The Quest

In Flanders fields the poppies blow [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]

There are a number of reasons why I set out, in July 2014, to write about the First World War every day for the duration of the centenary. Primarily, I wanted to deliver an act of remembrance of a scale that in some way matched up to the significance of the 100th anniversary. I wanted to make the events of the Great War a part of my every day life, as it had been for the British population a century ago, to feel connected to the past. My friends would tell you that it is not uncommon for me to refer to Diary of the Great War events in the present tense!

Excerpt from The Times "Complete Diary of the War" published April 1915.
Excerpt from The Times “Complete Diary of the War” published April 1915.

Furthermore, I wanted to learn in more detail about what happened during the war and, sitting in the British Library surrounded by archives as I tried to work out what my project should be, I discovered the contemporary accounts of The Times newspaper. Its monthly diaries offered a voice from the past that tracked the war’s progress in the perfect balance of summary and detail to get the overview I wanted. Lastly, but by no means least, it felt important to share my project with as many people as possible, so that everyone might know the events of the war, its people, its places and its global impact.

I’m telling you this because it goes some way to explaining why I now find myself in Flanders. Having written every day for four years now, I felt compelled to cross the channel to visit the WWI battlefields of Belgium and France in something of a personal quest on three fronts.

Map of the Soissons area, 1914-15. [Source:]
Map of the Soissons area, 1914-15. [Source: ]
First, it now feels essential to me to connect physically with the content of the Diary of the Great War as I reflect on my experience of writing. Hundreds of different cities, towns, villages and even individual farms are name-checked in the Diary over the years, most I had never heard of. While writing the Diary, I look up pretty much every one of them, positioning them on Google Maps, discovering their modern names (and, sometimes, which country they are now part of, where nations have shifted and changed during the 20th century). What is hard to grasp is what the war meant to these places. I want to visit some of the more frequently-mentioned towns to make them ‘real’; locate some of the more unusually-named places that have lodged themselves in my memory. They have almost become myth to me and I want to be in these places to live a connection to the past. I want to travel between them and through them to experience how the battles took shape along the front lines that strung these places together.

My well-thumbed copy of Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks [Copyright: A. Matthews 2018]
My well-thumbed copy of Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks [Copyright: A. Matthews 2018]
Secondly, and a little more frivolously, part of my trip will trace aspects of the novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. I first read this book about 20 years ago as a teenager and, with a burgeoning interest in the era, it completely captured my imagination. What continually fascinates me about the First World War is the many, many stories it contains: created, concealed, or cut short. Birdsong is in no small part responsible for my passionate interest in the subject and I will be re-reading it along my journey, visiting sites that until now I have only imagined, and so bringing the book to life.

Lastly, as for many who visit the battlefields, there are family connections. During the centenary I have remembered my great-grandmother’s family in a number of ways. Three of her brothers were killed in the war: Frank, George and Thomas Potter. I’ve written about them elsewhere but it is for Tom that I venture to Flanders. He was killed at Passchendaele. My great-grandfather on the other side of my family, Ferguson Hunter, also fought in the war and thankfully survived. He was part of the respected Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) Regiment. There are places I need to visit to stand in the shadow of my own ancestors.

These three influences will feature as this blog unfolds. And so my journey into the fields of Flanders begins…

In Flanders fields the poppies blow [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
In Flanders fields the poppies blow [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]

The Last Post (Ypres)

Every day, at 8pm, crowds gather at the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres to take part in a collective act of remembrance. The Menin Gate is inscribed with the names of more than 54,000 of the missing of the First World War – men who have no known grave. The location is significant, as many soldiers passed from Ypres along the Menin road, east towards the front line.

This night, as every night, hundreds of people fell silent at the sound of the buglers’ Last Post. And then something magical happened: a choir began to sing. Softly, the Ubi Caritas began to spiral upwards, stroking the walls and their thousands of names. Wreaths were laid to remember these missing men.

Lots of people have asked me if my trip is emotional. Well, this bit was.The Menin Gate, Ypres [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]

The Menin Gate in Ypres, after the ceremony [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]

I spoke to the choir afterwards and found out that they were from the Netherlands. It is incredible that people from across Europe and all around the world continue to come together in this place, as they have done every day since 1928. I’ve since looked online and discovered that on most days there is either a choir, a band or a piper, each of which will bring a special quality to the evening. For me, though, there is nothing so moving as a choir.

It was the Cantando Pijnacker the night I was there and if you happen to be in Ypres for the 2018 Armistice weekend (November 9th-11th), I understand that they are performing a concert in the city.

Find out more about attending the Menin Gate ceremony

Museum No. 1 (Ypres)

The (rebuilt) Cloth Hall in Ypres, home to the In Flanders Fields museum. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]

I drove south from Diksmuide through the Flemish countryside, passing fields of cabbages, potatoes and cows. Wow, it’s flat! Not the slightest hill in sight. You can see different towns from quite a distance away, each with its church spire piercing the landscape. Easy targets.

As I approached Ypres (via LangemarkPoelkapelle – more on that another day), I had my first glimpse of the neat marble-white geometries of the Commonwealth military cemeteries. The closer I got to the city, the more frequently the roadside cemeteries came.

I parked up near to the city-centre Ypres Reservoir Cemetery and headed to the In Flanders Fields museum in the spectacular Cloth Hall (completely destroyed during the war and subsequently rebuilt). An average visit to this museum is apparently 90 minutes. With 3 hours until the museum was due to close, I calculated that I had just enough time to visit.

The (rebuilt) Cloth Hall in Ypres, home to the In Flanders Fields museum. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
The (rebuilt) Cloth Hall in Ypres, home to the In Flanders Fields museum. [Copyright 2018: A. Matthews]
This is a modern museum structured around themes and stories. Each visitor is given a digital wristband to wear which triggers different exhibits, introducing you to personal stories which they say are tailored for you based on your own background. I really enjoyed the museum and found it to be a great introduction for my trip.

A few of the highlights for me:

  • Europe before the war began – a very good way to start an exhibition, fascinating context. Did it really all kick off because some young Serb assassinated an Austrian Archduke? The world was spoiling for war in the Belle Epoque. Germany had focused its efforts on internal unification during the 1800s and was now turning its attention to making its name on the global stage. Other ‘great powers’ were competing to expand their empires and their arms. There was already constant violence around the world – armies sent to colonies to suppress local uprisings and keep control of power. The armed forces were an important aspect national identity.
  • This poem from 1890, Tommy, by Rudyard Kipling:

I went into a public ‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play.

I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but ‘adn’t none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-‘alls,
But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! they’ll shove me in the stalls!
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, wait outside”;
But it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide
The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide,
O it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide.”

Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap.
An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
Is five times better business then paradin’ in full kit.
Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ Tommy, “‘ow’s yer soul?”
But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes,” when the drums begin to roll.

(Read the full poem here)

Despite national patriotism for the military, soldiers were looked down on by the general public.

  • This infographic showing how unprepared Britain was for a land-based war and how tiny her forces compared to other European powers…except for the might of the Royal Navy.
  • Individual personal wartime experiences, recounted to you by actors (on large digital screens) who looked you straight in the eye as they spoke – German military scientists explaining how and why they would use gas, soldiers of three different nationalities giving their accounts of the 1914 Christmas Truce, an American surgeon and a British nurse telling us about the horrors of field hospitals.
  • The real purpose of trench raids – not only to take a prisoner and gather information on the enemy but, significantly, a means of keeping up the men in fighting form, in battle mindset, during long periods of no real action on the front.
  • The young men I was personally introduced to via my digital wristband. Here, we can remember:

Albert French (Kings Royal Rifles) – whose workplace in England recorded that he “left without notice” in order to sign up in 1915, so concerned was he not to miss out on the opportunity of going to war. He was killed two weeks after arriving at the front in Belgium, aged 16.

Everard Yates (Liverpool Scottish) – who visited the Tate Gallery in London in his last few days before going to war and who was given two pairs of underpants with his kilt uniform…which he thought were annoying so he threw them away. He went missing in Flanders fields on June 16, 1915 and was never found.


Plan your own visit to the In Flanders Fields Museum


The Yser and the Trench of Death (Diksmuide/Dixmude)

The German bunker ahead, as viewed from the end of the Belgian trench. (Copyright 2018: A. Matthews)

First stop on my tour-proper is Diksmuide Belgium, to see the river Yser and its canal, and to visit the only remaining Belgian trench system – the Trench of Death – on the canal banks.

The story of the Yser front was one that piqued my interest in the early years of writing the Diary of the Great War because I had never heard of it before. It was the stretch of the front line between the Ypres sector and the coast. As I wrote, I learned that the Belgian Army – being pushed out of their own country towards France – took a simple but ingenious step to stop the German advance: they opened the lock gates on the canal system at Nieuwpoort (on the coast) and flooded the land. This is mentioned in the Diary on September 4, 1914.

The flooded Yser plain (from
The flooded Yser plain. (Source:

Overall, it did the trick. However, the Germans and Belgians continued to fight along the raised banks of the Yser Canal, near to Dixmuide, with flooded fields either side. I stopped into the visitor centre before walking through preserved trenches to understand what happened here – the story of the Trench of Death.

Photograph looking along the Trench of Death. The canal is to the left behind the fence and where the road is on the right would have been under the flood water.
Looking along the Trench of Death. The canal is to the left behind the fence and where the road is on the right would have been under the flood water. (Copyright 2018: A Matthews)

At first, the Belgians were on one side of the canal and the Germans were on the other but, early on in the war, the Germans infiltrated the Belgian trench. The Belgians blew up part of their trench to stop them and water flowed into the gap that the explosion created. The Belgian trench was left incredibly exposed: a thin line with German Army opposite, German Army next to them, and water on three sides. Somehow, the Belgians managed to hold on to this hellish position for the duration of the war.

Today, you can walk along the zig-zagging Belgian trench, through a dark bunker (luckily a group overtook me here and showed me the way through) and into the end of the trench, known as the mouse-trap. If you peak above the parapet, a German bunker faces you.

And then you can safely climb out, and walk the mere 100 paces across no-man’s-land to visit the German bunker. It is so close. Trench mortars and grenades could easily cover these short distances and you would not be able to hide from a sniper here either. Death was never far away – perhaps more so here than in other places on the front line – hence the nickname the trench was given by the men who fought there.

Photo of the Belgian bunker - where the person in white is standing - taken from the German bunker. (Copyright 2018: A. Matthews)
Walking back to the Belgian trenches – where the person in the white top is standing. Photo taken from the German bunker. (Copyright 2018: A. Matthews)

These Belgian trenches were heavily reinforced with concrete (this is relatively unusual for Allies because defensive trenches were usually considered temporary). Soldiers had carved their names into the walls, a moving reminder of the human side of the story.

A soldier's name carved into the concrete in the Trench of Death. (Copyright 2018: A. Matthews)
A soldier’s name carved into the concrete in the Trench of Death. (Copyright 2018: A. Matthews)

Here’s to the Belgians who fought desperately for their country on this terrible spot and, with the French, successfully kept a corner of Belgium out of German hands.

The Dixmude Demarcation Stone, installed at the end of the Trench of Death to show the position held by the Belgian Army. (Copyright 2018: A. Matthews)
The Dixmude Demarcation Stone, installed at the end of the Trench of Death to show the position held by the Belgian and French Armies. (Copyright 2018: A. Matthews)

I’m on my way towards Ypres and pass through the town of Diksmuide with the landmark Yser Tower and Pax Gate.

Remembering Captain Fryatt (Bruges)

My pilgrimage begins in Bruges, historic Belgian market town famed for its network of canals, its market square belfry and, of course, beer. It was known as the ‘Poperinghe of the Germans’, taken by the Germans early on in the war and spending the duration under occupation.

The effects of WWI on the city are not immediately visible to the visitor. Its historic centre remained intact through both World Wars – despite aerial bombardments by the Allies as reported in the Diary (follow the Bruges link above). This is, of course, a good thing because much of the architecture dates from the 16th and 17th centuries (and earlier) and it is beautiful. I spent a day here and it was good to reflect on what was being fought for and what we are able to enjoy today. Sadly I was a couple of days too late to see the temporary exhibition, “The Battle for the North Sea” – it looked right up my street!

There is one important site in the city of Bruges which brings the First World War to the fore: Beluik der Gefusilleerden. Here, in the place where they died, are commemorated twelve individuals who were executed by the Germans.

Beluik der Gefusileerden, Bruges. Copyright 2018: Anna Matthews
Beluik der Gefusilleerden, Bruges

Eleven were Belgian citizens, shot for not acquiescing to German rule, and one is British merchant navy Captain Charles Fryatt accused of trying to ram a German submarine with his ship. You can read a little of the story here in the Diary: July 27, 1916. I hope he was mentioned in the North Sea exhibition. A peaceful line of 12 standing stones in front of the pock-marked brick wall brings each man’s sacrifice home. We remember you all and from a fellow British citizen, we remember you Captain Fryatt.

Memorial to Captain Charles Fryatt, Bruges. Copyright 2018: Anna Matthews
Memorial to Captain Charles Fryatt in Bruges.


The Diary of the Great War is on tour – more specifically, its author is.

Hello, I’m Anna. I live in the South West of England and have always been interested in the First World War.

I have been writing the Diary since July 2014 to remember the events of  World War One and to discover more about the conflict. Now, after 4 years, I am visiting some of the battle sites of Belgium and France to pay my respects.

I drove to Dover and took the ferry across the English Channel to Calais, tracing the route that our soldiers would have taken – for many of whom the fading white cliffs would have been their last sight of home.