Flanders fields: Pedal into the past

A century since the outbreak of the First World War, Emma Thomson gets a fresh perspective on the horrors of the conflict via a bicycle tour of the area’s memorials

“Come and see this,” shouts Carl from his saddle, as he waves me over to a roadside farm selling leeks. He lays his bike on the ground and walks over to a white garage door. I ditch my cycle alongside his, and jog to catch up. He raises the squeaky door and there, clustered all around an ageing blue Ford Fiesta, are dozens and dozens of browning shell casings, empty gun cartridges and hand grenades.

Carl picks up a rust-bitten Lee Enfield rifle from the table, and cradles it in his hands. “Even now, we uncover stuff like this almost every day from our fields,” he says nonchalantly. “Here,” he says, dropping a spherical bullet into the palm of my hand. “That one didn’t hit anyone because it’s not dented, see.”

This impromptu stopover is precisely what I had been hoping for when I signed up for Carl’s guided cycling tour of the Ypres Salient – a Belgian region that witnessed ferocious front-line fighting between German and Allied forces during the First World War.

A Lee Enfield rifle A Lee Enfield rifle (Emma Thomson) Visiting the area’s memorials by car or minibus often becomes a race from one site to another, with no sense of where they are in relation to one another. Carl Ooghe – a trim, spectacled Belgian, who has been devouring history books since he was 14 years old – firmly believes that “to understand the war, you need to understand the geography”. So I had taken to two wheels in a bid to experience the Salient at soldier level and pace.

We had started beneath Ypres’ well-known Menin Gate, then jiggled our way across the city-centre cobblestones, until we were out in the countryside and following the muddy Yser canal north towards Essex Farm Cemetery – the site of an advanced dressing station, where the wounded were triaged, just behind the front line. It was here that Canadian surgeon Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae penned the haunting In Flanders Fields poem after witnessing the horrific death of his best friend Alexis Helmer from a shell.

It’s a higgledy-piggledy cemetery with irregular gaps between the graves, and some facing in different directions. “Essex Farm is a battlefield cemetery: it was so close to the front line that the dead were buried when breaks in the shelling allowed for it,” Carl explains. “The soldiers would bang together makeshift wooden crosses from empty ammunition boxes, but when the shelling started again, the crosses were blown from their plots and the soldiers’ exact burial places lost. The headstones are a rough estimation of where the men were thought to be buried.”

The positions of the tombstones reveal other touching details, too: “Do you see those five stones standing shoulder to shoulder, without gaps?” Carl asks, pointing across the cemetery. “That usually means they were a group of friends that had been huddled together gossiping and smoking when they were hit by a shell. Their remains would have been so intertwined that their comrades had to bury them all together.”

Essex Farm Cemetery Essex Farm Cemetery (Emma Thomson) We press on, pedalling along an old railway track covered thinly with bitumen, towards the German cemetery of Langemark. The fields round here are filled with maize stubble and drooping stalks of Brussels sprouts. We gently lean our bikes against the outer wall and step through the entrance arch. Created after the war, its tombstones stand in strict lines and stern-looking memorial blocks surround a mass grave in the middle. “Do you notice anything unusual?” Carl enquires, nodding towards the blocks. I scan them for a few seconds, but return a puzzled look. He points, silently, to a name near the bottom of one of the plaques. It glimmers faintly; the brass rubbed clean by respectful hands. “That’s a British name!” I exclaim. “Yes, indeed! In fact, two British soldiers – Privates Carlill and Lockley – are known to have fallen here and the Germans respectfully included their names when the graves were consolidated in the 1950s.” I’d have walked straight past the plaque had I been on my own.

Just then, the whoops and yells of a school group break the quiet, so we return to our bicycles and head south towards Tyne Cot – the world’s largest Commonwealth war grave cemetery. Soon enough, the cemetery appears on our left. From afar, the 12,000-plus headstones look like rows of ivory dominoes, fragile and ready for a fall – like the soldiers’ own lives.

We cut across backroads and puff our way uphill to a site known as Crest Farm, just west of Passchendaele. It sits on the cusp of Passchendaele Ridge – an elevated strip of land that was the focus of bitter fighting between the Germans and Allies because it afforded 180-degree views of the surrounding countryside. Mainstream tours rarely visit the outcrop that overlooks a great swathe of open fields, yet it was the scene of a critical turning point in the Third Battle of Ypres in October 1917 that would eventually win the Allies the war. “Hilltops were the eyes of the artillery: if you controlled them you could easily target the enemy. Machine-gun fire could stretch for 4km (2.5 miles), you know. Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Forces, was desperate to claim Passchendaele before Christmas, so he ordered the troops to march across the ground you see below. They were completely at the mercy of the Germans, who hid in the treeline and mowed them down. Four Australian divisions were annihilated, but a Canadian Corps battled on for three weeks to eventually claim the ridge.”

As Carl describes the fighting that played out here, I can almost hear the barrage of gunfire rattling in the distance; see the faded shadows of soldiers struggling to advance across a quagmire of mud. We both turn and leave in silence.

We do a sharp U-turn and head towards our last stop: Polygon Wood Cemetery and the adjoining Australian Buttes Cemetery created after the war. “Did you know that parents often used the last line, of the last letter, their sons sent them for the epitaph on their grave?” Carl asks as we pace slowly between the headstones. “No, I didn’t,” I reply, absent-mindedly fingering the bullet he had given me earlier as it rolls around my pocket.

He comes to a standstill in front of one, turns to face me and asks: “What would you tell your mother if you knew you were facing certain death?”

“I’d tell her I was all right.”

Without a word, Carl steps to the side to reveal the stone he has been blocking. It belongs to Lieutenant Harold Rowland Hill and there, carved into the base, are the words: “I’m all right, Mother – Cheerio.” He was just 22 years old.

I grip the bullet tightly in my hand. This year may mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, but in that moment it feels like yesterday.

Getting there

Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) has up to nine departures daily from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi. When booking, select “Any Belgian Station” as your destination and onward/return travel to Ypres using the local NMBS/SNCB (www.belgianrail.be) rail network is included for an extra £10 return.

Cycling there

Half- or full-day cycling tours around Ypres can be booked through Cycling the Western Front (00 32 4 75 81 06 08; cyclingthewesternfront.co.uk). From €75 per person.

Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Morrissey pictured in 2013
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices