Sunday 22 April 2018

Sombre sunsets of Flanders Fields

Flanders and The Somme

A field of poppies - now the symbol of the slaughter on the Somme
A field of poppies - now the symbol of the slaughter on the Somme
A Vickers machine gun crew in anti-gas helmets near Ovillers on the Somme, July 1916.
Jerome follows the tracks of the 16th Irish Division in Guillemont
Jerome Reilly

Jerome Reilly

The land around Passchendaele is flat and open, reminiscent of the Curragh Plains in many ways, albeit without even the scant cover of a furze bush.

And as I stood last autumn in this monstrous killing field 100 years after that awful battle, a poem learned by rote in an English school long ago came fleetingly to mind and I cursed my failing memory that I couldn't fully recall Wilfred Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth.

"What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

A Vickers machine gun crew in anti-gas helmets near Ovillers on the Somme, July 1916.
A Vickers machine gun crew in anti-gas helmets near Ovillers on the Somme, July 1916.

Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons."

It is day one of our battlefield tour of Flanders and the Somme. I am with my son Dan, more of a history buff than myself, truth be told, and the rest of our Irish group travelling with Dublin-based group tour specialists GTI.

Our gifted guide, author and World War I historian Iain McHenry, tells the story of Passchendaele - more properly called the Third Battle of Ypres - with authority and great clarity.

And it is the small details that stand out, rather than the mind-boggling death toll of around a third of a million Allied soldiers killed or wounded in a little over three months of some of the most horrific trench warfare of World War I.

What sticks in my mind was the story of the quagmire that the battleground became and how many injured men and fallen horses died, not from their wounds, but by drowning in the flooded shell holes that pockmarked no-man's land.

Jerome follows the tracks of the 16th Irish Division in Guillemont
Jerome follows the tracks of the 16th Irish Division in Guillemont

Earlier, Dan and I had looked for the "Reillys" and, from my mother's side of the family, "O'Reillys" among those remembered at Tyne Cot Cemetery - the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world. There were plenty, as well as Murphys and O'Learys and Kissanes and Keaveneys and many other Irish names.

It is difficult to fathom, to take in. There are 11,908 registered graves with headstones and on the wall at the back of the cemetery, the names of 34,927 soldiers who have no known graves.

Inside the cemetery, two mourning angels kneel on top of dome-covered pavilions at either end of the memorial wall. Fittingly, the angels face the surrounding flat lands of Passchendaele where many of those whose graves we walk among met their end.

From there we pay our respects to the German dead, the flower of that nation's youth who died in the killing fields of Flanders. Langemark Cemetery is the only German cemetery in the Salient and contains 44,292 burials, concentrated from many smaller cemeteries after the conflict ended. The first large headstone we meet as we enter the cemetery is a mass grave containing 25,000 soldiers.

On this bright sunny day, the cemetery is nevertheless dark and melancholy. The oak trees have held their leaves well into autumn and cast a gloomy shadow over Langemark where 3,000 schoolboys killed during the First Battle of Ypres are also remembered. They sang as they charged, so the story goes, and were cut down like corn.

For many on the tour, mostly not battlefield buffs, the story of the conflict in Flanders is eye-opening and it is an animated bunch who exchange thoughts as we take lunch at the Old Cheese Factory enjoying Belgian beers and locally produced cheeses and cured meats.

Later than night, after a full day which also included a visit to the grave of Private John Condon of the Royal Irish Regiment, who at 14 is thought to be the youngest battle casualty of World War I, we pitch up at Novotel Ieper Centrum, a centrally located and well appointed hotel in Ieper, the place formerly known as Ypres and now a thriving tourist town.

Many of the landmark buildings look old but there is nothing in this town older than 100 years. The town was razed during the war and all those buildings are stunning replicas of those that were there before.

Before dinner, my son and I went to explore some of the local bars and tried out some of those beers brewed by the monks before we rejoined the rest of the group.

Before our evening meal, we made the short walk from the hotel to Menin Gate for the profoundly moving Last Post ceremony which takes place each evening before an attendance of hundreds who come from all over the world to attend this remembrance.

The following morning, we left Ieper (Ypres) in Flanders and headed towards the Somme valley in France. On our way, we stopped at the roadside on the same spot that Father Francis Gleeson performed "The Last General Absolution of the Munster Fusiliers at Rue du Bois" - it is the subject and title of a famous painting by Fortunino Matania that was made at the request of the widow of the battalion's commanding officer.

On May 8, 1915 on the eve of the Battle of Aubers Ridge, Fr Gleeson addressed the sombre battalion at a roadside shrine and gave the general absolution. The battalion suffered heavily and when paraded again afterwards only 200 men came to order. Fr Gleeson, later Canon Gleeson, returned to Ireland after the war and served in various Dublin parishes until his death in 1959.

On arrival in the Somme valley, we concentrate on the battles for Guillemont and Ginchy - reputed to be some of the bloodiest fighting of the whole Somme campaign.

Irish men of both traditions fought side by side and they are remembered in a local church where we paid our respects.

The attack of 2,400 men of the 16th Irish Division's 47th Brigade on September 3, 1916 would come at a grievously heavy price. The brigade lost half its men - killed or injured - but they managed to take Guillemont. Six days later the target was Ginchy, less than a mile away which was heavily protected.

The Division won its battle but in those 10 days of fighting lost half of its total strength of 11,000 through death and injury - 1,100 men lay dead. Two small villages had been taken but at a huge cost.

We squeezed a lot into our three-day trip and it's hard to pick out highlights but I think all of our group were stunned to witness at first hand the 300ft wide and 90ft deep Lochnagar Crater caused by two explosive charges of 24,000lb and 30,000lb. It was blown, along with 16 others, at 7:28am on the morning of July 1, 1916 as a two-minute precursor to the start of the Battle of the Somme offensive.

The charges were laid by tunnellers, many of them miners in peace time, who burrowed under German lines to plant the deadly ordnance. So large was the explosion that debris rose some 4,000ft into the air.

Here our guide Iain McHenry was particularly illuminating. He is the author of Subterranean Sappers: A History of 177 Tunnelling Company RE from 1915 to 1919 which is considered the definitive history of this brave underground army. Before we flew home via Brussels after a packed but hugely illuminating and fascinating trip, we also visited the Island of Ireland Peace Park with its 100-feet high Round Tower.

Located near the battle for the Messines Ridge, the memorial bears witness to the first- time Irish Catholic and Protestant soldiers united together to fight side by side against a common enemy. The Tower, built in traditional design, was constructed with stone from a British Army barracks in Tipperary and a workhouse near Mullingar. A prime mover in its construction was the late Paddy Harte, the former Donegal TD who died just last month. It is a remarkable and fitting legacy for which he will be remembered.

TAKE TWO Top attractions

Newfoundland Park

The 40-acre memorial park (opened 1925) features a stunning bronze Caribou Stag to mark the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel where 733 of 801 men of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment were killed or wounded.

Francis Ledwidge

The Irish poet survived Gallipoli but met his end with five comrades near Ypres when a shell exploded. He is buried at Artillery Wood Military Cemetery - a poignant reminder of the senseless carnage of war.

GETTING 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 Iain McHenry. Prices for these four-day tours start from €697pps.

* For further details, you can telephone: +353 1 843 4734 email: info@gti-ireland.com or go online to www.gti-ireland.com

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