St Oswald’s Church Pilgrimage to Flanders
25-29 June 2017
Our pilgrimage to Flanders started with a 5.35am departure from outside of the church and after a couple of comfort breaks we embarked on the ferry to France. Once over the channel it took a little over an hour and a half to arrive at our hotel at Neuville-en-Ferrain in France. After unpacking, a change of clothes and dinner, most of us headed for bed.
Day 1. We departed for Ypres at 9.30am and met with our guide, the very knowledgeable Simone, who stayed with us for the rest of the day. Our first stop was at the Essex Farm cemetery where Simone explained that all Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries followed the same format. All had the cross of sacrifice with a downward pointing sword denoting that for the dead the struggle was over and an altar on a plinth for those killed but who have no known grave. Here we also visited the grave of a 14-year old boy who is reputed to be the youngest British soldier to die during WW1. From Essex Farm we visited the rather splendid Welsh WW1 Memorial at Langemark with the monument consisting of a red bronze dragon mounted on 3 blue pennant stones. Then onto Tyne Cot (the largest British military cemetery in the world) before moving on to the German Military cemetery, also at Langemark, where the remains of over 44,000 soldiers have been laid to rest.
Day 2. Today our pilgrimage saw us visiting the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge, the tank memorial near the town of Albert, France, and the memorial to the Australians who perished during the Somme battles. While stopping for lunch at Albert some of us took the opportunity to visit the basilica where during the war the golden virgin holding the Christ child on the basilica’s tower was shelled by the Germans into a near horizontal position. Following the German capture of the town in 1918, the statue was brought down by British artillery. The basilica and the entire town were completely destroyed but were reconstructed after the war. After lunch we made our way to Arras and its beautiful central square. Then to the awesome Thiepval Memorial dedicated to the Missing of the Battle of the Somme before finishing off at the WW1 museum at Perrone. Our guide for the day was Conrad and it was this gentleman who arranged transport for Ron Cooke to visit the grave of a relative at another cemetery not on our itinerary.
Day 3. This morning was free without any planned visits. After lunch we headed to the WW1 Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 at Ypres. This museum contains an extremely realistic recreation of a British dugout. It was so realistic a workshop, office, kitchen, dormitories etc., that one could almost imagine being there in the middle of the conflict. The museum also has recreations of both British and German trenches and an example of wooden temporary housing used by the civilian population after the war when the battlefields and towns were being cleared and reconstruction was taking place. All in all a very worthwhile trip. Wednesday evening was perhaps the highlight of the entire tour when we were at the magnificent Menin Gate for the extremely moving Last Post ceremony. A ceremony that takes place every evening at 8.00pm. The Menin Gate, built into the city’s ancient walls, is a memorial to all the missing of the Ypres Salient of WW1 and contains the names of over 54,000 servicemen. After the period of silence Fr David, Ron Cooke and Maggie Whitaker laid a wreath of remembrance.
Day 4. Thursday morning at 8.30am saw us on the coach beginning our 14-hour journey back to Guiseley, arriving at St Oswald’s shortly after 10.00pm. Overall a tiring but moving, humbling and thought provoking trip.
Stand-out memories of the pilgrimage
- Fr David singing the first verse of the Welsh National Anthem at the Welsh Memorial.
- The Tyne Cot cemetery containing 12,000 gravestones and 34,000 names of the missing.
- The superlative Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge that is made from stone imported from Croatia.
- The impressive cemetery at Arras, that is intended to look like an English garden.
- The remarkable Thievpal Memorial dedicated to the Missing.
- The Last Post at the Menin Gate.
- The obvious care taken in maintaining all Commonwealth war cemeteries in a pristine condition.
- The spirituality, sense of futility and the sheer scale of numbers involved.
- The wonderful fellowship of those attending
And finally, who can forget the incident of the one now known as “The Guiseley Case” – to protect the guilty no name is mentioned – but passports, luggage and immigration may help in identifying the person and circumstances involved!