Ypres Salient Day Trip
29th Sept 2019
Early on a rather wet morning we boarded an Eastons Coach with two drivers and our guide from Empire Battlefield Tours. The guide was Steve Roberts MBE who I remember giving the club a talk on the history of RAF Marham on 21st September 2017. He remembered it too, especially the refreshments during the break! Soon we were on our way to the Eurotunnel at Ashford in Kent to cross over to Calais. On the way we passed North Weald, where I looked back and could see a Douglas C-54Q Skymaster (56498/N44914) which is privately owned and is stored there.

As this was the first time I had been on the Eurotunnel, it would be a totally new experience. After going through passport control, we had a brief break and then got straight onto the coach, which then drove onto a waiting carriage. We arrived at Calais in half an hour. After passing Dunkirk it did not take to long to get to Belgium and start our tour around the Ypres Salient area.

Our first port of call was the Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station and cemetery. Just outside, as we left the coach, there was a marker-plaque to the poet John McCrae who wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields”. He served some time there as a doctor by trade. In the cemetery are 1200 servicemen who died here, including one of the youngest British soldiers (Rifleman Valentine Joe Strudwick plot I Row U Grave 8) who was aged 15; also Thomas Barrett who was awarded the Victoria Cross. After visiting the cemetery, we had a look at the Advanced Dressing Station with the underground treatment units.

At Vancouver Corner we saw the St Julien memorial, the Brooding Soldier. Unfortunately this was covered in scaffolding, but we were told, by our excellent and knowledgeable guide Steve, about the German chlorine gassing and the Canadian soldiers who suffered there. Our next stop was at the Tyne Cot Cemetery, which is the largest Commonwealth Cemetery in the world with nearly 12,000 graves. Its walls bear the names of 35,000 missing soldiers. Following a wall full of regiments and names, we also saw where the New Zealanders are buried in a separate part, near one of the rotundas. At the foot of the Cross of Sacrifice there are three German pill boxes. As it poured with rain the whole time we were there, our guide had to talk to us under the cover of one of the rotundas.

We then travelled to the city of Ypres by which time it had at last stopped raining. We got off the coach at the Menin Gate and had a tour past the two lions which guarded the entrance, with a road going over a moat. Up above the arch there is a lion sitting on top of a sarcophagus. Around the Gate there are 54,000 names on the walls. We then went through the arch and up onto the ramparts, where there is a scale model of the Menin Gate, so that those who are blind can have a rough idea of what it looked like. There was also information about it in Braille. Further along on the ramparts we stopped off at the Indian Soldiers Memorial and the Gurka Memorial. We then had free time to ourselves, so my Mother and I went to the Cloth Hall in the Great Market. On the Cloth Hall wall there was a plaque in memory of the 1st Polish Armoured Division. On the plaque the following text can be read “In memory of the set in of the 1st Polish Armoured Division on 6 September 1944 in Ypres fighting for your and our freedom”. This marked the liberation of Ypres in World War II.

We then went to the British Grenadier Bookshop, as in my research before we went, I saw a video about it telling of the owner’s private collection of WW1 memorabilia and items for sale. On our return we stopped just outside Ypres, at Vlamertinghe New Military cemetery. Some people on the coach had a relation who had died there, and had a gravestone there amongst the 1811 other gravestones at this cemetery. Nearby, on a roundabout there was a sculpture of a War horse, as in the War Horse Show in London Theatre. This commemorated horses that had suffered in WW1. If there was a place on route where a passenger knew of a grave of a relative, Steve Roberts, our guide, would try to fit this in.

This was an excellent and informative trip by Eastons Coaches, with a first class guide who had a great knowledge and first hand experience, having served in the RAF as a Warrant Officer and fought in the Gulf and various recent wars, before finally retiring from RAF Marham

By Andrew Elphick

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