The Irish Peace Park memorial symbolises hope among the hops in the Fields of Flanders

(#04 – Top 10 Highlights from 2015 Tour de Travoy) The photo above shows a stone round-tower in the Island of Ireland Peace Park near Messines/Mesen in Belgium. The centerpiece of the Peace Park is a 34 m tall round tower, which was built with stone from a former British Army barracks in Tipperary and from a work-house outside Mullingar in Ireland. The tower was inaugurated on 11 November 1998 by President Mary McAleese, Queen Elizabeth II, and King Albert II of Belgium. The design has a unique aspect that allows the sun to light the interior only on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the anniversary of the armistice that ended the war.

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Ploegsteert cemetery and Memorial to the Missing in Belgium. On the way to the Irish Peace Park, I passed by this memorial in Ploegsteert. There are over 11,000 names inscribed on the Memorial to the Missing in the centre of this cemetery. The Memorial was unveiled in 1931 and is flanked by 2 large lions. Interestingly, the 2 lions are not symmetrical as one lion bares his teeth while the other sits more placid. All the graves beside the memorial were moved here from nearby cemeteries. They include almost 500 graves from the Chateau Rosenburg cemetery which were moved here in 1930 after the chateau owner complained about the graves in his grounds.

Source: WW1 Battlefields.co.uk
Source: WW1 Battlefields.co.uk

Ploegsteert cemetery in 1917. The original graveyard, which is now to the right of the memorial, is unusual in that the bodies were buried back to back. It is mostly British soldiers that are buried in this cemetery but there are 83 Commonwealth graves and even 4 German graves.

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Sign for Christmas truce football game near Saint Yvon. Roughly 100,000 British and German troops were involved in an unofficial cessation of hostility during the Christmas Truce of 1914. Along the Western Front, informal truces had often been arranged for each side to gather their dead from No Man’s Land. But the Christmas Truce was unique in that groups of soldiers from both sides of the conflict visited each other and exchanged presents. For some reason, many WW1 historians have downplayed the significance of the Truce and in particular, reports of games of football being played between troops. But there is certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence that games took place, though they were not widely publicized at the time. For example, on January 1, 1915, the London Times published a letter from a major in the Medical Corps reporting that in his sector the British played a game against the Germans opposite and were beaten 3-2. Also, Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons recorded in his diary: “The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvellously wonderful, yet how strange it was”. In some places, the Christmas Truce lasted until New Year’s Day whereas elsewhere, it lasted less than a day and in places, officers were court-martialed for fraternizing with the enemy.

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Hops being grown in field near St Yvon. Hops are used primarily as a flavoring agent in Belgian beer. They are normally harvested in September and stored in oast houses to dry out. When hops are picked their moisture content is around 80% and this has to be reduced to 6% before being added to beer. The moisture content is reduced by heating the hops using a kiln attached to a oast house. The dried out hops are then added to the wort, which is made from crushed barley and hot water before the yeast is added to ferment the beer.

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Mesen is the Flemish spelling and Messines the French spelling of the town. The town is on the border between the Flemish speaking northern part of Belgium (Flanders) and the French speaking southern part of Belgium (Wallonia). The town was captured by British forces during the Battle of Messines in June 1917. The battle is unique for it was here that the largest non-nuclear explosion ever occurred when 19 mines, which had been tunneled underneath German positions were detonated, at 3.10 am on the morning of June 7th 1917.

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Messines Peace Village. I thought this was just a museum dedicated to WW1 and as I was trying to get to Dunkirk that evening, I had no time to stop and have a look inside. But I only managed to get about 10 km further when the power went on my phone and I had to stop in Kemmel.  It turns out there is a hostel as part of the Peace Village and I could have stayed the night here instead. The Peace Village was paid for by the Irish and British governments and the cornerstone was laid by our very own Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern in 2005.

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Cobbled climb of the Kemmelberg. It is only about 10 km from Messines/Mesen to Kemmel but the route takes you up one of the most feared climbs in Belgium, the Kemmelberg. In places, the gradient on the Kemmelberg is 23% and the cobbled surface makes it even tougher to climb.

 

The Kemmelberg during World War 1. The Kemmelberg was the scene of fierce fighting in April 1918 when over 120,000 troops were killed in Flanders during the German Army’s Spring Offensive. After making peace with the new Bolshevik regime in Russia, millions of German troops were transferred from the Eastern Front to Belgium. On the 9th of April 1918, these troops were amongst the huge German force that attacked the salient around Ypres hoping to push the Allied forces back to the North Sea. On 25 April 1918, German imperial forces started attacking the French troops on the Kemmelberg with artillery and poison gas. Thousands of French soldiers were slaughtered and the Allies were forced to withdraw. However, the German Spring Offensive ground to a halt near Amiens and during the summer, the German army was pushed back by Allied forces. In September 1918, the Kemmelberg was re-captured by Allied troops during the Fifth Battle of Ypres. Over 10,000 soldiers were killed on this small hill in 1918 and at least half were French. There are 3 cemeteries on the Kemmelberg with French, German and Commonwealth graves. But most of the French troops are actually buried in a huge ossuary as most of them lie unidentified to this day.

THE KEMMELBERG IN THE 2008 GHENT WEVELGEM

The Kemmelberg during the Gent-Wevelgem cycle race. The Kemmelberg features every year in one of the main cycle races in Belgium, the Ghent – Wevelgem a week before the Tour of Flanders.. There are 3 roads up to the summit and the race always goes up the steepest route, via the Kemmelberg-West. The cobbled climb is normally tackled 3 times during the race and the final ascent is often critical as to the outcome of the race. The last 3 years the race has been won after a breakaway formed on the steep slopes of the Kemmelberg.

 

Logo and route of recent editions of the Gent Wevelgem cycle race. In 2015, the name of the Gent Wevelgem cycle race was changed to Gent Wevelgem – In Flanders Fields.  A poppy was added to the race’s logo and the route was altered slightly to include some World War 1 memorials such as the Menin Gate in Ypres.

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Elite women’s peloton passing through the Menin Gate during the 2017 Gent Wevelgem. In all, there are 7 races on the day of Gent Wevelgem – In Flanders Fields. There are 4 mens races (Elite, U23, U19 and U17) and 3 women’s races (Elite, U19 and U17). While many classic races often have races for elite men and women on the same day, very few classics have as many underage races. So fair play to the organizers for trying to include as many races as possible on the one day.

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Elite men’s peloton tackle a pluigstreet near Messines/Mesen. In 2017, plugstreets or local gravel roads were added to the Gent Wevelgem race. The plugstreets were added to commemorate the Christmas Truce of 1914.  Their introduction was controversial and criticized by some over concern there would be more crashes as the gravel roads are very narrow in places. Only about 3 km of gravel roads were added compared to about 20 km of cobbled roads but fortunately, on the day of the race,  their inclusion didn’t seem to cause any extra crashes. These gravel roads are similar the the Strade Bianchi in Tuscany and their inclusion led to some great dusty shots as can be seen above. Notice the village of Messines/Mesen and the round tower in the Irish Peace Park in the background of the photo above.

 

Tweets from the organizers and others during the race. The Gent Wevelgem race always takes place a week before the Tour of Flanders and 2 weeks before Paris Roubaix. These 2 races are arguably the biggest one day races in cycling and it can be hard for a much smaller race to stand out when both these races get the lion’s share of the publicity during the Spring Classic cycling season. These 2 races along with Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Milan- San Remo and Il Lombardia  make up the 5 so called “monument” races in world cycling. But by commemorating World War 1 and including gravel roads, Gent Wevelgem may one day also attain monument status.

 

Greg Van Avermaert wins 2017 Gent Wevelgem. Greg van Avermaert won the elite men’s race after attacking on the Kemmelberg, 30 km from the finish. Another Belgian rider, Jens Keukelaire was second and last year’s winner Peter Sagan, rounded off the podium. Perhaps it was fitting that a Belgian cyclist won this year’s race as the race has been dominated by foreign cyclists over the last few year’s. However, by associating the race with World War 1, the organizers deserve a lot of credit. Of course, Paris – Roubaix was first given it’s nickname “The Hell of the North” in 1919 after the race passed through the charred and rutted landscape of northern France after World War 1. But the route of Paris Roubaix nowadays is mostly through parts of France that were well away from the frontline and places that saw little destruction during World War 1. That is not the case as regards the route of the Gent Wevelgem race in Flanders. This small part of Belgium was arguably the most fought over and bloodiest part of the whole Western front. But by routing their race along the plugstreets, up the Kemmelberg and through the Menin Gate, the organizers of the Gent Wevelgem cycle race have made a small but significant gesture to acknowledge the past and commemorate the millions killed in Flanders during World War 1.

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