who died or are missing at the Ypres salient. It has been performed since 1927 continuously except during the German occupation of WW II.
Essex Farm Cemetery—a small cemetery and A. D. S. (Advance Dressing Station) is located at this stop. The concrete shelters were used by the medical teams to treat wounded soldiers. Here is a photo of the shelter complex:
However, it is most famous as the place where LTC John McCrae, a doctor working at the A.D.S, wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” as a tribute to a fallen comrade.
Here is one verse:
“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and the sky,
The larks bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
His poem made the poppy the symbol for the sacrifice of war and it is widely worn on special remembrance days in the UK.
Tyne Cot Cemetery & Memorial—this is the largest British war cemetery in Europe. In the 3rd Battle of Ypres, the British Army lost 300,000 soldiers in the battle to capture Tyne Cot.
In the center of the cemetery is the Cross of Sacrifice constructed over a German bunker captured in 1917. This monument was built at the request of King George V of the British Empire.
The Human Suffering of the War
More than 60 million soldiers were mobilized during the conflict. About 10 million were killed. Most died by artillery fire—over 65% of these deaths were due to the shelling during the battles—over 6.5 million!
My Final Thoughts
Tours like these are exceptionally valuable—in the span of 6 hours we saw some amazing WW I sites that would have taken several days if we had tried to do it on our own with a rental car, assuming we would know where to go and what to see.
This is where we can add value to your trip to the Flanders area—we can help you find a guide like Johan to teach you about the Great War.
When you are spending your hard-earned money for a vacation, you want an advisor who can match you with the right trip. You want someone who will understand your expectations and fuel your anticipation (or excitement) to get you the best possible trip experience. And, you want someone who can help you with the decision making process. We think we have all these qualities.
Whatever your Dream Destinations are, we are here to help you get the best possible vacation based on what is important to you! We will provide you high quality, expertly planned travel. Please give me a call 713-397-0188 (Hank) or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to help you: Savor life…make memories…Visit Dream Destinations! Your journey begins here!
HANK is a certified Western European Destination Specialist (DS) who has been traveling to Europe for 45 years. He is also an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), conferred by the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA). This recognized expert in cruise and leisure travel is a retired Army Officer, and taught World Geography for 8 years. He is a `71 graduate of West Point and has earned 2 master’s degrees. His other Certifications:
AmaWaterways River Cruise Specialist
Viking River Cruise Specialist
Scenic River Cruise Specialist
Emerald Waterways Specialist
Avalon Waterways Specialist