After many years of waiting, my brother Herbert and I finally made the trip to visit the world one battlefields. This included Ypres where we watched the nightly memorial service at the Menem Gate and that’s where we found our great uncle’s (Lt. Col. Frank Page) inscription, killed in 1917; he was amongst the 1½ million British troops killed between 1914 & 1918.
We travelled with a specialised tour company (Ledgers) and spent three full days visiting the main British sectors, Ypres, Arras and the Somme. What really struck home was the amount of war cemeteries, they were everywhere and only several hundred yards apart in many places as many were actually on the actual battlefields themselves. These cemeteries demonstrated very visually how little the front lines moved forward yet at the same time confirming the terrible slaughter that took place over such a short piece of ground. We visited many war grave cemeteries with up to 11,000 bodies buried yet only scraped the surface of the total number of cemeteries; the ranges of the men that were buried went from 16 to 50 though apparently there is one war grave with an 84 year old soldier buried in.
We have all read and seen various films about WW1 and known it was dreadfully brutal, but these facts do not really register until you actually see the museums on the battlefields and all the war graves but more importantly, the names inscribed on the various memorials and cemetery walls of the soldiers that were never found. We must also remember there were over 2 million German troops killed and the war was also fought in the Middle East, goodness knows how many men lost their lives in total.
The other eye opener was the vast amount of ordnance fired across the battlefields by each army, this was so great that in the Ypres theatre of the war alone, the Belgium Bomb disposal units are currently destroying between 200 and 300 tons of un-exploded shells each year and have done so for many years!
Another aspect of the war was just how much was fought underground. We all are aware that miners were tunnelling below each front line but we visited a cave dug under Arras, it was so large that they had 24,000 troops living there for 8 days whilst preparing for another “failed” assault.
Fortunately the weather was kind to us so all the areas we walked were dry and reasonably hard and our Battlefield Guide was extraordinary, he must have lived and breathed WW1 facts, figures and dates, we were extremely lucky.
We both enjoyed the experience and learnt a lot more about WW1 that neither of us were aware of; thoroughly recommended.