Visiting Ploegsteert, Belgium: memories of World War One sacrifice and of Sir Winston Churchill

Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
Commonwealth Memorial, Ploegsteert
Commonwealth Memorial, Ploegsteert | Source
St Peter and St Paul church, Ploegsteert
St Peter and St Paul church, Ploegsteert | Source
Map location of Comines-Warneton, Belgium (where Ploegsteert is situated)
Map location of Comines-Warneton, Belgium (where Ploegsteert is situated) | Source

Remembering the cost of wholesale slaughter

The Commonwealth War Memorial at Ploegsteert, Belgium, close to the French border, is magnificent. But, then, well it should be, one could say, given the wholesale slaughter which occurred in the district in World War One. The cemetery and memorial here commemorate over 11000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who fell, with no known grave. The Royal Berkshire Regiment and South African troops were particularly numerous.

This area of Belgium is particularly well endowed with Commonwealth war memorials and graves from both World Wars, especially the First. The neighbouring Nord department of France, similarly, has many war cemeteries, 'Flanders' being the general designation which is given to the whole area.

At the Memorial at Ploegsteert, the Last Post is sounded on the First Friday of every month. A similar tradition is observed at the more widely known Menin Gate at Ieper (French: Ypres ).

The Memorial itself, designed by Harold Chalton Bradshaw, was unveiled in 1931. It is a sobering thought that, within a few years of this impressive, white Memorial being completed, the countries which had been at war in the First World War resumed their struggle in the second.

Memories of Churchill

One notable soldier who served at Ploegsteert was Winston, later Sir Winston, Churchill. Having previously been Home Secretary and First Sea Lord in Governments led by H. H. Asquith, Churchill resigned from the Government following the failure of the Royal Navy to secure the Dardanelles from Ottoman forces, and opted to join the Royal Scots Fusiliers; the 6th Battalion of which he commanded with the rank of Colonel.

It is occasionally argued that those who led what became Allied countries into war with Nazi Germany in World War Two were supposedly 'warmongers' who had not personally experienced the horrors of war hardly 20 years previously. Such a criticism could not justly be applied to Churchill, whose firsthand experience of such horrors was gained here at Ploegsteert, and district, on the Western Front.

Local linguistic issues

Interestingly, in Belgium, Ploegsteert used to be regarded as being in Flanders, but now is not, and for reasons nothing to do with the World Wars. Some decades ago, local linguistic politics caused the area around Ploegsteert, which used to be part of the Belgian province of West Flanders (Dutch: West-Vlaanderen ), to be removed to the province of Hainaut (Dutch: Henegouwen ). Mainly a French-speaking province, the Comines-Warneton (Dutch: Komen-Waasten ) municipality is also mainly French-speaking, but a condition of its removal to Hainaut was that there be special protection for its Dutch-speakers.

St. Peter and St. Paul's church, Ploegsteert

The church of St. Peter and St. Paul (St. Pierre et St. Paul ), in Ploegsteert has a smaller, Belgian war memorial near its front entrance. I noticed that a general comment about the fatherland (French: la patrie ) is made on this memorial, being in Belgium, whereas in France the convention seems to be that the sacrifice of the fallen is 'for France' ('pour la France ').

Also worth seeing

Ieper , Belgium (French: Ypres ; distance: 15 kilometres) situated in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, has a rebuilt Medieval Cloth Hall and its Menin Gate, commemorating World War 1 war dead.

Armentières , France (distance: 4.8 kilometres) has a town hall with an interesting belfry.

Comines, France (distance: 14 kilometres), situated on the historic Lys River, dividing the French part of this conurbation with the Belgian part, has a picturesque Town Hall with a belfry and a bust of the Medieval chronicler Philippe de Commynes in the ground of St. Chrysole church.

Menen , Belgium (distance: 21 kilometres) situated in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, has an interesting octagonal tower, dating from the 17th century, on its Town Hall.

Lille, France (distance: 26 kilometres), has cultural attractions too numerous to mention in full, but these include the picturesque place du General de Gaulle , with its Old Stock Exchange (la vieille Bourse ) and the nearby Chamber of Commerce belfry; and General de Gaulle's birthplace museum.

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How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), from where car rental is available. Brussels is the nearest large airport to Ploegsteert (distance: 142 kilometres). Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada

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