CALSOC SiGWL Event: Ypres 1917

On the weekend of 10-12 May eighteen members of the Caledonian Society of London travelled to Ypres for a visit some of the sites of importance to the Scottish Division and the London Scottish Regiment.

Past President Keith Robertson organised this, the Society’s final contribution to the SiGWL project. Our party of 19 were led by an excellent guide, Mike Scott of Eyewitness Tours. His particular skill was an ability to draw attention to the life stories of specific individuals buried in CWG cemeteries in the Ypres Salient.

Our focus was the memorials and cemeteries associated with the 9th and 15th (Scottish) and the 51st Highland Division. The undoubted highlights were our wreath laying ceremonies. Keith Robertson laid the Society’s wreath at the London Scottish memorial at Messines. This commemorated the famous action at Halloween 1914. The regiment had been called up to plug a gap in the line and had held the position against a superior enemy force all night, until withdrawn the next day. This was the first action by a Territorial regiment in the Great War. Andy Parsons delivered an account of that day and Ralph Potter played ‘Going Home” (from Dvorak’s Symphony ‘the New World’) and ‘Lochaber No More’ on the pipes.

We started out from the Caledonian Club at 8.00 am on the morning of Friday 10th of May. Our well appointed coach got us to Dover port in time to catch the ferry earlier than planned and we were soon into Calais, on the way to the Belgian border. Our main visit on the Friday was to the Passchendaele Museum at Zonnebeke. The museum was truly amazing: designed to give visitors the feel of battle in the dreadful conditions of Third Ypres in 1917. There were extremely realistic bunkers and trenches. Visitors were invited to sample the smells of mustard and other poisonous gasses.

After our meal in Ypres, we checked in to our hotel at the edge of town, where further refreshments were taken.

On the Saturday, we started at the Essex Farm cemetery. The adjacent bunkers formed part of a dressing station. Serving there was Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Expeditionary force. He noticed that amidst the mud and destruction of the battlefield, the humble poppy seemed to thrive. This led him to write his best known poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. John McCrae died of pneumonia on 28th January 1918.

We went on to visit a number of cemeteries associated with third battle of Ypres. This started on 31st July 1917. After months of fighting in the quagmire outside of Ypres, the battle ended when the Canadians captured Passchendaele Ridge on 10th November 1917. At Dochy Farm Cemetery, our guide Mike Scott pointed out the gravestone of Jimmy Speirs. He had played football for Glasgow Rangers and once for Scotland in 1908.

We then visited Tyne Cot cemetery on Passchendaele Ridge. Three German blockhouses had been placed here and one, chosen by King George V in 1922, was the site on which the cross of sacrifice was placed. The cemetery, as in all the larger cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), also had a stone of remembrance. These contain the inscription recommended by Rudyard Kipling, from the Book of Ecclesiastes: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’. Tyne Cot is the largest cemetery maintained by the CWGC anywhere in the world. There are 11,965 burials and of these 8,869 have names ‘known only to God’.

Every evening at 8.00 pm the Last Post Association arrange for buglers to play the ‘Last Post’ under the Menin Gate at Ypres. The association was formed by the Ypres town Fire Service. On 6th September 1944, the German Army withdrew from Ypres. That same evening the bugler played the ‘Last Post’ and this ceremony has taken place every day since. On Saturday evening, I had the honour of laying the Society’s wreath at the Menin Gate. This followed immediately from the ‘Last Post.’ Andy Parsons played ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ on the pipes. This occurred in front of a large crowd, including UK school groups.

Following the ceremony, several of our party were so enthusiastic that they returned to the area around the Cloth Hall, to visit places of ‘historical interest’. They continued doing so until about 3.00 am.

On the Sunday morning we visited the somewhat austere German military cemetery and memorial at Langemarck. Our programme ended at the Lijjssenthoek military cemetery and visitor centre. This was a ’concentrated cemetery’, with graves having bodies removed from smaller cemeteries turned over to farm land. During the Great War, Lijjssenthoek had been the largest evacuation hospital in the Ypres Salient. Following this visit, our coach driver headed for the. Ferry at Calais port. On arrival. At the Caledonian Club, Keith. Robertson made presentations from the group to our guide and driver. This had been a stimulating and thought provoking weekend for all.

Past President

Keith Robertson

Wreath Ceremony

Wreath Laying Ceremony

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