Battlefield History Tours

Battlefield History Tours
Incorporating History and Heritage tours

Western Front to Normandy Tour 19 September 2018


Today's emphasis was on the Battle of Messines in June 1917, and the role of medical services in the Great War.

With a bit of a mix up over lunches we decided to strike out to Hill 60 first then return to collect our lunch packs. Driver Serge was new to the area but did a great job navigating around roadworks and other constraints to arrive at the Hill 60 site.

The movie "Beneath Hill 60" was recalled and the role played by the Australian 1st Tunnelling Company in preparing the opening round of the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917. This amplified what had already been seen of the WW1 Underground War at Wellington Quarries and Vimy Ridge earlier in the Tour. To join the dots we then proceeded to view the other end of the Messines Battlefield.

First stop, the New Zealand Memorial at Mesen (the Flemish spelling of Messines) which was no mean feat given widespread traffic restriction in Mesen. We had to envelop it from the East.

Guide Steve Larkins provided an orientation and ground brief. 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.

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.

A brief stop at the Irish Peace Park where 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.

Then it was down to the area of Prowse Point, site of the 1914 Christmas Truce and which now sports a UEFA memorial replete with soccer balls and jerseys. With mobility issues impacting on a couple of our team, we skipped the walk in to the 9 Brigade Toronto Avenue 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 is unfortunately not up to handling our coach so we proceeded to the Royal Berkshire monument / Hyde Park Corner cemetery and extension. Peter Neal had a relative who had served in the Bedford Regiment so he was well pleased to be able to inspect it.

We then proceeded to the outskirts of Armentieres and then swung around to the west/north west past Nieppe (site of major Casualty Clearing Stations supporting the attack). We had commemorations at the large and diverse Baileuil Cemetery extension the name of which understates its size and diversity. There we commemorated Eric Reuben WHEATON and at nearby Trois Arbres (Three Trees) cemetery, Charles Frederick PROCTER.

Our next destination was the Hospital cemetery of LIJSENTHOEK south west of Poperinge, 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.

Lunch was taken clustered around a single picnic table at the end of the car park.

We spent a considerable time here, first commemorating another relative of Carol and Ian Procter, Reginald LEAK who left behind a wife and seven children the youngest unborn. Wounded in early October he died on 9 October serving with the 10th Battalion.

The second commemoration was more generic; an early resident of the Virtual War Memorial, including Reginald COULTER, who had enlisted as soon as he was able at just 18. He was a promising classmate of Howard Florey's (who later developed penicillin). He became a young Gallipoli veteran, was evacuated to Australia VSI with enteric fever, returned and promoted to Sergeant to be wounded at Flers and finally as a Second Lieutenant, killed at Messines at just 21 years of age.

Some time was spent in the excellent visitors centre, gaining an understanding of the role played by health services in the fighting around Ypres. The scale of what was happening is vividly illustrated with a timeline of the cemetery and the steel picket fence at the front, a picket for each day that there were burials, with punched out marks illustrating the number of interments on that day.

From there we headed for home and an afternoon taking in the attractions of the old town of Ieper where the team 'free ranged' for the rest of the evening electing to dine and savour a few soothing libations and some combat shopping for the ladies along the way.

Steve Larkins
Battlefield History Tours.


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