This is the present Nimy Rail Bridge, which looks like the original that was blown up.
Model of Menin Gate found in Ieper
Reconstructed Trench at Hooge Crater
WWI Artillery Shells at Hooge Crater
Pillbox from WWI
WWI Belgian Trench System
Of the many of these we visited, the most striking is St. Symphorien Military Cemetery. Created by the Germans during the war, it was, according to the information plaque, “inaugurated on 6 September 1917.” The man who donated the land, Jean Honzeau, did so on the condition the Germans treat “the dead on both sides with honour.” It contains the bodies of many who fell at the Battle of Mons, the first clash between the British and Germans in 1914. And it was to Mons we headed on our first full day of touring.
Along the way we stopped to visit a variety of places, including two memorial plaques, one on either side of the a busy two-lane highway. The memorial on our side of the road commemorated the first shot fired in the war by a soldier of the British Empire on August 22, 1914, the other the last soldier of the British Empire to die on November 11, 1918. Our guide pointed out that this shows just how far both sides moved in Belgium after four years of fighting.
Now imagine you are a construction worker across the road digging a bike path. You watch a tour coach stop to let out a hoard of people who start milling about the memorial plaque on the other side of the highway. Then, without warning, they begin crossing the busy road like a herd of elephants coming right for you. Your work interrupted, you violently toss your shovel away and began yelling in your native language of French, all the while gesturing theatrically. A fellow traveler said this construction worker accused us of being suicidal, presumably for crossing the busy road.
Near Nimy we went to another commemorative site, a railroad bridge, at which two British machine-gunners, Private Sidney Godley and Lieutenant Maurice James Dease, held off a German advance to give their comrades time to make an orderly retreat. Although both were seriously wounded, before departing, Godley had the presence of mind to disassemble the machine gun and throw it into the canal over which the bridge spanned so the Germans couldn’t use it. For this action both men received the first Victoria Crosses awarded in the war, Dease getting his posthumously because he died of his wounds.
We reached Mons at lunch time. As our coach stopped to let us off, our guide, Marc Hope, told us we needed to return here in an hour and a half. He gave us some vague directions as to where we might find food, then left with the coach because it couldn’t stay parked where it had dropped us off. We wandered around for half an hour looking for somewhere to eat. Not being able to read the local signage, we had to peek in each shop to see if it served food. And, unlike in Ieper, no one within these places save for an electronics store spoke a bit of English.
We settled on deli, or what we took for one, in which we resorted to improvised sign language and pointing. I got a baguette and what looked like a piece of garlic bread with cheese. With little garlic on it, it contained small pieces of a mystery meat that might have been horse for all I know. Still, it tasted good.
You could, I suppose, accuse me of being an ignorant American who expected the locals to speak English. I hadn’t even bothered, you might add, to learn some key phrases that might be of use, or at least carry a guide book. To this accusation I offer the following defense. I didn’t expect the locals to speak English, I have no tongue for foreign languages, and I chose to go on an English-speaking tour so I could avoid the very situation in which I found myself. Still, karma came into play. Our guide and two bus drivers got no lunch because they couldn’t find anywhere to park. For any tour guides reading this now, I have a suggestion to make. When you have a group that doesn’t speak the local language and you plan to let them go on their own in a strange city, hand out a little map of the area in which they will be walking, and include a list of places to get food, preferably with an annotation as to where there are likely to be English speakers. Two of our party got lost and it took some time to track them down.
During the last half hour of our break, we visited the Sainte-Waudru Collegiate Church. I’ve seen loads of photos of Gothic churches in my time but never stepped foot in a real one. The Roman Catholic Church built these structures in an effort to awe its flock and give it a taste of what Heaven would be like. This worked. The combination of altarpieces, Renaissance paintings and other decorative Church paraphernalia is enough to inspire even an atheist to believe in God, at least for a moment or two.
We began our second full day of the tour in Ieper itself at Menin Gate, a monument to the missing British soldiers who fought in and around Ieper during the war. Every night at 8 p.m. the local police host a memorial service for them, an event that draws a massive crowd. This, at the suggestion of our guide, we went to on our second night’s stay. Unlike the thick multitude of people there during the ceremony, if you visit early in the morning you’ll have the memorial to yourself. You can climb to the top on both sides. One extends quite far into a park while the other ends abruptly at Ieper’s walls with the moat below.
For lunch we stopped at Hooge Crater, a World War I site that doesn’t fall into the story of the Old Contemptibles but is still worth visiting. In 1915 the British Army’s Royal Engineers sent a tunneling company to begin digging here beneath German trenches with the idea of setting off an explosion that would displace them, allowing the British to advance. The engineers packed a mass of explosions into their tunnel and blew it on July 19, 1915. This created four connecting craters the British quickly occupied, at least for a time.