100 years ago my parents were born. They would be part of the last Europeans having to face two major international wars plus a cold war.
100 years ago there was also a special Christmas celebration in the beautiful fields which were lying ruined in the dark days. In Ploegsteert (Wallonia) near to Mesen (Flanders) British and German soldiers fraternised and played football on Christmas eve.
Sandy Evrard, the mayor of the small village of Mesen in southern West Flanders on the border with France does not seem to be so pleased that the tourist offices and tour buses do not try to bring other places also in the picture.
I too find it a missed opportunity to show foreigners the serious damage which was brought into our regions. By the launch of a special war tour bus that will take in some of the most important First World War sites we see that the coaches will not stop in Mesen (or Messines, as it is known in English).
“The people of Ypres seem to think the whole war took place over there.”
The bus will travel from Nieuwpoort on the coast, to Diksmuide and Ypres and back several times a day to allow tourists to visit all the major First World War sites.
Funny enough, when the bus tour was Evrard his idea originally, to find his village being missed out by it. He had hoped for a route between Lille and Ypres, with some stops to the south of Ypres, including Mesen.
“They stole my idea and left Mesen out.”
According to Flemish tourism chiefs – who with Belgium’s government have invested more than 50m euros (£42m; $67m) in centenary events – the centennial anniversary is likely to make the many “must-see” WW1 attractions in the region even more popular than they were before.
In a “normal” year, the Flanders Fields area accommodates 350,000 visitors – mainly British, Belgian, Dutch and a growing band from the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. This is set to rise to 500,000.
Many come to find their ancestor’s final resting place, while others are simply intrigued by the history.
A 10m-euro refurbishment has increased the size of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres by 50%, while Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery has a new visitors’ centre.
The Memorial Museum of Passchendaele 1917 in Zonnebeke has a new building, while the Yser Tower Museum in Diksmuide has been renovated.
At Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world, many of the broken white Portland stone headstones are being replaced with marble – part of an effort to get the cemeteries looking perfect for the expected crowds.
Peter Slosse, director of tourism in Ypres, said bookings at hotels and the In Flanders Fields Museum had risen by at least 30%.
“We even have bookings for 2015,” he said. “But there are still places left and people will always be helped find somewhere to stay outside of Ypres if it’s full here.”
Teachers Nick De Bodt and Rik Caubergs said the prospect of a tourism boom had prompted them to launch Bike and Culture Flanders, a travel agency which combines WW1 cycle tours with cultural activities such as chocolate-making.
“We think people get so much more out of visiting the graveyards and battlefields by bike,”
said Mr De Bodt.
“The terrain is flat, so you can cover many miles in a day, which means you can get some idea of what it was like for the soldiers involved.”
But WW1 cycling tour guide Carl Ooghe said he feared not all attempts to lure in tourists were as tasteful.
“It makes me frown when I see souvenir shops selling poppy gin, poppy chocolates, poppy umbrellas and even chocolate helmets,” he said.
“It could offend some people and reflects negatively on the image of a town like Ypres.”
Mesen is best known for the 1917 Battle of Messines Ridge, when English and Irish regiments hoped to retake the tiny city, strategically located on a hill, from the Germans. Some of the battle’s shell explosions are believed to have been felt as far away as London. The Pool of Peace, a crater made by such an explosion, later filled with water, is a permanent reminder of the battle. Historians note, however, that the Battle of Messines Ridge mostly took place in Wijtschate, which is home to the Pool of Peace and part of neighbouring Heuvelland.
Jan Durnez, the CD&V mayor of Ypres, responded to Evrard:
“Where the First World War is concerned, Ypres comes to mind first. But let’s not start a war on the remembrance. There is no point in that.”
Wednesday the 21st of May Peter Jackson, the director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit movies, was in West Flanders as a New Zealander remembring the many New Zealand troops which took part in fighting in the area of Mesen – better known at the time by its French name Messines – particularly the Battle of Messines from 7 to 14 June 1917. Some 103,000 troops and nurses served from New Zealand, from a population barely more than a million. Casualties and injuries ran to 58%: 16,697 dead and 41,317 injured.
Jackson, who is known for his keen interest in the First World War and is chair of New Zealand’s 14-18 Aviation Heritage Trust, visited the new statue of a Kiwi soldier on Mesen’s Grote Markt, as well as the Messines Ridge Cemetery, where many of the Kiwi dead lie buried.
Earlier in the day, Jackson visited Passendale and Zonnebeke and Ieper (Ypres) where he attended the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate, where the name of his great-uncle, who was one of the New Zealand casualties, is commemorated. The director’s great uncle died in Flanders fields and his name occurs among those on the Menin Gate that honours British and Commonwealth war dead who have no known grave.
He also called in at the Tourist Information Centre in Mesen, which was recently extended with the help of a subsidy from the New Zealand government.
Whether Peter Jackson has plans to direct a Great War epic isn’t clear, but he earlier directed a short about the conflict.
- Battlefield on a Bike Series – Ypres 2014 (themadgame.com)
With a bike, you can get very close to the monuments, statues, cemeteries and sights of the Ypres Salient.
find also other nice photographs and additional texts at:
Photos by the Mad game
The site of the cemetery was in No Man’s Land before 31 July 1917 when the 15th (Scottish) Division, with the 55th (West Lancashire) Division on their left, took nearby Verlorenhoek and Frezenberg.
Maple Leaf Cemetery
Maple Leaf Cemetery was begun in December 1914 by fighting units and field ambulances, but from July 1915 to April 1916, the village was occupied by the Advanced Dressing Station of the 3rd Canadian Field Ambulance and the cemetery thus acquired its present name. The last Commonwealth burial was made in December 1917, but German graves were added in April 1918 when the cemetery was in German hands.
Potijze Burial Ground Cemetery (Potijze Chateau)
Potijze was within the Allied lines during practically the whole of the First Word War and although subject to incessant shell fire, Potijze Chateau contained an Advanced Dressing Station. Potijze Burial Ground Cemetery was used from April 1915 to October 1918.
Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery
Lijssenthoek is sited on the main Poperinghe-Ypres road. As a result, it was the natural place to site a field hospital/casualty clearing station. Therefore, of the 9901 burials, only 24 are unknown, as most were former casualties brought from the field. This is the CWGC entry (courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission).
- Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson in Flanders Fields (deredactie.be)
The Great War is one of the big interests of New Zealander Peter Jackson. Many were the New Zealanders who perished in the town, especially during the Battle of Messines. The town of Mesen enjoys strong ties with New Zealand and recently was able to benefit from a subsidy to set up a tourist information point.The celebrated director visited the market square that now boasts a new statue in honour of soldiers from New Zealand as well as the Messines Ridge Cemetery where numerous New Zealanders lie buried.
- Kiwi unknown soldier reburied in Belgium (stuff.co.nz)
The battlefields of Mesen fell silent almost a century ago but another New Zealand soldier’s sacrifice was remembered overnight (NZ time) in Belgium.An icy wind blew as a chilling reminder of World War I at Messines Ridge British Cemetery in Mesen, West Flanders, at the reburial of the unnamed soldier.
The coffin, which had been draped with the New Zealand flag and a soldier’s hat during the service, was gently lowered into the snow-covered ground as a guard of honour, from Ypres Barracks, fired three volleys.
The Last Post and Reveille sounded across the mist-shrouded valley, followed by the New Zealand national anthem, sung by Kiwi soprano Carleen Ebbs.
- Kiwi unknown soldier reburied in Belgium (warhistoryonline.com)
The soldier was discovered during excavations of a pipeline in Mesen in April 2012.He was reburied in the south corner of the cemetery, next to the grave of another unidentified New Zealand soldier whose remains were uncovered in 2011 and for whom a similar reburial ceremony was held in February last year.
More than 700 NZ soldiers lost their lives in the battle for Messines. A forensic examination confirmed the soldier was aged between 20 and 25 years and 170cm in height. However, this information was not enough to provide a certain name.
His headstone will read, under a silver fern insignia, “A Soldier of the Great War known unto God”.
In Mesen the local community has dedicated itself to preserving the memory of the New Zealand soldiers who fought in the area.
Many streets and monuments have New Zealand names – Featherstonplen is the main square. New Zealand soldiers at the time had said the countryside around Mesen reminded them of Featherston in Wairarapa, where many of them had trained.
Jones said: “Our soldiers came from the utmost ends of the earth to fight in the Great War. The effects of this significant event still show today.
“There is a special bond between New Zealand and the people of Belgium. I thank you for remembering our soldiers.
- The road to the battlefields of Ypres in 1919 and now interactive (theguardian.com)
In the latest of our weekly series of interactive photographs to mark the centenary of the first world war, the destroyed Belgian city of Ypres is seen from the Menin Road. Hundreds of thousands of troops marched east from here to the battlefields of the Ypres Salient, scene of some of the war’s biggest battles. This was the spot chosen for the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, which was inaugurated in 1927