The Battle for Messines and the medical evacuation chain were the focus of today’s visits to the south of Ieper.
After confirming that everyone had in fact returned from their expedition of the previous night, our team headed south from Ieper for the town of Mesen., to cover the Battle of Messines.
First stop, the Irish Peace Park where Guide Steve Larkins provided an orientation and ground brief despite an early morning mist blanketing the valley and slopes in front of us. We moved around to the New Zealand Memorial complex via a track walkway and some stairs, where guide Steve Larkins explained the role played by 1 ANZAC Corps with the New Zealand Division on the left, Australian 3rd Division on the Right with the 4th Division following up, and the approximate location of a several of the mines in the area.
General Plumer began his orders for the attack on Messines with these prophetic words; "Gentlemen, we may not write history tomorrow but we will certainly change the geography".
They did both. Mining on a scale not seen before or since, meticulous planning, abandonment of the quest for a breakthrough in favour of "bite and hold" of limited objectives and massive and effective artillery preparation exemplified this battle, which was the second major Allied victory on the Western Front after the Canadian success at Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
Key points such as Hill 63, Ploegsteert Wood the Douvre valley and the location of Petite Douvre ( or "Little Doover" as we christened it) farm were pointed out. The New Zealand Memorial provides an excellent outlook over two German blockhouses and a good quality map illustrating the route of the NZ Division while Steve Larkins pointed out the locations of the 3rd Division elements.
Then it was down to the area of Prowse Point, site of the 1914 Christamas Truce and which now sports a UEFA memorial replete with soccer balls and jerseys, where we disembarked for the walk in to the 9 Brigade Toronto Avenue cemetery past the somewhat depressingly named Mud Corner cemetery. The approach of the 3rd Division through the wood to their Forming Up Place for the attack was explained.
Back on the coach and around past the track up to Hill 63 which looked a bit limiting for our coach so we proceeded to the Royal Berkshire monument / Hyde Park Corner cemetery and extension.
We then proceeded to the outskirts of Armentiers and Le Bizet where Peter Zillman’s father had been wounded. These days it is covered in housing. We then swung around to the west/north west past Nieppe (site of major Casualty Clearing Stations supporting the attack), with Kemel Ridge on our right past a host of familiar place-names such as Steenwerk,
Our destination was the Hospital cemetery of Lijsenthoek south west of Poperinge. See LINK. The second largest British cemetery on the Western Front containing nearly 11,000 graves, the massed ranks of headstones marked the last resting places of the equivalent of a Division of troops- a really sobering thought. A CWGC publication cites the words of a young child to his mother on seeing the array of headstones "Something terrible happened here Mummy". Insightful words indeed.
It is the largest hospital cemetery in the Ypres Salient, with almost 11,000 interments, representing 30 nationalities. A perimeter fence comprises square steel posts with holes punched in it representing the number of interments each day of its operation.
Lijssenthoek was the site of a major cluster of Casualty Clearing Stations near the town of Poperinge, which also housed hospitals. Most of the burials here died of their wounds in the course of their treatment. Consequently, all but 24 of the graves are identified.
We spent a considerable time here, first in the excellent visitors centre and an adjacent Annex, gaining a very good understanding of the role played by health services in the fighting around Ypres, browaing the staggering array of headstones, and locating several of interest including Reginald Coulter's, a young Gallipoli veteran evacuated to Australia with enteric fever, wounded at Flers and finally as a 2LT, killed at Messines at just 21 years of age.
Lunch was taken in the shade of trees overhanging the cemetery wall before we set off for Brandhoek cemetery and a relative of the two Verco brothers, Joe and Chris.
From there we headed for home and an afternoon taking in the attractions of the old town of Ieper where many of us elected to dine and savour a few soothing libations, before a brisk walk home to our hotel.