Day 21: Lille/Ypres – In Flanders Fields they shall not grow old.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

In Flanders Fields – John McCrae

Saturday was a day of unalloyed luxury – being driven around in a Mercedes-Benz, eating delicious waffles from Lille’s pre-eminent 250 year old patisserie, listening to The Last Post being sounded at the Menin Gate in Ypres and finishing up with some Korean bibimbab at a restaurant that was a stone’s throw away from our lodgings in Arras.

For some reason I’ve never visited Lille before. What a pleasant surprise it proved to be – a city full of wonderful churches, elegant boulevards and classy shops. In my crumpled pilgrim T shirt and scruffy shorts, I blended in seamlessly with the chic surroundings.

French chic

Mass was in full swing as we entered Arras Cathedral. A large incense burner was being swung impressively by an impressive looking incense burner swinger. Was it in fact a censer or was it a thurible and what, if any, was the difference between them and a botafumeiro? I wished I had paid more attention during school religious study lessons!

The thurifer in full swing

Behind the thurifer, a considerable number of priests were assembled and were clearly conducting Mass.

Mass in Lille Cathedral

My eyes were drawn to the wonderfully ornate interior of the Cathedral dedicated to Notre Dame-de-la-Treille. In particular I noticed the keys of St Peter, the beautiful stained glass windows and the statue to Benôit Joseph Labre, the patron saint of pilgrims.

Saint Maurice’s Church nearby, was equally if not more impressive to Arras Cathedral. Dedicated to St Maurice, who was executed along with other members of the Theban Legion in 287 AD for refusing to carry out pagan practices to celebrate the victory of Maximilian Hercules, the church is one of the best examples of a hall-church, a style found mainly in Flanders, the Netherlands and the Rhineland. The ground plan of the church is nearer to a rectangle than the more common Latin or Greek cross.

Lille has a wonderful blend of shops which range from the flippant to the flamboyant, from the ersatz to the extravagant.

Lunch was a simple affair – some tartelettes purchased from an unassuming fromagerie in the old quarter of Lille. You would struggle to find these in downtown Salisbury I thought to myself particularly since Patisserie Valérie went belly ùp!

The House of Méert is perhaps Lille’s most iconic patisserie. Founded in 1761, Méert has for over 250 years produced Lille’s most sumptuous pastries and waffles. Walking past the window was simply too much of a temptation, so we felt compelled to enter the hallowed portals and sample Méert’s fare. We weren’t disappointed. Words alone can’t do justice to the mouth watering delicacies we consumed. Pure chocolate heaven!

Méert waffles – to die for!

The chap who was sitting at a table adjacent to us outside a cafe on the Rue de la Monnaie, could clearly see the gustatory delight that was etched on our faces as favoured the delightful delicacies from the House of Méert. We soon struck up conversation. Arash was on the last leg of a European road trip which had taken him from the English Channel to the Swiss Alps and back, a round trip of over 2,000 miles. Originally from Iran, Arash now lived in Barnet, north London having worked for a bulge bracket investment bank in the City. As a leading member of Iran’s Protestant community in London, his ears pricked up when I mentioned my walk to Rome and it wasn’t long before we swapped contact and blog post details and promised to stay in contact.

Arash, originally from Iran and resident in London for the last 30 years

It is difficult to imagine Hill 60 as the location of one of the most lethal explosions during the Great War. Nowadays little remains of the hill apart from a depression in the terrain in which lies a tranquil pool bordered with reeds. But just over a hundred years ago the scene on the afternoon of the 7th June 1917 was starkly different, more akin to a Brueghellesque portrait of hell.

Hill 60 today
Hill 60 in 1917.

Why did it happen and what was it’s significance during the Great War where the Somme and Paschandaele are battled more widely remembered than Messines? The story starts in early June 1917.

On a calm, cool evening in early June 1917, British Major General Charles Harington gathered with a group of reporters on the Western Front to discuss a massive attack that would be launched soon against German forces. Rumors had been drifting for weeks of a major offensive planned near the Belgian town of Messines, and the reporters were eager for details.

Hill 60

By that point, three years into Europe’s ghastliest conflict, neither the British nor their allies had made much progress against the enemy. The Germans, likewise, had failed to land a decisive blow. Armies on both sides were drained, demoralized, and slowly growing weaker along the blackened ribbon of frontline that stretched from the North Sea to Switzerland. The reporters huddled with Harington were like millions of people across the continent: hoping for a sign, a show, a bit of news—anything that might suggest a shift in the awful fortunes of war.

Had the correspondents understood the violence that was about to unfold—and how it would shape the course of the war—they might have gasped at its scale and ambition..

“Gentlemen, I do not know whether we shall change history tomorrow,” he said. “But we shall certainly alter the geography,” Harrington had told the reporters.

Australian tunnelers or ‘sewer rats’ at Messines

British and Australian tunnelers spent nearly two years burrowing under German lines near the Belgian village of Messines. Their network of tunnels was intricate and deep, with some passages descending more than 100 feet to chambers packed with thousands of pounds of explosives.

Several hours later, starting at 3:10 a.m. on June 7, British engineers detonated 19 enormous mines buried deep below German positions along a ridge outside Messines. The mines were each fired by soldiers and so went off a few seconds apart up and down the length of the ridge, sending geysers of earth, steel, concrete, and bodies spewing into the air and searing the dark sky with orange flame.

The mines, totaling nearly 1 million pounds of explosives, are believed to have created one of the largest human-caused explosions before the nuclear era. On the British side of the front, men were knocked off their feet by the blast. Farther away, in France, the shockwave was mistaken for an earthquake. And the roar of the detonation was reportedly so tremendous that it was even heard by the British Prime Minister in London.

To the Germans, some standing watch in the trenches, some sleeping in underground bunkers, the world itself seemed to split apart. Later estimates suggested that as many as 10,000 soldiers were killed in the explosions, some of them buried alive, many more never seen again.

While the mines were a devastating success, they were just the opening act in an attack that had been debated, drafted, and refined for months.

The British Second Army, under the command of General Sir Herbert Plumer, had tried to incorporate hard lessons learned earlier in the war and push past old tactics that had mostly led to bloody stalemate. Plumer’s staff choreographed the moves of nearly all branches of the military, including artillery, air forces, infantry, and engineers, and focused their power along a narrow section of the frontline.

Where earlier battles seemed chaotic, mud-choked, and characterized by the infantry’s slow march toward waiting machine guns, Plumer’s attack was multifaceted, flexible, fast. Within a week, the Battle of Messines was over. The Allies had gained a swath of new ground and, more importantly, gained a rare and inspiring win.

After some delay ( the access routes to Ypres had been blocked due to an amateur bike race taking place in the area!) we reached Tyne Cot.

2 miles away, the German cemetery at Langemark was in stark contrast to Tyne Cot The cemetery commemorates 44,000 German soldiers, many of whom were students aged as young as 15, who were killed in the war’s first gas attack on 22 April 1915 during the 2nd Battle of Ypres This was the start of chemical warfare, a point rammed home by the signposts at the entrance to the cemetery showing the mileages to other places where chemical warfare attacks have subsequently occurred – Halabja in Iraq and Ghoula in Syria.

Langemark was used by the Germans as a symbol of patriotic sacrifice during WW2 – 10,000 young students had sung “Deutschland, deutschland,uber Alles” as they marched to their death in a kamikaze attack on the Allied Forces. The minimalist memorial blocks in the cemetery reinforced the grim nihilistic reality of war.

Langemark German cemetery

As we were leaving the Langemark cemetery my eye was caught by 2 solitary memorial tablets to British soldiers who had died nearby during the last days if the war. One was to a Private L.H.Lockley from the Seaforth Highlanders, killed on 30 October 1918. A touching note had been inscribed on a slate stone from his great great niece and placed on his memorial. Beside it was a memorial to a Peivate A.Carlill from the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, killed on the 4th November 1918, just a week before the war ended. My grandfather, Harry St John Dutton, who helped General Allenby liberate Jerusalem in December 1917, had been in the same regiment. I wondered if they had perhaps been friends.

We made it to the Menin Gate in time to hear The Last Post being played, a daily ritual that has taken place at the Menin Gate for the last 93 years. There must have been two hundred or so spectators paying their silent respects to the untold thousands who laid down their lives during the Great War. Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. We will remember them.

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