Battlefield Tourism – Beneath Hill 60 (Ypres and Flanders Field)

We are familiar with the tragic sounds and scenes of WWI battlefields from the movies, but we seldom hear of the challenges that some 4500 courageous Australian miners faced while digging 90 feet underground beneath enemy lines. The movie Beneath Hill 60, released April 2010, is the incredible true story of the 1st Australian Tunneling Division led by Capt Oliver Woodward who accomplished a major feat of engineering and technology under the most adverse conditions.

With nothing more than stethoscopes and makeshift listening devices to detect the enemy digging from the other side and canaries to warn of carbon monoxide, these brave soldiers worked in silent, dark tunnels underground. The hill itself was actually manmade, about 60 meters high, and created while digging a railway line to the city of Ypres, Belgium. Carefully planting thousands of pounds of high explosives, the miners kept their silence below while soldiers above fought to protect the secrecy of their endeavors. The miners’ efforts remained undetected by the Germans for 7 months until June 7, 1917(one source said 1916) when 19 mines destroyed Hill 60 in a massive explosion heard across the sea. For 2 1/2 years, the Germans in a machine gun bunker held this northern boundary of the 3-sided bulge or Salient, but in a relatively short time, these miners accomplished the impossible, opening a road for the Second Army to advance in the Battle at Messines Ridge and reverse the tide of war.

Hill 60 is about 3 miles south of the town of Ypres (Leper), nicknamed “Wipers” by the British, where several large-scale battles were fought. Fully reconstructed after complete devastation in WWI, Ypres in Flanders province is a fascinating old walled town of medieval architecture, small shops, bakeries, and cafes. While you’re here, stop by the Hill 60 Tearoom, open daily, 2 to 6pm.

We will mention just a few of the many memorials and cemeteries around Ypres and Flanders Field in this article. Although there are German burial sites here as well, they were defeated in WWI, so their significance is understated

Memorials: Plaques in Ypres honor French, Belgian, Austrian, and Polish soldiers, as well as one within St Georges Memorial Church for the British Empire commemorating the “one million dead.” A Celtic cross on the grounds stands as a memorial to the Irish Munsters.

Approximately 5 miles north of Ypres lies Tyne Cot Cemetery, largest British cemetery of the Western Front, with over 11,000 burial sites, a Cross of Sacrifice, and a commemorative wall of over 34,000 names. A visit to Tyne Cot reminds us of the severity of WWI, the vast number of casualties, and the suffering endured in the trench warfare of the battlefields.

Menin Gate stands as a memorial to over 54,000 brave men missing from the Salient. Their names, arranged by regiment and rank, are read with considerable sadness for they have no known grave or headstone to honor their service in time of war. (Names of the missing after 16 Aug 1917 are listed at Tyne Cot Cemetery.) A smaller memorial to the Indian Army was recently placed nearby. Walkways with information boards on the history of the area lead south through Lille Gate past Shrapnel Corner to Ramparts Cemetery. Ramparts is a small, lovely cemetery with less than 200 burial sites, but a favorite of Rose Coombs, author of Before Endeavours Fade.

Established in 1915, the Ypres Reservoir Cemetery is the largest in town, with over 2600 graves, about half of which are unidentified. Of interest are those of the 16 soldiers from the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, killed by the German “Ypres Express” machine gun.

(Note: Since the U.S. did not become involved in the early battles of WWI, the only American cemetery in Belgium, the smallest in Europe, is located twenty-five miles from Ypres in Waregam.)

In Flanders Fields Museum is appropriately named after the famous wartime poem by Canadian John McCrae, which is sung each year on Remembrance Day in Canada. We too are inspired as we purchase red paper poppies on Memorial Day, symbolizing renewed faith rather than the bloodshed of war. Permanent exhibitions on the upper floor of Cloth Hall on Market Square in Ypres are currently open to visitors, but major renovations are ongoing in preparation for the 100th anniversary of WWI in 2014. The museum houses over 5,000 documents, books, maps, photographs, films, and other memorabilia from famous collections including those of Dr Caenepeel and Rose Coombs, MBE. Visitors can follow the stories from real people and experience the Yorkshire Trench, a restored original dugout. (Curator Piet Chielens is a renowned historian, translator, and author with an impressive knowledge of WWI.)

Tours of Ypres, the museum, and educational workshops can be arranged for school groups and visitors. Museum shop on site and online.

Hours: 1 Feb – 18 Sep, 10am to 6pm. Closed 18 Sep to 31 Mar 2012.

Admission: Adults – $11, ages 7 to 25 – $1.50, 2-hour guided group tours – $69 (up to 30 people).

Crowds gather in respect and silence for the daily evening post at 8pm by the Menin Gate, annual Anzac Day on April 25th in honor of the New Zealand and Australian soldiers who died at Messines, and annual Armistice Day celebrations on 11 November.

Where to stay: Good reviews for the reasonably priced Hotel Sultan in the main square, the Ariane, the Recour, and the Albion. Guesthouses and B&Bs are plentiful, both self-catering and full board – the Rum Jar near the town square, the Cherry Blossom, Hortensia, and Alleezie. Highly recommended for a bit of history is the self-catering Talbot House founded in 1915 by Padre Tubby Clayton to house British troops during the war, located 8 miles from Ypres. Families visiting the battlefields may prefer the campsite at Kemmel Village about 6 miles south of Ypres, open year round. (The tourist office in Market Square has more information on accommodations and tours of the battlefields.)

Getting there: Via Euro channel, flights to Lille, France or Brussels, Belgium. By car or train – 84 miles from Brussels, 50 miles from Dunkirk, about 30 miles from Lille.

As we travel to these and other historical battlefields, we may reflect upon the closing words of the poem by Lt Col McCrae:

…”Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.”

Sharon L Slayton

Filed Under: Grief tourism

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