There are many things I love about guiding people on the battlefields, but one of them is the excitement of the travel over to the Sacred Soil of the Western Front. Usually Eurotunnel do a pretty good job, and just driving off the train and on to a motorway network totally beyond the imagination of the soldiers of nearly one hundred years ago and seeing signs for places that they knew, or knew of – Boulogne, Arras, Rouen or even Reims on the overhead gantries is enough to get the emotion going. However, it’s only after about half an hour that you see the sign to the place so feared by so many – Ypres (with the Flemish Ieper in brackets).
Nowadays of course, Ypres is the right at the centre of the ‘battlefield tourism’ industry of which I am a part. I have to say, I find this a particularly hateful phrase, but it’s there and it won’t go away. I always stop in at Ypres on my way to my overnight accommodation in Lille. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? It can be any variety of reasons; the practical, to top up with fuel, both for the minicoach and myself and to purchase those things that Belgium is well know for. But, and this is the key thing, it’s really to have a bit of private time before meeting my guests for the weekend the following day.
I usually have a look at the map on the train and work out which way I’ll go and I might even find what I’m after first time. There is usually a reason – I have three ongoing photographic projects that I am helping people with, which sometimes means going a bit off the beaten track, but that means that delightful spots which are usually not on any ‘tour’ agenda can be visited. Is anyone else there? – almost certainly not. In the cool of an early evening, with the flowers looking their best, some of these smaller cemeteries away from the front line areas all have their stories to tell.
And that’s another thing. Many years ago, when I was visiting the battlefields far less frequently, I only ever saw the Somme in its full summer glory and the Salient in is late autumn garb. To see the cemeteries around Ypres in full bloom was initially a shock to the system, but now it’s one of the many delights to see how Mother Nature, ably assisted by the work of the CWGC gardeners, can make the cemeteries the delightful oasis that they are, have always been and were intended to be.
But, the sun doesn’t always shine. This year was particularly wet right through June and July and only in August did the weather start to behave. By then, many of the roses had lost their individual battle with the elements, but that’s not to say things looked a mess, far from it. The other beauty, of course, is that in high summer you have an even longer period of light in the evenings, making evening visits to places south of Ypres on the way to Lille a real treat. I know most of the back roads from Messines to Ploegsteert now, via such places as Torreken Farm, Bethleem Farm East and West, Lancashire Cottage and countless other less well visited areas. However, on one damp warm evening in June, I discovered another rarely mentioned irritant which must have plagued the soldiers as they did me, and that was the midges of Ploegsteert Wood. They were so hungry that none of my photos of Ploegsteert Wood Cemetery on that occasion are in focus!
And then there are sometimes opportunities that present themselves. On 1st July this year, one of the most significant dates during the Great War, my group had been in Ypres. We’d been caught up in the crowds on the Somme the day before, but at the end of the day, with guests safely accommodated for the night, I made my way to my accommodation, a private house just next to Birr Cross Roads Cemetery. It had been a special day, the air was warm and it was dry. The moon was full and it seemed only right to go and say hello to the Boys in Sanctuary Wood Cemetery as the day closed.
Some of the best photos I took all year, I think, came out of that short but necessary diversion. You sense it, they’re saying, ‘hey, don’t forget us lying here. We were doing our best up here as well you know’. And of course, I do know. As we get closer to the series of centenary anniversaries it’s right that we remember the soldiers that fought and endured during these big set piece actions, but also never forget those who were elsewhere, doing their stuff and far from home.