On Sunday we took off on our tour – just time to visit some of the well-known parts of the battlefields. First to Essex Farm Cemetery where John McCrae wrote his famous poem “In Flanders Fields” (where poppies blow row on row). Amongst those buried there are Private V. J. Strudwick, aged 15, and Private T. Barratt VC.
Spanbroekmolen (Pool of Peace) is the result of the largest of a series of mines timed to go off at 3.10am 7th June 1917- the explosion is said to have rattled windows in London. Nine divisions of infantry were to advance along a 9-mile front. Spanbroekmolen exploded 15 seconds late, killing many of the advancing 36th Ulster Division. The crater that the explosion created has since become a “memorial of peace”.
On to the Island of Ireland Peace Park and Tower – men from Southern Ireland who fought with the British were often considered traitors and their sacrifice forgotten. The Tower was unveiled on 11th November 1998 by President Mary McAlease and Queen Elizabeth II. It sits on the Messines Ridge, where men from North and South fought almost shoulder to shoulder in June 1917. Around the corner is Messine Church. Corporal Adolph Hitler was treated here in the church crypt that served as a German field hospital. Among others that fought here was a certain Alexander Fleming, later to discover penicillin.
Many, many cemeteries are passed as you drive along the byroads, some even in the middle of a farmer’s field – but all with an immaculate path of grass. Sometimes you can’t help remembering those famous words of Rupert Brooke: “if I should die, think only this of me – that there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.”
There are many fields in Belgium tended with pride by the War Graves Commission gardeners.
So to Hooge, scene of the first use of the flame thrower by the Germans in a surprise attack at 03.15 on 30th July 1915. This area was to change hands on several occasions during the war, with appalling loss of life.
We move on to St Juliaan and pay our respects to the “Brooding Solder” memorial at Vancouver Corner, where, in April 1915, 18,000 Canadians withstood the first major German gas attack. 2,000 were to die a horrible death.