The second day of the battlefields tour included visits to Tyne Cot and Langemarck cemeteries and to the Menin Gate in Ypres. Throughout our tour, our understanding and appreciation of these monuments was facilitated and made possible by Mr Tillbrook’s expert commentary from which most of the following remarks are drawn (only the inaccuracies are entirely my own – ed.).
Tyne Cot cemetery (the largest Commonwealth Cemetery in the world) is named after the resemblance that members of the Northumberland Fusiliers saw between the German pillboxes found on the site (which was the site of several battles) and Tyneside cottages at home – yet another link with Newcastle. Among the 11,954 burials here (of which 8,367 are unnamed), are the graves of four German soldiers treated at the dressing station improvised from the pillbox that is now the basis for the ‘Cross of Sacrifice’. Their graves are square, setting them apart from the oval design used for allied soldiers.
Nearby Tyne Cot we visited Langemarck – a German cemetery visited by Hitler during the conquest of Belgium on June 1st, 1940. Langemarck was the burial place of what Hitler claimed to be his comrades-in-arms who died in the First battle for the Ypres salient, in October and November 1914, during the all important ‘race to the sea’ between British and German soldiers to secure access to the Channel. Had Britain lost that race, it would have lost its capability to support France, and the strategic importance of Ypres helps explain why it was fought over five times during WWI.
Historians have since disputed how many of the German fallen in that first battle were in fact ‘the young untrained student soldiers’ that Hitler and others claimed. Langemarck may, with some justification, be called the ‘birthplace’ of WWII since it was to avenge the ‘Kindermord’ or ‘murder of the innocents’ that Hitler justified his nation’s aggression in WWII. There is no disputing, however, that 24,917 of the German soldiers buried here are to be found in a mass grave that surely provides the psychological link between the slaughter of Ypres in WWI and that of Stalingrad in WWII. The aesthetic at Langemarck is altogether more sombre than at Tyne Cot and other Commonwealth cemeteries – reflective of German aesthetic, of defeat and perhaps of a different attitude to WWI when it was built in the late 1920s and inaugurated in 1932.
Somewhat lighter in mood was our visit to Hill 62 museum which preserves various items of WWI hardware, communication trenches and various bits of original barbed wire that provides a link not only to WWI but to a more recent and somewhat less health-and-safety conscious world of young-persons’ theme parks!
The last visit of the day was to the Menin Gate, to hear the Last Post, performed every evening at 8pm since 1918 – interrupted only by German occupation in WWII. Among the lost soldiers named on the walls of the Gate are two brothers and former pupils of RGS – G.E. Hunter and J.T. Hunter – who were killed in action at the Second Battle of Ypres, near St Julien on April 26th 1915.
Our visit coincided with that of The Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the South Wales Borderers and the Household Cavalry who were in the region to open a new memorial to soldiers of those regiments lost during the 1st Battle of Ypres. The band of the Household Cavalry played a moving rendition of Elgar’s Nimrod variation which provided a suitably reflective and memorable end to the day.