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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m on my way towards Ypres and pass through the town of Diksmuide with the landmark Yser Tower and Pax Gate.
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 Langemark–Poelkapelle – 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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…
The time I have to explore the Western Front – 5.5 days – is really not very long when you consider how much there is to see and experience, so I’m packing in as much as I can each day. Today is my chance to explore the area of the Ypres battles, in particular the Battle of Passchendaele. This 1917 ‘3rd Ypres’ battle is infamous for mud and for over half-a-million casualties for a mere few miles’ movement in the line.
My day begins with visiting one of the intriguingly-named Great War Diary places that I want to check off my list: Zonnebeke (pronounced Zon-a-beek and not to be confused with the equally delightful Zillebeke). Zonnebeke is a little town a mere 10km east of Ypres, surrounded by farmland, and it is home of the Passchendaele Museum.
In a beautiful lakeside setting, this museum gives you all the knowledge you need through engaging displays, interactive exhibits and immersive experiences, all accompanied by a free audio guide. Here are some of my highlights:
1. Black Watch soldier. This was pretty exciting – of all the regiments and uniforms that the museum could have displayed, it is the uniform of my great-grandfather’s regiment! It also shows that soldiers who wore kilts were given covers to wear over them to keep the mud off the heavy woollen tartan. (And yes, this is a kitsch museum mannequin but if this makes you think this is an old-fashioned museum, read on…)
2. A chance to test the weight of the haversack that soldiers had to carry, just like the one at the Black Watch soldier’s feet. It was bloomin’ heavy.
3. A display about gas attacks that not only described in words the smell of the different types of gas used as weapons in WWI, but allowed you to sniff the aromas yourself – truly memorable (and horrible).
4. A guide to some “common” English phrases for the Flemish. “I must dine at seven o’clock…Can you give me some hot meat?”
5. The ‘dugout experience‘. Until this visit, I had understood a dugout – at its biggest – to be an underground chamber off the front-line trench big enough for two or three officers at most. Turns out that they could be vast underground warrens with bunks for hundreds of men, offices for officers, hospital operating theatres, and kitchens. Places for keeping your army safe from shelling and hidden from view. You descend the staircase from the exhibition hall into a dark tunnel with flickering electric light, passages ahead of you with wood-lined walls, and the loud rumbling of shellfire which you not only hear as though they were exploding on the land above your head but you feel in the vibrations of the walls. Progressing through the various chambers of this dugout, imagining the experience of the hundreds of men in this airless space, it feels very real. Just outside the museum in the grounds of Zonnebeke Church, you can see the entrance to a real WWI British dugout.
6. The artillery room, and two things in particular. First, a diagram that showed the different types of artillery and their respective ranges and trajectories. You’d choose a mortar for short distances up to 2.5km, Howitzers and heavy guns for medium or long-range. Mortars and Howitzers launch in an arc to fall down upon the enemy while long-range guns fire pretty much in a straight line (great for battles across valleys as I am to learn later at Verdun). Here’s a fuzzy photo of the chart.
Secondly, the floor-to-ceiling cabinet of brightly-coloured shells. They were not black iron or rust-brown or even shiny brass when they were delivered to the front; they were red, blue, green, yellow. These vibrant colours allowed troops to identify the type of shell at a glance. I find this fascinating. Of course you’d never know it from the old black and white photos we have from the era or from the corroded ‘iron harvest’ of unexploded ordnance that is still being ploughed up from fields today, but it does seem quite obvious once you find out about it! And here they are displayed almost like a work of art.