Miraculously for us, the rain stopped the moment we left the hotel this morning and the sun gave us a gloriously hot day. Nigel, our trek leader, promised us an easier first day to acclimatise at a distance of around 13 miles. He totally fibbed and 17 miles later we arrived back at the Menin Gate and – according to Pauline’s pedometer – a good 1,200 calories lighter. None the less, the terrain was relatively easy going and the flat Belgian plains gave us a good sense of the Ypres Salient.
Today we ventured to the north of the Salient. Our first stop-off took us to our first Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and the advance dressing station at Essex Farm where the Canadian, Major John Macrae, wrote his poem ‘In Flanders Field’ in 1915. Janice read the poem to the group, which gave pause for solemn reflection.
Crossing into German territory, we visited the German cemetery at Langemark. This grey, dark plot was a stark contrast to the sunny, white crosses of the Allied cemeteries with their immaculately kept grass lawns. The surrounding area was also where the first gas attacks were launched by the Germans during the Second Battle of Ypres. Standing in the quiet fields it was eerie to think that a deadly mist had once moved westwards towards the unsuspecting Canadian and Algerian allies.
This fittingly took us on to the Canadian memorial at St Julien to those who were killed in these first gas attacks in 1915, arguably one of the most moving memorials we visited today. Known as “The Brooding Soldier”, he stands with reversed arms at 11m tall. Stopping then at a French cemetery, we made our way back in the baking sunshine towards the Menin Gate for a much needed drink of water (we had underestimated how much we would drink during the day) and relieved to de-boot.
Our first day has, if anything, given us a real understanding of how small the Ypres Salient actually is. It’s hard to believe that such a tiny area could have been fought over for 5 years. We frequently marveled at how such tranquil, lush countryside could have once been a bloodbath of noise and destruction.
Today has also been a great chance to chat to the team (Caroline, Stephanie, Sarkia, Megan, Sue, father & son duo Neil and Paul, Brian, Vicki, Janice, Lara and Alice) and hear a little about their motivations for supporting the Charity. They’ve done a fabulous job so far, raising money for The Royal Star & Garter Homes, and Pauline and I have taken much pleasure and pride in talking to them about the Charity and answering their questions. Well done to the team for a successful completion of Day 1! The jury’s still out on the blister count but I’m sure I won’t be the only one relishing the thought of an early night ahead of Passchendaele tomorrow.