Battlefield History Tours

Battlefield History Tours
Incorporating History and Heritage tours

Western Front to Normandy Tour on 18 September 2019


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

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.

First stop Hill 60. The movie "Beneath Hill 60" was recalled and the role played by the Australian 1st Tunnelling Company led by Captain Oliver Woodward MC** in preparing the opening round of the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917. This was particularly noteworthy because we had just previously (16th Sep) visited the site of the 1st Tunnelling Company's last action of the war at the Battle of the Sambre on 4 November 1918.

Next stop, the Irish Peace Park which overlooks the Messines Battlefield from the German positions. The Irish however, did not figure in the Battle of 7 June 1917. We then walked around to the New Zealand Memorial.

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.

We then did a circuit of the Allied area of the Battlefield with first stop at Spanbroekmolen a massive 90,000lb mine on the boundary between the Kiwis and the British Division to the north. Now known as the Pool of Peace it was clearly quite the opposite on 7 June 1917. Then via the back of Hill 63, the area known as 'the catacombs' because it was honeycombed with dugouts and tunnels.

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. We paid our respects to Private Riccard Summers, grandfather of a friend of David Llewelyn's, and one of the few Australian burials in this iconic cemetery.

A walk down to Toronto Avenue cemetery followed; the only all Australian cemetery in Belgium populated by men of the 9th Brigade. The approach of the 3rd Division through the wood to their Forming Up Place for the attack was explained.

There we acknowledged the service of Lieutenant Roy Lenton, of the 39th Battalion, Chontelle Scott's great grandfather who was seriously wounded in the vicinity prior to the attack on 7 June.

Our next 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 intimidating array of headstones "Something terrible happened here Mummy". Insightful words indeed.

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.

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 before dinner at 'Kazematten', a restaurant in a tunnel in the city walls not far from the Menin Gate.


Steve Larkins


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