So this past weekend we finally had our big trip to France and Belgium to see World War I battlefields and memorials. We left Oxford at 730 Friday morning, and spent the majority of Friday traveling before arriving at our first destination, Vimy Ridge. We only had about 25 minutes the trenches due to our late arrival, but it was really neat getting to see how complex the trench system was, and how close the front lines were at Vimy Ridge. I didn’t know before arriving, but the front lines at Vimy were the closes the trenches got to each other on the entire Western Front and they got as close as 25 meters from each other. After Vimy Ridge, we went and saw the Vimy Ridge memorial that overlooks the valley around Arras. The memorial was incredible simply for its size and incredible view over the valley, and I’ll have pictures up on Facebook for those of you who aren’t satisfied just using a Google image search. Our last stop on Friday was Neuville-Saint-Vaast German Cemetery where roughly 44,000 German soldiers were laid to rest. When I first walked onto the grounds, I was struck by what seemed like an endless see of crosses, but what really blew my mind was the moment I realized that each cross commemorated four fallen soldiers. To imagine this enormous collection of crosses quadrupled to represent each person was unfathomable and really put the number of lives lost into perspective. While there, I found a couple variants of my last name, Weirich. I’m not sure that any of them are related, but I could certainly see our surname being the anglicized version of names like “Weyrich” “Weirych” or Weirauch” that I found there. That night, we ate dinner as a program at at local restaurant where I got my first taste of a language barrier, which was interesting, yet sometimes frustrating. After dinner we went out to the town square with the professors and hung out at a bar that they like to visit every year, but the night was pretty uneventful.
The next morning we were up by about 645 to eat breakfast and then head out on tours. Unfortunately, we got some nasty rain in the morning, so the first half of the day was a bit soggy. We first stopped at the Lochnagar Crater which is an enormous crater about an hour from Arras that was created when a bomb was set off under the German lines at the start of the Battle of the Somme. The crater is left daunting even today, but at the the time there were reports that the explosion was heard in London, almost 4 hours drive away. Next, we stopped at the South African Memorial at Delville Wood which is a very important battle in South African history as they took enormous losses holding off the German advances almost singlehandedly. Again, I’ll have pictures of this beautiful memorial up on Facebook eventually, but if you’re impatient feel free to Google away. After Delville, we went to Thiepval Memorial, which commemorates over 72,000 British and South African soldiers whose bodies have yet to be recovered from the Somme. Daunting in and of itself, the realization that this was only in honor of those whose bodies were not recovered and didn’t include any of those soldiers who could be identified was quite mind-boggling. To put it into perspective, America lost roughly 55,000 servicemen in over a decade of conflict in Vietnam, and this memorial stands to commemorate about one and a half times that many men who simply weren’t ever found in only a few months of fighting in the area. After Thiepval we were shown the Newfoundland memorial at Beaumont-Hamel, where original Allied trenches can be seen. This memorial area was fairly interesting, but we were short on time so we left pretty quickly to get lunch in Albert, France where we ate in front of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebieres. This church, which is famous for its Hanging Virgin (actually Google this one cause it’s an awesome story), was hit by over 2,000 shells throughout WWI and was later recreated to its original medieval specifications. The church itself is gorgeous inside and out, and I’ll have plenty of pictures up later. Finally, we arrived in Ypres, Belgium, where we were to stay for the night, and after a little free time we went to the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate which has been a nightly tradition since 1927, aside from the time of German occupation during WWII. The Gate itself honors roughly 55,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient but whose bodies have never been found. After the ceremony, we all went out to see Ypres medieval town square, and I was definitely a big fan of this small town.
Finally, we came to Sunday where were up early once again to see cemeteries and memorials. For the sake of time, I’m going to shorten this part up a bit. We first went to Essex Farm cemetery which is notable for the fact that it holds the grave of one of the youngest British soldiers to die on the Western Front, V.J. Strudwick who died at the age of 15. This cemetery is also the site at which John McCrae wrote the now famous “In Flanders Fields.” After Essex Farm, we went to the German Langemark Cemetary which is notable both for its size (roughly 10,000 soldiers honored here) as well as the fact that Hitler fought very near here and was later pictured revisiting the cemetery during WWII. The last stop on our itinerary Sunday took us to Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing, the largest cemetery for Commonwealth soldiers anywhere in the world. This haunting visit was most notable for the three freshly dug graves that had been made only 3 weeks prior when 3 South African soldiers’ bodies were finally found and able to be identified. After Tyne Cot, we grabbed lunch in Ypres and then headed back to Oxford arriving around 530.
This week has been fairly busy and uneventful as we have exams coming up this weekend, and I’ve mainly been studying for those. The few exceptions were finding the time Monday to climb the St. Michael’s Tower at the North Gate, Oxford’s oldest remaining building and the location where the Oxford Martyrs were held before their execution, and my visit to the Ashmolean Museum where I had the chance to see several incredibly rare Stradivarius mandolins and violins. I’m sneaking off this afternoon to play some golf, but thanks for reading, and just let me know in the comments if there’s anything you’d like more detail about.