Our final day of the WWI Battlefields Trek saw another early start as we took a short bus journey to Kemmelberg, a 156m high hill to the south of the Salient.
We looked out towards the east where the sun was rising over the horizon. The views were spectacular and the sleepy morning mist over the fields and hills was a moving start to our last day of walking. Nigel (our wonderful Trek Leader) pointed out our route which would take us along the Messines Ridge and from there we would head north towards Ypres for the final time. This was the highest point of our tour of the Salient and little wonder it had been so valuable to both sides.
The first tribute of the day was paid to the French at Ossuaire de Mount Kemmelberg, a massed grave with over 5,000 French fallen. Climbing one of the few hills of our relatively flat trek we visited the winged monument to commemorate the same individuals, where the goddess Nike looks out to the area where they fell.
Our walk along the Messines Ridge was an excellent insight to the prelude of the Third Battle of Ypres and the subsequent bloodbath of Passchendaele which had been such a major part of our day yesterday. The legacy of the 19 vast mines detonated by the allies along the ridge were a constant feature of the landscape. These have now taken on the form of picturesque, peaceful ponds, such as the Spanbroekmolen Crater, and bear little resemblance to the muddy craters they once were. It is difficult to believe these mines were responsible for the deaths of 10,000 unsuspecting German soldiers. Incidentally, the events which were to take place over twenty years later were brought to mind as a young Corporal Hitler was serving with the Bavarian Army in the region at the time.
After the beautiful classic memorials we’ve visited over the last four days, the majority of which were erected in the 1920s, it was a fascinating experience to visit The Island of Ireland Peace Park. This stunning 110-foot traditional Irish round tower, unveiled in 1998, is set in grounds surrounded by moving poems engraved in stone. The interior of the tower itself is only lit on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Perhaps an excuse for another trip.
Delicate feet took us on our last push back to Ypres via one last cemetery, Bedford House Cemetery, where we could pay our final respects. The skies remained as cloudless as they had been on our three days of walking. How fortunate we were to avoid the rain that was such a constant feature during many a battle in the Ypres. And had we needed to shelter, we would have had our 21st century waterproofs to hand and the thought of a comfortable hotel on our return.
According to Pauline’s pedometer we walked around 56 miles over 3 days, although Nigel’s more conservative (and probably more accurate calculations) would put the distance at a few miles less. However far from our final mileage, it was a wonderful achievement by the group and a fitting way to pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides who fought on the bloody battlefields and made the ultimate sacrifice.