Thursday 23 January 2020

Flanders: Warfare at its most brutal and personal

WWI Battlefield tours

Soldiers carry a wounded comrade during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. Photo: John Warwick Brooke/Getty
Soldiers carry a wounded comrade during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. Photo: John Warwick Brooke/Getty
Campbell Spray visits a cemetery where 44,000 Germans lie
Flanders Fields Belgium Cemetery

Campbell Spray

A shiver goes down your back as you enter the first graveyard and see the simple tribute to an unknown man: "A soldier of the Great War".

But another soon follows and a tear swells as the first harp is seen on an identical headstone, then another and another.

Here is Sergeant D. Morrissey of the Royal Irish Regiment, while next door lies a private of the Leinster Regiment. And next to him is a lance-corporal of the Royal Irish Rifles. I pass along more rows of the identical stones with their beautifully manicured verdant surrounds until, by strange symbolism, I'm standing in front of the last resting place of Private W. J. Potter of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and I see it is exactly 100 years to the day since the good private died, aged 37.

But this tiny cemetery at the church in the small town of Loker (formerly Locre) is just a taste of the sadness that will confront a visitor to Flanders where some of the most dreadful fighting of World War 1 took place. You cannot but be moved by the immensity of what happened here, especially 100 years ago at the Battles of Messines and Passchendaele. A generation of promise was blown away, shot or drowned in the mud of this proud corner of Belgium.

Campbell Spray visits a cemetery where 44,000 Germans lie
Campbell Spray visits a cemetery where 44,000 Germans lie

It is a profound experience retracing routes across what would have been sodden fields of gore, slime, water and earth. You see the trenches in which they would fight, sleep and die while discovering tales of horror, courage and profound symbolism which make up the Irish part of the story - much of it that laid buried in a post-1922 Ireland that just didn't want to know. There is also the chance to try to understand the crassness of some decision making which truly saw donkeys sending lions to their death by the thousand.

The centre for visiting the Flanders front is, as it was 100 years ago, the city of Ypres or Ieper, known as 'Wipers' to the English-speaking forces of Britain and its empire which, along with those of Belgium and France, were bogged down holding a "salient" which stretched north and south in order to stop German forces reaching the channel coast. The salient ebbed and flowed from the end of 1914 until the arrival of American troops and exhaustion of the Germans started a process that finally ended with the Armistice at 11am on November 11, 1918.

With a destructive power never previously seen, four terrible years of war ravaged the countryside, wiped towns and villages off the map and claimed the lives of thousands of civilians and more than 500,000 soldiers from around the world.

In those years, Protestants from Ulster and Catholics from the south, in their respective divisions, would combine to carry off one of the greatest wartime engineering feats in the Battle of Messines - 100 years ago this month - before being slaughtered alongside each other just weeks later in the horror of the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly and prosaically know as Passchendaele, from July 31 to November 10, 1917.

It was on the opening days of that horrific battle when Francis Ledwidge, the famous Slane poet whose work and life so reflects a conflicted identity of being an Irish nationalist and British soldier, lost his life when he was blown apart by a German shell while laying duckboards across the mud. You can visit his stand-alone memorial, 200 yards from his grave, near the village of Boezinge, directly north of Ypres.

On this memorial, along with Ledwidge's famous words commemorating the death of 1916 signatory Thomas MacDonagh… "He shall not hear the bittern cry…" is the poem, which in writing of his own possible fate, speaks for countless others who never returned to their loved ones:

"It is too late now to retrieve

A fallen dream, too late to grieve

Flanders Fields Belgium Cemetery
Flanders Fields Belgium Cemetery

A name unmade, but not too late

To thank the gods for what is great;

A keen-edged sword, a soldier's heart,

Is greater than a poet's art.

And greater than a poet's fame

A little grave that has no name."

Less poetically but no less poignantly outside Loker lies the grave of Major Willie Redmond, then out of condition and 56 - MP, Catholic and brother of the Redmondite leader John - who lost his life on the first day of the Battle of Messines on June 7, 1917, despite being carried off the field of battle by an Ulster Protestant, Private John Meeke. Redmond's story and how he came to be in Flanders and why his grave stands alone in the corner of a convent garden is just one tale that fills your days as you wander the battlefields.

There is the almost shrine-like grave of John Condon, said to be at 14 the youngest soldier who died on the allied side. But the truth of that has been discussed by countless historians. Everywhere there are the seemingly countless cemeteries where the white headstones show no difference between officer and recruit, and those with no name, and there is a poignant cemetery where 44,000 Germans lie and which has become a centre for British children to come to share their stories and wreaths with the once "awful Hun".

And there is, of course, the Irish Peace Park with its massive round tower, the same height as that of Glendalough, opened on November 11, 1998, by Queen Elizabeth and President Mary McAleese, which came about through the massive endeavours of former UDA man Glen Barr and earnest Donegal TD Paddy Harte. It is a fitting tribute to the heroics of the Irish soldiers of both sides of the divide who died in World War 1 and the more recent peace agreement brokered in the past few decades. The tale of how the park came to be built, the strange relationship between Barr and Harte and what has happened since is a very Irish but massively illuminating few chapters of our current history.

Elsewhere, in the enormous Tyne Cot Cemetery, Fr William Joseph Gabriel Doyle, the almost saintly Dalkey-reared chaplain to the 16th Irish Division is commemorated.

Flanders has made a massive industry out of the tourist and educational potential of World War 1. It's not a terribly beautiful area but history across the centuries has etched its own tragedy across the mostly flat landscape.

The museums, battleground sites and, of course, the cemeteries are infinitely fascinating. Everywhere there is a story to be told. During my visit last month I was lucky to have two days in the company of our guide, a forever hippy-like passionate Hibernophile Philippe Mingels ( His fund of stories, historical facts and philosophical interpretations of them were a delight and gave the experience a quirky intensiveness.

However, the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres should be wandered through alone. There is so much to take in: history, artefacts and tales of heroism and despair. Warfare at its most brutal and personal is explained. I wept as I stood in front of an actor recreating the words of a British soldier who mourns the death of his friend that morning and the wondrous beauty of their very forbidden love.

Tears fell again that evening as the Last Post sounded at the city's Menin Gate; there thousands upon thousands of names commemorate those for whom there is no known grave. The ceremony with readings has taken place every night since 1928 at 8pm, except during the last war. It is an absolute must.

Good beer, wonderful chocolate and excellent food will sustain you as you discover an almost forgotten part of our history during which nearly 50,000 people from both parts of Ireland were killed and many more returned traumatised to a country that didn't want to know.

No better travelling companion is the book Wherever the Firing Line Extends - Ireland and the Western Front by Irish Times journalist Ronan McGreevy (History Press Ireland, €20) which takes you on a journey through the "war to end all wars" by visiting the places where the Irish soldiers made their mark and are commemorated in the monuments, cemeteries and landscapes of France and Flanders. A pulsating great read is the recently published Passchendaele - A New History by Nick Lloyd (Viking, €30)

Visiting Flanders and its brutal history is not for the faint-hearted but my trip was one of the most rewarding and illuminating experiences I have ever had. Both my grandfathers - one Australian-Scots, the other Cornish - suffered life-changing injuries, from which they were to die before I was born, fighting on the Western Front 100 years ago this year. My visit was the least I could do. It explained some of my own conflicted history and that of my adopted land.

Get there

GTI runs Escorted Battlefield Tours to some of the greatest military history sites in Europe from World War I and World War II battlefields to the rise and fall of the Third Reich in Munich and the beginning of the Cold War in Berlin.

Jerome’s trip was to the World War I battlefields of Flanders in Belgium and the Somme Valley in France with hotel stay in Ieper (formerly Ypres). The expert guide on the trip was author and World War I specialist Ian McHenry. Prices for these four-day tours start from €697pps.

For further details, you can telephone: +353 1 843 4734, email: or go online to

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