22nd May 1917 Tuesday
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“Artillery bombardments were almost continuous up here, and our nerves soon became dreadfully jumpy. Aerial activity was great too. At nights our men were out in the open digging assembly trenches for the ‘great push’ which is to come off here someday. They went out with their faces and hands blackened, and their feet and rifles wrapped in sand-bags. We had very few casualties to deal with considering the number of shells the Huns sent over. One afternoon our trench-mortar team sent over thirty-two 150 lb ‘flying-pigs’ which did great damage to the Bosche front and support lines.”
The postcards that Douglas included in his diary go a little way to show the enormous damage inflicted on Ypres, or Wipers as it was known to the Allies. The pictures show the beautiful Cloth Hall originally completed in 1304, in the town centre and just behind it, St Martin’s Cathedral. Ypres was almost entirely flattened during the conflict, a state that Churchill wanted to preserve as a memorial after the war. Thankfully the local people had their way and the town was rebuilt.
Today it is a beautiful town with a thriving tourist industry. The rebuilt Cloth Hall houses the “In Flanders Fields Museum”, a must see venue for visitors. The enormous memorial at the Menin Gate was built in the 1920s and contains the names of more than 54,000 victims that perished on the salient*. Each night at exactly 20.00 hours the “Last Post” ceremony is performed, a very moving experience for the many that attend this eternal ritual to commemorate the dead. It takes place every single day of the year.
Ypres has a useful array of gift shops, pleasant cafés, restaurants and museums as well as traditional Belgian handmade chocolate shops. Of course Belgium is also famous for its many award winning beers, which can make your visit very pleasant indeed. You can also take one of the many guided tours and visit the plethora of cemeteries, all beautifully kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, including the sadly impressive Tyne Cot which contains 11961 marked graves of which 8373 are unidentified and on the memorial wall almost 35,000 names of the dead never accounted for. It also now has a very moving visitor centre.
* Names that are on the Menin Gate or any of the other memorial walls in the CWGC cemeteries relate to soldiers whose bodies haven’t been identified. In 2009 the remains of 250 Australian and British soldiers were discovered in mass graves in Pheasant Wood (Fromelles). In 2010 all these soldiers received military funerals and were re-buried in individual graves in a new cemetery. Those soldiers who were identified by means of DNA testing had their names scrubbed off the relevant memorial walls. (Footnote research by Joanna Moncrieff.)
Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here