The World War One battle of Passchendaele commenced in Belgium on 31 July 1917 and continued until 10 November 1917. The battle was an Allied counteroffensive against German armies, with the intention of disrupting German supply lines and capturing the German submarine bases to limit their U-boat capabilities which were bringing Britain to the brink of collapse. The Battle of Passchendaele is remembered as one of the battles which most exemplifies the fighting conditions of WW1 warfare.
Heavy and unseasonable rains turned the battle fields and trenches into muddy bogs, which the soldiers had to struggle through whilst being gunned down by enemy fire. Conditions were so bad some men and horses even drowned in the mud, while trench-foot rotted the feet of thousands of men. Although exact numbers are hard to define, the death toll of the battle is thought to be around 325,000 Allied troops and 260,000 German soldiers. Soldiers from Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, India, Belgium and France all fought and died together on the battlefield.
One of the soldiers that lost his life in this battle was Rifleman Patrick McAteer; my great-great grandfather on my Mum’s side, who was part of the Royal Irish Rifles. Patrick was killed in action, a mere week into the battle, on 5 August 1917 aged thirty. We thought it was right, as representatives of the family, to visit his grave on the centenary of his passing to pay our respects and lay a wreath.
We left Surrey early, at around 6am and made our way down to Dover to catch the Euro tunnel across to Calais. I wish I could say more about the journey, but the truth is I slept the entire way. Not even just to Calais that is, if truth be told when I woke up we had already driven through France and up into Belgium.
We drove up into the city of Ypres, the epicentre of the battle 100 years ago. Being in Ypres was particularly interesting for me as I had visited a couple of times in my early teens as a member of the Air Cadets. I had vague memories of the city and so it was certainly interesting to piece those together. We parked up in the centre and had a wander into the main square past the impressive Cloth Building. I recognised the centre of the town straightaway… I instantly remembered being 13 years old wearing a starchy uniform, an ill fitting beret and trying my best to play the Damn Busters on the glockenspiel…. #rockandroll
We wandered up the cobbled streets admiring the typically Belgian houses, shops, restaurants, coffee houses and artisan chocolate makers. When I was younger we were lucky enough to be invited, twice whilst I was a member of the Air Cadets, to play at the famous Menin gate for the Last Post ceremony which takes place every evening at 8pm. I have such vivid memories of playing there – it was quite intimidating being so young and playing to such vast crowds and for such a special reason! I couldn’t wait therefore to walk up to the gate and see how much it jogged my memory.
The Menin Gate memorial is dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient of World War I and whose graves are unknown. The gate is located at the eastern exit of the town and marks the starting point for one of the main roads out of the town that led Allied soldiers to the front line. Designed by Sir Reginald Bloomfield and built and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Menin Gate Memorial was unveiled on 24 July 1927 and commemorates 54,896 fallen soldiers.
When we arrived at the gate, I instantly could put into place my previous memories, although I must admit it was much bigger than I remember. At this time of day it was pretty quiet so we took our time walking around, reading the names, and taking in the memorials that had been left out. Because it was the centenary of the battle, there had been lots of events at the gate in recent days; Prince William and Kate had visited the week before us so there was an awful lot of poppy wreaths left from visitors all around the world. It would be difficult to describe visiting this place as anything less than humbling.
After spending some time at the Gate, we wandered back into the main area of the town. Wherever you go here there are first world war memorials so you always have something to stop and look at.
After some time spent wandering we decided it was well and truly time to stop and enjoy a traditional Belgian Beer out in the square!!
That afternoon, 5 August 2017, we drove out of the main city and made the short trip to the cemetery where Patrick’s grave lies – exactly 100 years to the day that he was killed.
Patrick was buried at the Dickebusch New Military Cemetery, in the extension part, amongst 547 other fallen soldiers. We managed to locate his grave relatively easily and laid our wreaths along with photos of him.
Interestingly, Patrick’s service was commemorated in the book ‘The 2nd Royal Irish Rifles in the Great War’ by James W Taylor. Mum thought it might be nice to read out the chapter on him at the grave side which not only gave us a bit of background into his life, but also included a very poignant letter written by the Regiment chaplain, HV Gill, to Patrick’s wife Mary, detailing Patrick’s death and passing his condolences. The chapter read as follows:
”McAteer 7303 Rfn Patrick. Born at Antrim about 1886, the second of ten children of Robert and Mary Ann McAteer nee Quinn. Enlisted at Belfast and served with the RIR before the war then posted to the Reserve. Married Mary O’Connor at Ballyclare, 22.01.1909. The 1911 Ireland Census shows; ‘General labourer and pensioner from R.I. Rifles.’ Emigrated to Scotland about 1912 where he was employed as a boiler furnaceman at the Carron Ironworks near Falkirk in Stirlingshire, where he may have worked in a cloth mill, residing at 29 Milton Row. Children were Mary, John and Patrick.
Recalled at the outbreak of the war and went overseas with 2nd RIR. Killed in action 5.8.1917.
Fr Gill wrote on 7.8.1917 – ‘Dear Mrs McAteer, you will have already heard of the terribly sad news. May you find comfort in the Sacred Heart of Jesus and with His Blessed Mother. I cannot tell you how much we all felt the death of your husband. He was killed almost instantaneously by a shell at the rear when the attack was made. His last thought – he hardly knew he was hit – was for his duty. Ever since I came out here in 1914 I have known your husband. He was a good man and you may be sure he is safe. He was in charge of his horses when the shell came unexpectedly. He was buried by me near where the commanding officer, Col. Alston was buried more than two years before. He frequently spoke of you and his children, and if God has not given him the happiness of going back to you it is because He has even greater happiness for you all in His own good time. Your husband’s horses and turn out were the pride of the regiment and far surpassed anything else of the kind out here. I shall not forget him at my masses, and especially that God may give you the grace and strength to accept patiently this heavy cross which He has sent you. May God bless you all. Yours very sincerely, H V Gill SJ, Catholic Chaplain 2nd R. I. Rifles’.
Another son, Hugh Messines was born to Mary, just a couple of months after Patrick’s death on 22.10.1917.
Patrick’s name appears on the Denny War Memorial plaque. Dickebusch New Military Extension, Ieper, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium. AV.A.5.”
It was actually a really touching moment visiting the grave 100 years to the day and we were all definitely pleased that we had made the effort to go and pay our respects. Grandpa, Patrick’s Grandson, was particularly pleased that we had made the journey across. A ‘Great- Great Grandfather’ sounds quite a distant relative but I have such vivid childhood memories of my Great Gran, Mary, – Patrick’s daughter – which really makes the connection closer.
After spending some time at the cemetery we drove back into Ypres to check into our air bnb accommodation, which, was a lovely little converted pig shed (!) right out in the beautiful Belgian countryside. The couple who owned the house, a Belgian lady and her Scottish Husband; were of course really interested in the Scottish connection and our reason for visiting Ypres.
We got settled into the little cottage, which was so lovely – even with a farmyard of animals in the garden!
We unpacked, had a couple of beers and drove into the town centre on the hunt of a place to stop for dinner. We really wanted a traditional Belgian meal and were looking forward to having a nice meal out. It turns out it’s not that easy however…! It was the strangest thing…. we literally couldn’t find anywhere to eat – the city was almost like a ghost town! We wandered for ages, almost giving up and buying oven pizzas at the supermarket to take back to the cottage, however, eventually we settled on a very basic little place called Ganzeke Bistro just at the back of the Cloth Hall on Coomansstraat. We all opted for the traditional Flemish beef stew (‘Stoofvlees’), which is a delicious dish of beef slow cooked in Belgian beer served with more chips than any person could ever eat – it was absolutely delicious!
Seeing as there wasn’t much for us to see in the actual town that evening, we decided to head back to the cottage where we had a glass of wine and an early night after a long day of travelling!
The next morning we had a really lazy relaxed morning. Mum and dad popped out to visit Tyne Cot Cemetery. I had actually visited it a couple of times previously (and again, played with the air cadets band there) so I stayed back at the cottage and read my book with a good coffee.
Tyne Cot is absolutely worth a visit if it’s your first time in Ypres. The sheer scale of the cemetery really brings the gravitas of the tragedy of war into reality. Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth war grave cemetery in the world and is the resting place of 12,900 British Empire servicemen. It is a very touching place to visit and walk around.
When the parents returned back at the cottage we headed out in the car to the little village of Langemarke-Poelkapelle which is on the edge of Flanders Fields. We stopped off at really nice little courtyard cafe called ‘T Oud Gemeentehuis’ where we sat out in the sun for a spot of leisurely lunch and a drink.
We decided that for the rest of the afternoon we would spend a little while in the car and drive around the various war memorials in the area, starting off at the Scottish Memorial Frezenberg in the village of Zonnebeke. This memorial is the only one on the former Western Front dedicated to all Scots and all those of Scottish descent who fought in France and Flanders during WWI. It is now the main site of remembrance activities for all Scots. This memorial also remembers those men of the South African Brigade who, throughout the war, fought with the Scots as part of the 9th (Scottish) Division.
Driving through the beautiful country roads around Ypres, the cemeteries scattered along the roadside are a stark reminder of the area’s bloody history. It’s hard to image it when looking at the tranquil, sleepy area in front of you now. Apparently it is almost a daily occurrence for farmers here to come across reminders of the battle whilst cultivating their fields; shrapnel, pieces of uniforms, army paraphernalia and unexploded ammunition have all been discovered….
Next we decided we would visit Hill 60, one of the region’s most famous battlefield memorial sites and one of the best kept scenes of fierce World War 1 fighting. Hill 60 and its neighbouring Caterpillar Mine Crater were first captured by the Germans on 10 December 1914, but the Allies soon fought back. The British military engineers dug long tunnels underneath the German positions, at the end of which they placed large mines. These were detonated on 17 April 1915. British troops immediately stormed the hill, which had been transformed into an immense sea of mud and craters, littered with shattered trees and dead bodies. Three weeks later, the Germans launched a savage counter attack, assisted by the use of brutal poison gas. The defenders lost more than 3,000 men and were forced to withdraw. From August 1915 onwards, Australian tunnelers worked for a full year to dig a new 500-metre long tunnel, running from the shelters just behind their lines at Larch Wood to deep under the German trenches. On 7 June 1917, two huge mines were exploded here. After more fierce fighting, the British regained control of the high ground. However the infamous hill was lost again during the German spring offensive in May 1918.
After the war, the site was purchased by a British family, and left untouched in its wartime state. As a result, Hill 60 and the Caterpillar Crater are amongst the best preserved war landscapes in the Flanders Field region.
We spent quite a while wandering around Hill 60, it is hard to imagine that the uneven terrain in front of you was once the scene of fierce battles in which thousands of men brutally lost their lives. It was really interesting hearing about the ingenious tunnelling operations and to see photos of what the area would have looked like in WW1. Again, the tranquil atmosphere of these sites in 2017 is so juxtaposed to the horrendous scenes witnessed here just 100 years ago…
Having returned to the car we drove back into the centre of Ypres for a little wander and the most obscene coffees at ‘Tea Room, Les délices de Rose’. As lovely as it was…. I will never understand places that pile a metre worth of whipped cream on top of a perfectly nice coffee….
As the evening drew in, and as I recovered from my cream induced heart attack, we sat out in the last few rays of sun and enjoyed some beers (in my case Aperol Spritz) whilst waiting for 8pm to approach.
At around 7.30 we left the comfort of the pub and wandered up towards the Menin Gate to watch the Daily 8pm Last Post Ceremony; the ceremony, which I have been lucky enough to perform at twice previously – let’s just say, it was definitely nice to be on the other side of it now!
Traditionally, the Last Post ceremony consists of a parade, with traffic halted, a call to attention, the Last Post, the Exhortation, one minute’s silence, the Lament, the laying of a wreath, flags, banners, standards and reveille. It lasts for around about 45 minutes and is quite a sombre affair with the crowd respectfully asked not to clap. Even though this has been happening every day for over 90 years, the ceremony still attracts crowds of 100s of people; in the summer months this has been known to be well over 1000 spectators. It is a pretty impressive, humbling, ceremony to watch and it definitely brought the memories flooding back for me.
That evening, after the troubles we had the previous night trying to find restaurants, we decided to make use of the cottage’s kitchen so we had a relaxed pizza and wine evening followed by the most amazing cakes we bought at one of the Patisserie’s in town…!
The next morning, our last in the city as we would be driving home that afternoon, we decided to stop off at one of the cafes in town, Cafe Boernhol, and treated ourselves to some delicious coffee and a couple of cakes.
From here, we headed down into the Cloth Building to check out the WW1 museum that they have there as a permanent set up; the ‘In Flanders Field Museum’.
The consequences of war is the major theme of the In Flanders Fields Museum. The theme of a mirror is used to inspire visitors to examine how we look into our past; how and why we remember, and how we look at the many other nations which were involved in the Great War of 1914-1918.
Visitors, young and old, are invited to reflect on both the major historical events and the personal stories of individuals, and how the First World War affected the lives of the thousands of people of many different nationalities who were involved in it. Most specifically the museum reflects on the consequences of war for the region of West Flanders and the City of Ypres.
We spent a couple of hours in the museum, reading and watching the different exhibits, hearing personal recollections and seeing first hand examples of uniforms, weaponry and remnants from the battle. It was really touching and definitely was a nice way to put everything we had visited in the last couple of days into context. It’s definitely worth a visit if you are in Ypres.
That pretty much brought our trip to Ypres to an end. We headed back to the car and drive our way down to Calais and the Euro tunnel back to Dover. Of course, we couldn’t resist a little trip to Citi Europe to stock up on all the cheap booze whilst in France. 1 Euro sparkling wine? I’ll take a case…
We had mixed feelings about Ypres as a place… I wouldn’t necessarily suggest visiting here unless you, like us, had a specific reason for wanting to visit this place of WW1 history. There’s not much going on in the town and we found it ridiculously hard just to find places to do easy things like have a nice dinner – bearing in mind we were there in peak season – August!
Saying that, we were so pleased to have been able to visit Patrick’s grave on the centenary of his passing and to pay our respects to all of the 1000s of men who lost their lives in one of the worst battles in our nation’s history.