Battlefield Tour, Belgium, 25th - 27th April 2017

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Ypres - Hill 60 - Tyne Cot Cemetery - Colne Valley Cemetery - Menin Gate

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At 5:00 am on 25th April 2017, members of Huddersfield & District Army Veterans Association started to gather at the Drill Hall on St Paul's Street to wait for the coach to take them to Belgium. After loading everyone's luggage on board, the coach departed shortly after 6:00 am.

After a couple of stops on the way down to Kent, the coach arrived at Folkstone shortly before noon, allowing time to go through passport control before boarding the train to cross the channel via the Channel Tunnel.

The tunnel is 50km long, it is the longest undersea tunnel in the world and links Folkestone in Kent to Coquelles in Pas-de-Calais. The section under the sea is 38km long and was bored at an average 40m below the sea bed. When travelling through the tunnel, the Eurotunnel Le Shuttle operates at a speed of 160 kilometres per hour (99 mph).

Once the train exited the tunnel at Calais there was another drive of around ninety minutes before the veterans reached their destination - the Novotel Leper Central Hotel in Belgium.

As there was an hour difference in the time,  it was 3:15 pm by the time the coach arrived at the hotel. Unloading the bags, booking in to the hotel and finding their rooms took another thirty minutes or so, which left the veterans with a couple of hours of free time before tea at 6:00 pm.

The day of arrival in Belgium happened to be Anzac Day and the Australian Embassy, in conjunction with the New Zealand Embassy and the Belgian municipalities of Zonnebeke, Ypres/Ieper and Comines-Warneton had organised an extensive program of commemorations for Anzac Day in West Flanders. Although not ariving in time to see these events, Huddersfield veterans were able to witness the Last Post Service at the Menin Gate on their first evening in Belgium. This included seeing members of the New Zealand Defence Force perform a Haka after the service.

On the second day of the trip, the veterans were up early and eager to start their Battlefield Tour. After a fine continental breakfast they boarded the coach and left at 10:00 am for the first stop - Hill 60.

Hill 60 is a World War I battlefield memorial site and park in the Zwarteleen area of Zillebeke south of Ypres, Belgium. It is located about 3 miles from the centre of Ypres and directly on the railway line to Comines. Before World War I the hill was known locally as Cote des Amants (French for Lover's Knoll). The site comprises two areas of raised land separated by the railway line; the northern area was known by soldiers as Hill 60 while the southern part was known as The Caterpillar.

The next part of the tour was to 'The Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917' in Zonnebeke. This is a Belgian museum devoted to the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele, where in 1917 in only 100 days, almost 500,000 men were killed for only eight kilometers gain of ground. The veterans were able to have a quick tour of the museum and a look around the grounds before leaving for the next stop.

After leaving Passchendale the coach took them to Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing, a Commonwealth War Graves Commission burial ground for the dead of the First World War in the Ypres Salient on the Western Front.

The cemetery is the resting place of 11,954 soldiers of the Commonwealth Forces. This is the largest number of burials contained in any Commonwealth cemetery of either the First or Second World War. It is the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in the world.

A wreath was laid at Tyne Cot cemetery by Veteran A. Bateman. The exhortation was given by Major S. Armitage, the last post and reveille was played by Veteran T. Eaton.

A packed lunch was provided for the day and this was taken after the visit to Tyne Cot. On completion of lunch the coach took the veterans to Colne Valley Cemetery, a British military cemetery of fallen soldiers from the First World War located in the Belgian village of Boezinge.

For most of the First World War, the east side of the village of Boesinghe (now Boezinge) directly faced the German front line. Colne Valley, Skipton Road and Huddersfield Road were names given to trenches by the 49th Division. Colne Valley Cemetery, a little south of Caesar's Nose, was begun by Territorial battalions of the West Riding Regiment of that division in July and August 1915. It remained in use until February 1916.

The cemetery contains forty seven First World War burials. Thirty of the graves are of officers and men of the West Riding Regiment. A wreath was laid here by Major S. Armitage, the exhortation was given by Mr. B. Spencer, and the last post and reveille was played by Veteran T. Eaton.

The final stop on the tour was at Essex Farm Cemetery, a World War One burial ground within the John McCrae Memorial Site near Ypres. There are 1,204 dead commemorated, of which 104 are unidentified. It was in the immediate vicinity of the Advanced Dressing Station at Essex Farm, on 2nd/3rd May 1915, that the Canadian major (later lieutenant colonel) and doctor, John McCrae, wrote 'In Flanders Fields'.

After returning to the hotel there were a couple of hours of free time before tea at 6:00 pm. This was followed by the veterans gathering in the hotel foyer and heading off at 7:15 pm for the Last Post Service at the Menin Gate.

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is a war memorial in Ypres, dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient of World War One and whose graves are unknown. The memorial is located at the eastern exit of Ypres and marks the starting point for one of the main roads out of the town that led Allied soldiers to the front line.

Every night at 8:00 pm a moving ceremony takes place under the Menin Gate. The Last Post Ceremony has become part of the daily life in Ieper (Ypres) and the local people are proud of this simple but moving tribute to the courage and self-sacrifice of those who fell in defence of their town.

Huddersfield veterans were proud to take part in this ceremony during their visit to Ypres.

On the final day of the trip, the veterans had an early breakfast and were ready to board the coach at 8:30 am. Shortly after, the coach left the hotel and headed for Erquinghem-Lys in France.

Occupied by the British for the four years of the war and finding itself on the front line at the Battle of the Lys in April 1918, Erquinghem-Lys was particularly badly affected by the First World War.

On 10th April 1918, the second day of the German army's Georgette offensive in Flanders, Arthur Poulter, a British soldier attached to the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, distinguished himself at Erquinghem-Lys. This stretcher bearer rescued six wounded men by carrying them on his back under enemy fire and brought them to a safe place. He cared for more than forty others on that same day. This act of exceptional bravery earned him Britain's highest military distiction, the Victoria Cross.

A wreath was laid, on behalf of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, at Pte Poulter's VC Memorial by Veteran D. Woolley. The last post and reveille was played by Veteran T. Eaton.

The veterans had the opportunity to visit the Cite d'Ercan Museum while at Erquinghem-Lys. The volunteers of the "Erquinghem-Lys et son Histoire" Association who manage the museum have a passion for showing their visitors its collection of 1914-1918 wartime exhibits, each of which tells something of a man or a regiment which fought in, or passed through, Erquinghem-Lys.

After a brief tour of the Cite d'Ercan Museum, the veterans were invited to have drinks with the mayor, Alain Bezirard, in the town hall.

On completion of the visit to Erquinghem-Lys, the long journey home began. When the coach arrived in Calais the veterans went through passport control - which seemed to take longer than the outward journey, meaning there was a slight delay and they had to wait for a later train to take them back through the Channel Tunnel.

Once through the tunnel and back in England, the coach driver stopped at the first motorway services he came to so that the veterans could get a drink and something to eat.

Driving regulations meant that the driver had to stop for one more break before he could continue the journey home, but after a long day on the road the veterans finally arrived back in Huddersfield at around 9:30 pm.

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