Walk through the front line of WWI

A century after ‘the war to end all wars’ began, Walk makes a moving trip to the Flanders battlefields, discovering how walking dominated the life of a front-line soldier, helped the wounded cope with the traumas of battle – and how it can help keep memories of World War I alive.

WW1 trench

‘All the hills and vales along / Earth is bursting into song,’ wrote the war poet Charles Hamilton Sorley. ‘And the singers are the chaps / who are going to die perhaps...’

Sorley’s poetry comes to mind as I walk through the countryside of Flanders, north of Ypres. It’s the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, and I’m keen to explore the battlefields on foot. I’ve visited the region over the years but am aware that I’ve only really looked at each cemetery or crater in isolation. I can’t help but feel that walking must surely give me a different perspective.

My hunch is endorsed by Paul Reed, a leading WWI historian who guides tours to Flanders. “I’m in favour of walking around the battlefields. There’s something about getting out on the ground and seeing it with your own eyes, as the men saw it, at battle-eye level,” he says. “It’s the best way of understanding a battlefield: understanding its folds of ground and high points, understanding why trenches were dug in one place and not another, and making sense of the distances involved.” The war, Reed also points out, was fought on two feet. “It wasn’t mechanised,” he says. “Soldiers walked everywhere, often great distances from railheads and camps to the front line. When out of the trenches, men were based in villages or camps and would often walk some distance to get to a town or even do some sightseeing. Others sought the solitude of the countryside to escape the war.

Bucolic scenery jarring with death

I base my visit on two locations synonymous with the war in Flanders, Passchendaele and Ypres, partly because the First Battle of Ypres took place in the autumn of 1914 and ended in the stalemate that ensured no one was going to be home before Christmas. My first walk follows the route of an old railway line, now a walking and cycle trail from Zonnebeke, 9km/6 miles northeast of Ypres, towards Passchendaele. During World War I, this was known as the Passchendaele Express, cutting right through the front line, and it was often used to ferry the wounded to a field hospital. I’m struck by the ordinariness of the walking: a background chatter of braying farmyard animals from the surrounding red-brick farms with their sagging roofs, song thrushes chirping insistently. The preservation of so many war sites means that, to a large degree, mass industrialisation, factories and major roads have been steered wide of this area, and the landscape you are looking at is that of a century ago.

The road to passchendaele sign

“Now all roads lead to France”

I find it humbling that something as pleasurable as walking can be so intertwined with destruction. Soldiers walked to the front line; civilians abandoned their homes (575,000 Belgians fled abroad during World War I, a further 90,000 were internally displaced); and the villages of Zonnebeke and Passchendaele were utterly smashed. There are other jarring notes. A smell of freshly cut hay hangs in the air, but later I learn that phosgene, an infamous poison gas used in combat, also smells of hay (the French, German and British forces all used gas on a massive scale). I love Devon lanes, with their high-sided hedges, but they find discordant echoes in the reconstructed bunkers and trenches. The peat and bogs of the Sperrins or Lewis come to mind as I read of the waist-deep, impenetrable, muddy morass in which much of the war was fought. The bucolic scene is completed by tractors ploughing the fields: how often do they churn up something more combustible than cabbages?

Edward Thomas was perhaps the war poet who most sharply articulated this sentiment. In Roads, he wrote that: ‘The next turn may reveal / Heaven: upon the crest / the close pine clump, at rest / and black, may Hell conceal... Now all roads lead to France / and heavy is the tread / of the living but the dead / returning lightly dance.’ Three kilometres from Zonnebeke, I reach Tyne Cot, the largest war grave in Europe, wrapped in knapped flintstone, its domes capped with a weeping angel holding a wreath. Inside are 11,956 graves, 8,961 of them British and four German. The memorial lists the names of 34,857 who died in the area whose graves are unknown.

Leaving Tyne Cot, I walk along a quiet lane, Vijfurgestraat, to Passchendaele. Just as I enter the village, I turn left to reach a memorial to the Canadian forces. They finally took the Passchendaele ridge in November 1917, at a total cost of 6,600 dead and 27,000 injured. The ridge is so slight that I have to peer up and down the street to confirm that I have actually made any ascent whatsoever. I’m staggered that a couple of 10m contour lines, which would barely register a flicker for a walker with an OS map in hand, were so influential in determining military operations and the lives of the soldiers. It’s taken me an hour and a half, including pausing at Tyne Cot, to walk from Zonnebeke to Passchendaele. The Allies needed 100 days to do the same, at a cost of 245,000 dead, wounded or missing British, and 215,000 of their German equivalents.

A pleasant river once the front line

Early one morning, I make for Diksmuide, a town 23km/13 miles north of Ypres. Just three kilometres from the centre of Diksmuide lies the reconstructed Trench of Death (the Dutch name, de Dodengang, doesn’t make it sound any better). The River Ijzer here was the front line for the Belgian forces for much of the war. It’s a pleasant, looping river-bank walk out to the trenches – 6km there and back from the main square of Diksmuide. Along the way, I pass the 80-metre Ijzer tower, which offers an aerial view of the landscape. The River Ijzer was crucial to how the conflict unfolded: the land is below sea level and to stall the German advance, the Belgians opened the sluices from the North Sea, flooding the landscape and bogging down the enemy in a quagmire, the First Battle of Ypres. Along this embankment, Belgian and German forces exchanged gifts on Christmas Day 1914.

WW1 graveyard

The trench is a claustrophobic experience, a tight and narrow mesh of dog-leg turns that zigzag their way below a turfed bank of poppies. While Flanders is associated with poppies, they are just one small part of the flora and fauna that flourish here. A project to return otters to the river Ijzer is at an advanced stage, while you may spot reed warblers in spring and summer, and many species of butterfly. So a typical day’s walking here is generally easy under foot, visually beautiful and emotionally demanding. In that context, I make no apology for pointing out that each day can be book-ended in traditional rambler’s fashion, with a selection of Belgium’s wonderful beers. A beer helped to lighten my mood, but the therapeutic benefits of walking are now widely recognised. Matt Brosnan, an historian at the Imperial War Museum, says that walking may have been used for some patients either physically injured or suffering from shell shock. “Walking as a means of therapy for service personnel suffering from mental trauma probably was used,” he says. “Some patients at Craiglockhart hospital, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, during World War I, were encouraged to walk in the grounds.” The author of Tarka the Otter, Henry Williamson, was discharged from the war with gas injuries and spent much of his time walking on Dartmoor, composing his much-loved novel.

“I return to Ypres, crossing Hellfire Corner”

My final day’s walk takes me to the heart of the Ypres battlefields. It’s a 16km/10-mile trail following green lanes, put together with advice from both Paul Reed and the Ypres tourist office. The path belies the history of the area, and after following the town moat – edged with lily pads and moorhens – I pick up a lovely trail through the Hoornwerk park and the Zillebekevijver lake. I pass Sanctuary Wood, said to contain some of the last sections of original trench line. It’s less a wood and more of a copse, but leads me gently uphill towards the tiny hamlet of t’Hoge and one of the huge craters that scar the landscape. These were caused by Allied tunnellers laying and detonating mines under enemy lines. The path then leads me over the Bellewaarde Ridge, where a grave marks the spot where Royal Engineers and attached infantrymen were killed in action underground.

I return to Ypres, crossing Hellfire Corner. During the war, this moniker was possibly an understatement, as it was one of the most feared spots on the Western Front, shelled night and day by the Germans. Now it’s a roundabout, though still a little hair-raising on account of the Belgian motorists who tackle it at full throttle. Back in Ypres, I visit the excellent In Flanders Fields Museum. No gung-ho heroics here, it puts the war in a nuanced context: factual but neither condemnatory nor pugilistic. A touch screen calculates that 104 Rowes died in World War I. That’s 104 more than I know about, as my four great-uncles somehow survived without a physical scratch between them. I time my walk to reach the Menin Gate at 8pm, where every night the Last Post is played. The vast domed memorial bears over 54,000 names of British and Commonwealth soldiers whose graves are unknown. When the buglers sound and a hush descends on the large gathering, I can’t help but wonder whether, when the centenary of the 1918 armistice comes and goes, the conflict will somehow suddenly seem more distant, more blurred. I suspect that those who walk Flanders fields, keeping the footpaths between the graves and front lines open, will have a role to play in sustaining the collective memory.

WORDS: Mark Rowe

Post war French country road

Go for a Walk:

TIME/DISTANCE: Zonnebeke to Passchendaele 5km/3 miles; Diksmuide to Trench of Death 3km/2 miles. Tourist offices in Flanders have walking maps (most not in English). The best map for Ypres hinterland is Ieperboog (Wandelnetwerk series), which links green routes – footpaths and lanes that see little or no traffic – to key wartime sites by numbered posts, and gives walking distances. It’s in Dutch but can be used with the English language guides to the war sites from Ypres tourist office.

TRAVEL: Eurostar links London St Pancras to Lille Europe and Brussels Midi; return fares from £69. Ypres and Diksmuide are served by trains from Lille Flanders and Brussels; bus 94 runs from Ypres to Zonnebeke. 

FURTHER INFO: Go to Visit Flanders and Old Front Line.