If yesterday was an opportunity to grasp the geography of the Ypres Salient, then our second trekking day has been a chance to visualise the leafy green fields as they would have been after four years of constant battle.
Exiting Ypres via the Lille Gate, we started early in a south easterly direction as the sun was rising. Our first significant port of call was Hill 60 (sitting 60m above sea level). This strategically high ground was the first opportunity to see the stark reminder of the damage caused by the constant fire. Largely untouched since the First World War, the ground is heavily pockmarked and still bares witness to the 24,200kg of explosives packed into a British mine while Hill 60 was occupied by the Germans.
Passing through the beautiful Canadian memorial at Sanctuary Wood (with glorious views towards Ypres) we visited a quaint family-run museum at Sanctuary Wood Hill 62. The museum contains a collection of First World War memorabilia that has been gathered ever since the end of the war. Outdoors, the museum’s woods gave us our first experience of living in a trench. The preserved British trenches are surrounded by water-filled shell holes and splintered tree stumps, as they had been nearly one hundred years previously. Rusting mounds of unused barbed wire, pyramids of empty shell casings and piles of unrecognisable metal objects dot each corner of the grounds.
Walking along picturesque leafy avenues, it was a relief to break from the strong sun. We stopped to toast the Scots at Black Watch Corner with their fabulous kilted memorial and paid tribute to the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) at Polygon Wood.
Our second museum of the day was the excellent Passchendaele Memorial Museum at Zonnebeke. The First World War footage and videos of survivors speaking of their experiences seemed particularly poignant and further illustrated to us all the hellish reality that was the Ypres Salient.
Walking ‘The Aussie Way’, as so many did on the route to Passchendaele, our final stop was the world’s largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Tyne Cot. This site is a memorial to 12,000 Allied soldiers and a further 35,000 who have no known grave. The sheer number of headstones and lists of names on the wall is simply overwhelming. Thunder and lightning chased us as we left the cemetery and gratefully jumped into buses which sped us back towards Ypres as the heavens opened.
Though we’ve had another long day of walking, the group have yet been heard to comment on possible aches and pains. Any notion of doing so has been dismissed in context of the accounts, images and landscapes we have seen today. Our few hours of walking on solid ground, despite a brief shower (protected by Gore-Tex), does not for one moment compare. I don’t think I am alone in saying that we are remembering.