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Visiting the Tyne Cot Memorial, Belgium: immensely sobering yet splendid

Updated on January 11, 2013
Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing
Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing | Source
Aerial view of Tyne Cot
Aerial view of Tyne Cot | Source
Map location of Zonnebeke, West Flanders
Map location of Zonnebeke, West Flanders | Source

Remembering the horrors and losses at Passchendaele

Not far from Ypres (Dutch: Ieper), Belgium, the Tyne Cot Memorial is situated at the world's largest Commonwealth cemetery, near Passchendaele (Dutch: Passendale), in the municipality of Zonnebeke, West Flanders (Dutch: West-Vlaanderen), in the Flemish Region (Dutch: Vlaams Gewest). In full, the complex is known officially as the Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing. It is administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The Memorial complements the list of the Commonwealth fallen at the Menen (or Menin) Gate, Ypres.

Established in October 1917, the cemetery at Tyne Cot was used for over 11,000 burials, over 8,000 of which are unnamed. The striking, Memorial with rotundas was designed by Sir Herbert Baker. Further sculpture work was accomplished by Joseph Armitage and Ferdinand Victor Blundstone. The land on which the Memorial and Cemetery are built was given in perpetuity to the United Kingdom by King Albert I of the Belgians.

The Memorial was formally unveiled in 1927.

The muddy Battle of Passchendaele in World War One was among the most costly in history. There were actually two battles at Passchendaele; one in 1914 and another in 1917, but it is the latter one which is often remembered most. Estimates of casualties vary greatly for both the German and Allied sides (United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, India, New Zealand, South Africa and France), but numbers around 200,000 to 400,000 occur for estimates regarding each side's losses. The Allies technically won, at a cost of an average of 5 centimetres per dead soldier.

Passchendaele was subsequently recaptured without resistance by the German Imperial Army in 1918, and then lost again later that year. The British Commander, Field Marshall Douglas Haig, came under much criticism for the strategy at the 1917 Passchendaele offensive. Altogether, in World War One, it is estimated that Haig presided over about two million casualties under his command. He was regarded by some people as a hero; indeed, he was rewarded with an Earldom after hostilities ceased. By others he was seen as callously incompetent: 'Butcher Haig' was his nickname. Before one of the crucial engagements, the victorious Canadian commander at Vimy, General Sir Arthur Currie, protested to Haig that there would be 16,000 casualties if the strategically insignificant village of Passchendaele were taken by the Canadian Corps, as Haig planned. Currie was overruled by Haig; the village was indeed taken by the Canadians, but at a cost of — yes — 15,654 casualties.

It is thus understandable that, after World War One, with the possible exception of Arthur Meighen, the Canadian political class proved unwilling to take an unquestioning, subordinate role in British military planning. In any case, at Vimy Ridge, Canadian troops had well proved their professionalism. Rather than engaging in future without Parliamentary debate in hostilities led by Imperial commanders such as Haig, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King coined an oft-repeated phrase: 'Parliament will decide'. Whether or not this was unfair to commanders such as Earl Haig, yet for Canada, the psychological realities of the era after the slaughters of Flanders, were unmistakable.

After World War One, Canada declined to include its fallen in the Tyne Cot Memorial, and instead built a smaller, separate one in the village of Passchendaele itself.

Spelling note

'Passchendaele' has often been used in English accounts of World War One in Flanders. In modern Dutch, which has undergone spelling convention changes, 'Passendale' is the modern name of the Belgian village, the former spelling of which, in battle, took on such fame and notoriety.

Also worth seeing

Ploegsteert, Belgium (distance: 27 kilometres) has a striking World War One Commonwealth memorial.

Ypres, Belgium (distance: 12 kilometres) has the memorable Menen (or Menin) Gate memorial to the World War One fallen; its striking Cloth Hall and museum is also a visitor attraction.

...

How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), from where car rental is available. Brussels (distance: 121 kilometres) is the nearest large airport to Passendale. The Belgian railroad company NMBS/SNCB maintains a service between Brussels and Ypres/Ieper. Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent. 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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