The Southern section of the Salient was instantly more picturesque, with a beautiful view of Ypres from the canal, dense forests and pastoral farms. Cows peered at us everywhere; at one point I stopped to look at a map and noticed two cows staring intently at me. Julia had ridden on a few hundred metres and when I caught up to show her the map, glanced up to see the same two cows, now at the corner of the field still staring at me, their languid eyes peering straight into my soul.
The other thing we noticed immediately were the poppies growing wild on the side of the road, bright red and blowing awkwardly in the wind like tomatoes balanced on limp spaghetti.
We found two more cemeteries quickly, within shell distance of each other and again there were many Canadian headstones present. The first cemetery had three headstones marking German soldiers in the far corner. One wonders if there had been some debate at the time as to whether they should be marked at all.
Some of the headstones were non-specific: “believed to be buried here” or “buried near here.” Many again were unnamed, their true identities immortalized at Tyne Cot or the Menin Gate.
We rode on after a quiet and sombre few minutes at Chester Farm cemetery. The area was quiet save for birds chirping and distant “moos.” After a full day of sullen skies, the sun was finally marking steady shadows and bringing out the vivid colours: green grass, red and blue flowers and ghostly white headstones. Our next destination was two small cemeteries in a small park with bicycle and hiking paths called Bluff and Hedgerow.
The small cemeteries appeared to be cut right out of the forest and were exploding with bright flowers. At Hedgerow cemetery we were greeted by a woman hiking through who happened to live in a village nearby. She told us about the four rucksacks encased in glass at the far end. All items were excavated in the area and included a journal, a canteen, some make-up (used to cover scars or for humourous “drag” shows in the trenches), and a single white handkerchief.
The handkerchief, she told us, had multiple uses: first, many received instructions on their handkerchief. Secondly, it was used to apply to wounds and gashes or to the face in the event of a gas attack. It was also sometimes necessary for surrender and finally, in the case of deserters, it was inserted into the left breast pocket to be used as a target for the firing squad. Die on the battlefield or die by firing squad: pick your poison young man!
We moved on to Hill 60, which is an area where the ground has been preserved in its original state. It’s bumpy with small pits and undulations, but around back was a huge crater where a massive mine was deployed by the Germans as Australian “sappers” tried digging a tunnel under the German line. Hundreds perished in that single explosion that today looks like a UFO landing site, perfectly round with a small pond in the middle. I hiked down only to be cursed by an audience of angry frogs.
The area around Hill 60 was conquered and re-conquered four different times and each with ghastly results, tremendously wasteful for a chunk of land probably 500 metres wide with no strategic significance. It is believed several thousand soldiers lie buried under the bulbous green mounds that today house about a half dozen grazing sheep. We continued on through town, then stopped for a beer at Hill 62, but chose not to visit the museum “trenches” because they looked a little dodgy. In the end it was the right call, as Jessi (from Chez Marie–in fact her name was not Marie as reported earlier) told us the guy who owned Hill 62 was “a big, fat lazy guy who everyone called ‘the bum.’” She said that he sat at his cash register and collected money, but put nothing into his museum. She said the local people are upset that bus tours still stop there, because the bum’s daughter is now in charge and she sits there and collects money.
Our ride was almost over and after a brief stop at Hooge Crater cemetery we took one final detour to the Princess Patricia’s Memorial on a corner that, unbeknownst to us, we had ridden right past the day before while returning from Passchendaele.
It’s a small memorial, but has a short history next to it that recalled the First Battle of Ypres, where the PPCLIs fought bravely to hold the British line despite nearly insurmountable odds, and losing close to 90% of their division. In the German rush to conquer Ypres in 1914, it was a major setback that, to this day, may have been the only reason Ypres never fell to the Germans. It may have also changed the course of the war by giving a badly outnumbered Commonwealth army a sliver of hope and time to fortify the front. Finally it was back to Ypres in one piece, asses in distress but still functioning.
To return to the original question, our visit to Ypres was definitely worthwhile for many reasons. A war that is now so distant is fresh in our minds and will last in our memories. Perhaps by reading this, you too will have a better understanding of the “Great War” and “The War to End All Wars” as it now seems so foolishly named. Unlike World War II (that was virtually assured after the Treaty of Versailles’ “punishing” terms for Germany) World War I had no real villains, no real purpose and no real objectives. A young nationalist killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and a few months later thousands of young people started dying. What for?
For better or worse, World War I ushered in the modern world and modern warfare, but I don’t think the young boys hiding in shell holes, teeth chattering from fear, knew much of what it was about either, which made it that much more sad. We treat their memories, in pristine monuments and flower-strewn cemeteries scattered through the Ypres Salient, far better than they were treated on the battlefield. One hundred years ago the Great War ended and where are we today? What have we, as a society, learned?
Of course, even if you care little about the War, have no connection to the war and absolutely hate visiting cemeteries, the Ypres countryside is a lovely place go cycling; and Ypres itself is sleepy town with good restaurants, delicious beer and a laid back vibe that fades to black around 10:00 pm. We were glad we spent time there and enjoyed our second day on the South Salient route, sore asses and all. Of course, what we saw stirred a lot of emotion, contemplation and discussion and many thoughts were still swirling in our heads as we returned the bikes and retired to our room. The next morning it was off to Paris. A new adventure awaited; I hoped we were ready.