Friday, 21 October 2016

Five Durham cycling pals pay a visit of remembrance to the Somme and Ypres (Part Two)

This week we have the final part of David D's account of his cycling tour of France and Flanders.

Day two of our trip began with every indication that it was going to be a clear, warm and still day which would be perfect for cycling. We set off after breakfast to ride the kilometre or so into the centre of Ypres to visit the Menin Gate Memorial. We found our first experience of riding in an urban area to be a very positive one, with dedicated cycle lanes along roads where space allowed, and light controlled crossings at busy intersections. In the town centre I was glad to see it was permitted to cycle either way along the one way streets, as some of our party are prone to do this even where it isn't permitted!

The Menin Gate proved to be an impressive monument to the fallen. It was chosen because of the hundreds of thousands of men who passed through it on their way to the battlefields. We learnt it bears the names of more than 54,000 officers and men whose graves are not known. One of the names is that of John Henderson, a coal miner from Shield Row, Stanley. He enlisted in the Yorkshire Hussars in 1916 and served as Private 39174. He died somewhere in Flanders on 7 June 1917 at the age of 24. We planned to return to the Menin Gate for the evening service at 8pm, and as we had been warned that it would be very busy after the service, we booked a table in a restaurant in the square next to the Cloth Market.

We saddled up and left town eastwards on the Zonnebeekseweg (N332), connecting Ypres to Zonnebeke. We soon came to the Ypres Town Cemetery Extension on the right hand side of the road. There are 604 Commonwealth casualties buried or commemorated in the extension, 141 of the burials are unidentified. We had researched one of the known casualties as it seemed appropriate to honour a member of the Army Cyclist Corps on our trip. We chose Cecil Christopher Iley, a draper and gentlemen's outfitter from Gateshead, who served as Private 20982 in VII Corps Cyclist Battalion. He disembarked in Boulogne, France in May 1917 and was posted to his battalion in June. Cyclists were employed in combat but during trench warfare were found to be generally ineffective. However, when the deadlock of the trenches was overcome in 1918 cyclists proved invaluable in a reconnaissance and messenger role. Cecil died in action on 29 September 1918.

We continued our journey and for the first and only time the cycling became a bit fraught as we rode along a short but busy narrow road with cars parked on both sides. At times the space the overtaking cars left was less than desirable so we were glad to come to a dedicated cycle route going our way. 

I'm sure banter played an important role for the troops just as it does for our band of cyclists. I happened to confuse my words when reading the map and instead of saying either cycle track or bicycle way I came out with "bicleway". Needless to say the other four in our group found the opportunity to drop that new word into conversation at every possible opportunity, and I fear will now do so well into the future.
At the village of Zonnebeke we turned off the main road onto quiet country lanes which we followed to the Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial. This was the busiest site we visited on our entire trip which we noticed immediately when we saw the parked coaches, minibuses, and cars, as we put our bikes into racks. However, even though it was busy, the atmosphere was perfectly respectful as befits the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in the world. We learnt the Tyne Cot Cemetery has 11,961 Commonwealth servicemen buried or commemorated with 8373 of the burials unidentified. The adjacent memorial commemorates a staggering 34,887 soldiers from the United Kingdom and New Zealand who died in the Ypres Salient after 16 August 1917 and whose graves are not known. One thing we found especially poignant was that as you walk along the path to the visitor centre, a quiet female voice calls out a name every few seconds on a continuous speaker system. Each of the names is for one of the soldiers commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.

We visited the grave of Private 3283 Henry Mather of the Royal Marines Medical Unit who had a direct family connection to one of our group. He was a coal miner living in Craghead when he joined up at the age of 29. As a member of 149th Field Ambulance he would have been in the thick of things, and he was killed in action on 26 October 1917. He was originally buried on the battlefield with a cross bearing his name and service details. Mather's body was exhumed after the Armistice, identified by means of the cross and a disc he was wearing, and reburied with full military honours in Tyne Cot Cemetery, next to another member of his Field Ambulance unit who died in the same action.

The cyclists at Tyne Cot Cemetery (photo David D)
The cyclists at Tyne Cot Cemetery (photo David D)
In researching Henry's details before our trip, we learned that he was one member of a group from the Craghead Division of the St John's Ambulance Corps who joined up at around the same time. Miners trained in first aid were highly valued by the Field Ambulances for both their medical knowledge, their experience of dangerous situations, and their strength to be able to carry wounded men over broken terrain. We were amazed to find that within our small party we had links to two other Craghead members. One was a great uncle who served and died of illness in Gallipoli, and another was a grandfather who applied to return to coal mining duties at his colliery manager's request, and who survived the war. Henry was one of five Craghead St John's Ambulance men who died in the war. We paused for a while to consider their sacrifice.

Leaving Tyne Cot we headed along Schipstraat,  and as we noted elsewhere on our rides, we found that one of the major benefits of cycling the routes is that you notice the slight rises in the ground that must have been so important during the war. The land we crossed was so generally flat that every piece of higher ground took on enormous significance. At the first crossroads we came to was the New Zealand Memorial, a white obelisk with the following dedication "This monument marks the site of Gravenstafel which on October the 4th 1917 was captured by the New Zealand Division as part of the general advance towards Passchendaele".

We continued ahead to Vancouver Corner and the St Julien Canadian Memorial. Known as “The Brooding Soldier”, this immense sculpture commemorates the Canadian 1st Division in action in April 1915. The Canadian division held its position after the German Army launched the first ever large-scale gas attack. Over a few days the Canadians were involved in heavy fighting, with some 2000 killed, wounded or missing. Today, on a beautiful early afternoon, the soldier looked down on a group of visiting schoolchildren having their lunch on the grass.
St Julien Canadian Memorial (photo David D)
St Julien Canadian Memorial (photo David D)
Throughout our second day's ride we could see the spires of Ypres in the distance and we now prepared to loop back on ourselves to complete our circuit. We made one final stop at New Irish Farm Cemetery where there are 4719 Commonwealth servicemen buried or commemorated. One of them is William Coxon, a house painter from Stanley. who served as Private 2694 in the 8th Battalion DLI, and lost his life on the 2 March 1916 at the age of 26.

We passed under the N38 on an underpass and made our way back to our hotel. After freshening up we made our way down to Ypres town centre and settled down for refreshments outside a cafe in the town square. At about 7pm we heard stirring music and saw a band lead a party to the front of the Cloth Market. We later found out this was the visiting Ardrossan Winton Flute Band who we followed to the Menin Gate in time for the moving service of remembrance which was held there at 8pm. This simple service, which is held every day, was an eloquent tribute witnessed by a large crowd which immaculately respected the request to observe the service with quiet dignity.

When the service finished we took a meal at our leisure when we tried the Belgian national dishes of moules, or mussels, cooked with onions and celery, and carbonade flamande - a Belgian beef stew - similar to the French beef bourguignon, but made with beer instead of red wine. We finished our trip by trying some Belgian beers in a very unusual, but welcoming, bar called De 12 Apostels that was crammed with religious pictures and statues, and reflected on our trip.
The cyclists enjoying a beer (or few) (photo David D)
The cyclists enjoying a beer (or few) (photo David D)
We found that cycling between sites is an excellent way of appreciating the lie of the land that was so important in the various phases of the battles. Cycling meant we could get to some quieter sites off the beaten track. The local people and tourists we met were almost unfailingly friendly, courteous and interested to hear what we were doing. The Commonwealth War Grave sites are immaculately kept and truly honour the soldiers buried and commemorated there. The distances we cycled were less than we usually cycle on our rides but there was so much to see it would have been wrong to go further and spend less time at the various sites. Belgian beer is a lot stronger than British beer and needs to be treated with respect. Bicleway is quite a good word!

When we arrived home we saw in the local press that a Durham Pals bench that was a partner to the bench we saw at Thiepval had been unveiled on the Racecourse in Durham. We will cycle there to remember the Durham Pals, our relatives who served, soldiers from our home town of Stanley and all who served and were lost in the war - we will remember them.

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