Skip to content

Walking where many had fallen

Two walks around Flanders Fields to some of the most poignant war memorials and cemeteries.

In a previous post, I wrote about the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 in Zonnebeke, which recalls the horrors of one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War: the Battle of Passchendaele. In this post I introduce you to two walking trails starting from the museum, into the surrounding countryside, and to some of the most poignant cemeteries in Flanders Fields.

The Valley of Suffering

The objective of the Battle of Passchendaele was to capture Passchendaele village — or what was left of it. It was already in ruins, with no inhabitants.

It was a nightmare mission. Torrential rain turned the ground into a quagmire. The thick, stinking mud swallowed man and machine. Wave after wave of Allied forces were mowed down. Troops were called in from Australia and New Zealand only to perish within days.

Passchendaele became known as ‘Passion-dale’ — the Valley of Suffering. Eventually on 6 November 1917, fresh Canadian troops finally succeeded in seizing the village.

Victory came at a huge cost. Eight kilometres of ground had been won. Casualties numbered 245,000 Allied and 217,000 German soldiers.

The Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 (MMP17) is an excellent museum that provides a wealth of information on the battle. It’s well worth a visit. Check out my earlier post for all the details.

Getting my feet dirty

Personally, however, I sometimes struggle with war museums. By their very nature, war museums have to be sanitized versions of reality. The Dugout Experience at MMP17 was fascinating; but tidy and dust-free. The replicated trenches were interesting; but smart and clean, with the bottoms of the trenches covered with smoothly planed wooden boards so that visitors’ feet didn’t get muddy.

Somehow, I felt very distant from the soldiers. I knew I had to do something else. I had to get my walking boots on.

Starting from MMP17 are two historical trails. You can ask for leaflets describing them in the museum shop. Each is 9 km long so if time is limited you may have to make a choice.

They will give you a chance to walk over ground where many had fallen.

1) Hiking trail to Polygon Wood

The southerly route starts from the attractive Zonnebeke Chateau

The circular footpath takes you through Polygon Wood, scene of a massacre of British and Australian troops during the Battle of Passchendaele.

You can visit Polygon Wood Cemetery, Buttes New British Cemetery, the 5th Australian Division Monument, and Polygon Wood Cemetery.

I had chosen an appropriate day. The cold winter wind whistled through my coat, the rain misted my glasses, and the fields of Flanders looked desolate and muddy. Probably a little like in 1916. Except that a hundred years ago the conditions would have been infinitely worse.

I was fortunate; at the end of the day I would be able to return home. The soldiers here were in this nightmarish landscape all day, all night, all week. But not much longer than that.

A soldier’s average life expectancy while in the trenches was six weeks!

But staying on the neatly maintained gravel footpath was still not enough for me. I wandered off the path and stood in a muddy field.

Watching the water seep up to my laces, I finally felt a connection with the past. Was this the same mud that those young boys had trudged through? And had perished in? Was I standing above their bones?


2) Hiking trail to Tyne Cot

In the afternoon, starting from the Zonnebeke church, I took the northern route along the old Passchendaele railway line to Tyne Cot Cemetery.

Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world and the most important reminder of the bloodbath that was the Battle of the Passchendaele.

At the rear is the Tyne Cot Memorial with the names of 35,000 soldiers missing after 16th August 1917.

Tyne Cot is a sobering place.

Schoolchildren weaved silently in and out of the endless rows of white gravestones.

An elderly lady knelt down on the grass besides a gravestone and despite the damp grass, remained there for ten or more minutes.

A white-haired ex-soldier in a beret, with medals pinned to his coat, bent down and kissed a headstone. He wiped his tearful eyes with a finger and marked the sign of the cross on the headstone with his tears.

An elderly couple had obviously found the gravestone of a family member and seemed unable to stop taking photographs. Ten, fifteen, twenty or more, as if photographs would somehow bring him back.

Connect with the past

So visit MMP17. Watch the movies and listen to the audio tapes. Study the maps and the faded photos. Learn about trenches and dugouts. Marvel at the uniforms and the weaponry.

But don’t forget to go outside.

Stand in a muddy field.

Sit in the woods.

Touch the gravestones.

Connect with the past.

Walk where many had fallen.


38 thoughts on “Walking where many had fallen”

  1. I had no idea that so many so many soldiers had fallen in Passchendaele! Sombering walks that tell us about the past. I respect you getting off the polished trail and truly looking (and finding) a connection with the past.

  2. I found when I was there that, even though I was looking at the headstones and all the names engraved on the memorials, I just couldn’t get my head around the huge number of men who perished at each of these sites. The cemeteries and memorials are beautifully kept and a fitting tribute to our men who died so far from home.

    1. I was also aware Carol that particularly in Polygon Wood there were many Australian boys who travelled such a long way to fight. Being so far away from home would surely have added to their distress.

  3. I’ve just been reading All Quiet on the Western Front. It’s for my book group – I don’t think I’d have chosen something so distressing myself, though I know it’s an important book I should have read before now. Absolutely horrific.

    1. Yes the horror of WW1 does not subside with time, does it. In fact that is probably a good thing. We have to keep remembering the horror in the hope that it does not happen again, and to remember the millions of young men who lost their lives. I have not read All Quiet on the Western Front but have meaning to; thanks for the reminder.

      1. It is not something to read all in one go. I could only take so much before turning to something more cheerful. Of course, you can never ever know – but I certainly feel I know a little bit better what it was like to be a soldier in the trenches.

  4. Oh that was so sad for worthless battle – many men and women died from both sides…

    “But don’t forget to go outside … Walk where many had fallen”, so touching.

    1. I am glad you found the article touching. Yes indeed, all the memorials I visited are sad and sobering. Not only for the fact that so many died, but for the sheer worthlessness of it all. Half a million men died fighting over 8 kilometers / 5 miles of ground! Unbelievable.

  5. Very interesting story and history. I too get uneasy in places like this and often as you had done, imagine walking in the place of prior inhabitants, whether temporary like the soldiers or permanent like those in villages. The museums are as you say, sanitized history. When I was in the U.K. I kept envisioning walking where kings or soldiers had. I never thought about the bones beneath the soil though. Now I will.

  6. Keith & Jean Walton of England

    A very interesting and moving story especially as your Great,Great Uncle ,Sergeant Charlie Davies of the Warwickshire Regt is buried at Tyne Cot, where you took Mum and I to view his grave some years ago. We were both strongly moved at the immense numbers of casualties. He was killed after only 5 weeks marriage.

    1. Welcome to the Blogosphere Mum and Dad! Thanks for your comment, and the reminder of my Great Great Uncle Charlie. Yes I remember finding and visiting his grave at Tyne Cot a few years ago. His story is indeed heartrending; so much to look forward to as a young man, newly married. And it’s a reminder too of the many widows and fatherless children left behind in the UK, Germany, Belgium, France, Australia and elsewhere.

  7. Men wordt er stil en moedeloos van Zoveel doden.Jonge mannen altijd iemand kind, of vader of broer of echtgenoot en we hebben er nog altijd niets van geleerd.Ik heb de westhoek en zijn oorlog verleden al eens een hele dag bezocht.Het maakte me diep intriest.Maar proficiat .Je hebt er een hele mooie post met uitleg en foto’s van gemaakr.

  8. Pingback: Four ways to mark the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele – Discovering Belgium

  9. Pingback: Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 – Discovering Belgium

  10. Pingback: The Poppies of Flanders Fields – Discovering Belgium

Add your comment or question:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.