Roads to Remembrance: to Passchendaele by Bike

Passchendaele from the Canadian Memorial

To commemorate Remembrance Day this year I’ll be remembering two Canadian soldiers on the 100th Anniversary of their deaths. They represent a tiny fraction of the 15,654 Canadians who died or were wounded at Passchendaele but I was privileged to visit their graves in June 2016. I published three condensed blog articles during my visit to Ypres but Passchendaele received only a brief mention. It was always my intention to publish a more detailed account of my visit at a later date and this is it.

My base for the week was a small B&B on the Menin Road very near Hooge Crater Cemetery. A car would have saved time but I had five days to explore the area and I was keen to get a feel for the terrain, and in my opinion there is no better way to experience a landscape than on foot or by bike. Long-distance walking is a hobby of mine and so 3 m.p.h. is my preferred pace however it wasn’t possible to cover the entire area on foot and still have time to visit the cemeteries and battlefields along the way. Cycling was a good option especially when my B&B hosts offered to lend me a bike for the duration of my stay. I chose to cycle on two of the days and so it was by bike that I made my way to Passchendaele on a hot and sunny day in June 2016.

A map of the Vredes Fietsroute

I was given a map of the Vredes Fietsroute, a 44-km circular bike route that included many First World War sites and matched up pretty closely to the route I had devised prior to leaving home. I decided to take advantage of it although a small detour would be necessary in order to visit Passchendaele. In the morning I cycled through the countryside visiting several sites including Frezenberg, Polygon Wood and Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. Tyne Cot is the final resting place of nearly 12,000 servicemen and I remembered it well from my first visit in 2010. This time around it was something I encountered just outside the cemetery entrance that remains with me to this day. The surrounding countryside was quite dry however a road crew was working, possibly on a water main, and a great deal of water was flowing down the shoulder of the narrow road and into a shallow ditch. Having walked thousands of miles in all sorts of terrain and weather conditions I’ve experienced bogs, flooded fields and a great deal of mud. I’ve also seen countless b&w photographs and read dozens of accounts of the glutinous muck that Passchendaele was known for, however I was still unsettled by the yellowish-brown sludge that lined the road. I regret not having taken a photograph but the memory remains and I’ll never look at those old b&w photographs in quite the same way again.

Passchendaele New British Cemetery

For the most part the Vredes Fietsroute uses country lanes, minor roads and dedicated cycling paths as it weaves its way through the gently undulating countryside. After Tyne Cot I left the bike route in order to make my way to the Passchendaele New British Cemetery, just 3 km away. This cemetery contains the remains of 2,101 Commonwealth soldiers, 1,600 of whom remain unidentified. Most of these soldiers fell in the autumn of 1917 including one from British Columbia who I will remember on November 10.

The village of Passchendaele, less than a km away and whose church steeple was clearly visible from the Passchendaele New British Cemetery, was my next destination. I’d run out of water and was parched from the morning ride however most businesses in the centre of the village were closed for lunch. I did find a vending machine selling beer, normally a cause for celebration, but unfortunately it required a piece of ID that I didn’t have. If only it had camera recognition it would have clearly seen I was both well over the legal drinking age and in desperate need of a vendor, machine or otherwise. With no options in sight I veered off on Canadalaan towards the Passchendaele Canadian Memorial and as luck would have it I happened upon a small supermarket halfway down the gently sloping hill.

I ate my lunch under the canopy of one of the beautiful trees that border the Passchendaele Canadian Memorial and gazed out over the surrounding countryside. It was difficult to imagine the scene a century ago on such a day as beautiful as this. In 1917 the controversial plan to take the ridge was championed by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and after considerable debate it was launched on July 31. The bloody campaign soon became bogged down after unusually heavy August rains turned the battlefield into a deadly quagmire. The Canadians arrived on the scene in mid-October and relieved Australian and New Zealand troops who had suffered greatly in the appalling conditions. The Canadians eventually took the ridge but the campaign cost the British 200,000 casualties, including over 15,000 Canadians.

Poelcapelle British Cemetery

After taking some time to rest and reflect I was back on my bike and heading to Poelcapelle British Cemetery, a beautiful 5.5 km ride over country lanes that weaved their way through fields and farmsteads. The cemetery contains the remains of 7,749 Commonwealth soldiers from the First World War and one from the Second World War. An astonishing 6,230 of these graves are unidentified. One of the soldiers I will remember on November 10 was found in an unmarked grave after the war, exhumed and reburied at Poelcapelle British Cemetery.

Germany Military Cemetery at Langemark

I continued on to Langemark, initially over much busier roads, and to the German Military Cemetery, the final resting place of over 44,000 German soldiers of the First World War. Nearly 25,000 of these men are contained in a mass grave known as the Comrades’ Graves. The contrast between this cemetery and those built for Commonwealth soldiers was striking, at least to me. It was both beautiful and poignant however I also found it darker and more sombre than those built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A visit is highly recommended and on this day there were many visitors. With the exception of Tyne Cot the German Military Cemetery at Langemark was easily the busiest I visited during my stay.

It was approaching late afternoon when I left Langemark but my day was far from over. I rejoined the Vredes Fietsroute and rode towards the Ieperlee, passing close by Pilkem and then followed the canal for some distance into Ypres where I took a break. I was soon back in the saddle for several more hours, visiting another four cemeteries before making my way back to my B&B near Hooge. It was a very long, very exhausting but very satisfying day. I clearly remember collapsing in a chair at the end of it, tired and sore and reflecting not on the great distance I had covered but rather on the realization that hundreds of thousands had died in an area encompassed in a single day’s bike ride.

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