Battle Lines: Ypres: Nieuwpoort to Ploegsteert – Jon Cooksey and Jerry Murland

Few names resonate more loudly in the British conscience than that of Ypres. From the First World War only the Somme conjures up more graphic images in the public imagination than those of that fortified city in Flanders. Ypres, or Ieper, is now a lovely place to visit, as so many do; the daily ceremony at the Menin Gate being the spectacular and intensely moving highlight attended by huge crowds. Understanding exactly what happened in and around Ypres almost 100 years ago, however, is far from easy and a detailed guide book is essential, thus the need for publications such as Jon Cooksey’s and Jerry Murland’s book, the first of a new series.

In total the authors present twenty-five tours. They explain how to locate all the key battlefields and sites by car, bicycle and on foot. An appropriate symbol against each tour indicates which of these three the tour is designed to be most suitable for.

Four of the routes are designated as car trips. These include a tour around the Salient for those with only a day to spare. This begins outside the magnificent Cloth Hall in Ieper. The thirty-mile route takes the visitor to the most notable sites in the Salient, the likes of the Passchendaele, Hill 60, Tyne Cot, Sanctuary Wood, Essex Farm, Railway Wood and Hooge Crater.

Most of the routes can be walked, as one would imagine. The longest of these is eight miles, effectively a full day with stops, and the shortest just 1.7 miles around the Wijtschate sector of the Messines Ridge. When the British attacked the German positions on the ridge it was decided to eliminate a number of German strong-points. This involved the laying of twenty-four mines under the German positions. This prompted Major General Sir Charles Harrington to comment on the eve of the attack of 7 June 1917, that “I do not know whether we shall change history tomorrow, but we shall certainly alter the geography”. In the event nineteen mines, holding 933,000lb of explosives, were detonated at eleven sites. What the visitor sees today at Messines is that changed landscape, with its many large, water-filled craters. The authors’ route, which also visits Wytschaete Military Cemetery and the 16th (Irish) Division Memorial, is only suitable for walkers as the path through Wytschaete Woods has a barrier at each end. A longer route, visiting the main part of the ridge and the craters is 6.2 miles long and is suitable for both walkers and cyclists.

The walk around Passendale (the correct modern spelling) is perhaps typical of those presented in the book. It is 7.7 miles long. It includes superb views across the battlefields from the Wieltje road before crossing the Ravebeek valley to Tyne Cot. The route is punctuated with information panels and the scenes of so many memorable events.

Having spent many hours on many a foreign field twisting maps upside down and around trying to find the spot I have been looking for, the use of present-day photographs in this book (in colour) is a great help. To actually be able to see what you are looking for, rather than just a written description, is a major advantage. Modern Flemish place names are also used to help travellers find their way around, though the old names are also included in the text to ensure that the visitor can identify the sites most appropriate to them. Clarity of the maps included in any guide book is absolutely fundamental. How well those in this book can be translated when on the ground awaits my next visit, though they appear to be very simple and uncluttered which bodes well.

Another feature of the book is the list of museums and Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries. This includes opening times, facilities on site, things to see and entry fees. Finally, the location of all the Victoria Cross recipients is provided as an appendix.

For those that have visited Ieper they will know how thought-provoking it can be to walk around its ramparts in the early evening musing on the city’s long and violent past, as exemplified by the strength of its Vauban-built walls, and to reflect how peaceful the place has become. This is a publication that will help all visitors gain an appreciation of what happened in that part of Flanders between 1914 and 1918.

Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.

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