The Ypres League
There were other British battlefields, where the test came. The fields of the Somme were the fighting grounds and the graveyards of thousands of gallant men. From St. Quentin to La Bassee across the Vimy ridge, out beyond Arras, there is not a yard of earth that does not belong to the history of British valour, suffering and sacrifice. Each hummock of ground was a landmark in this frightful epic of human strife. But the Ypres Salient is especially the greatest Battleground of the British race. All our divisions passed through the furnace there at one time or other. Not one of them escaped that ordeal, and by general consent, it was the worst place of all.
It was worst of all in the early days of the War when the Germans made their thrust towards Calais, and all we had of strength - which was not much - barred their way until the lines were thin and ragged, but still unbroken, in the first battle of Ypres, and the second. It was the worst place when the New Armies came along and learnt their first lessons in the school of war, and were flogged by shell fire. The enemy had all the good ground on tile ridges above us. They had perfect observation of all we did, from the Wytschaete ridge and the Messines ridge and Westhoek, and the Frezenberg. They had great gun power when we were weak in guns, and the New Army had to stand under fire, without " answering back '' or with much artillery, and by day or night, as they marched up the roads to Ypres past Vlamertinghe, as their guns went up and their wagons, and their mules, shells followed them, and met them, and caught them, and they were " fed up'' with it all.
They were " fed up'' with the stinking pits of Hooge where they lay in water, lice-eaten, with the smell of death in their nostrils, with mine craters close to them. It was the worst place of all for many months, and for longer than that. Year after year the Ypres Salient did not change its character very much. It was never really pleasant for British soldiers. It was not a "health resort" even after the capture of the Messines ridge, when we knew how much the enemy had seen - and were staggered by the knowledge. It was less of a "health resort" when the battles of Flanders began in 1917 It was then one of the most dreadful plots of ground upon which the old moon had ever looked down since the beginning of the world.
Hundreds of thousands of men wallowed through the swamps in enormous strife, under immense and all-destructive storms of high explosives. The solid earth became a liquid bog when the rains began and did not end. By Glencorse Wood and Inverness Copse wounded men fell and were drowned in the swamps, and I saw them lying there. The way to Passchendaele was a via dolorosa and the horror of it, the immense range of its misery and massacre, was only relieved and lightened by the wonderful patience, the most grim endurance, of those masses of British soldiers who in their masks of mud refused to surrender in their souls to the agony they endured. As I write, those human pictures come back to me hauntingly, and I salute again the men who served in the Salient of Ypres: the Royal Naval Division, infantry, gunners and engineers, lorry drivers and labour units, surgeons and stretcher bearers, Air Force and tanks, machine gunners and trench-mortar men, the great heroic crowd. There were other bad days and weeks and months, when the enemy was going strong still in the last phase of the War which was touch-and-go for us. I remember seeing old Bailleul go up in flames and Kemmel captured, and all our roads about Westoutre taped out by shell-fire. The battalions of ours who were in the Salient then stood between us and ruin. They were weak battalions, worn down to little groups of dazed and tired men, fighting all the time, snatching a little sleep, and waking up to fight again. It was a weak line that curved round Ypres and its ramparts - but it was strong enough to save us all - and the ragged ruin of the Cloth Hall in Ypres is a pillar of victory gained by an immense sum of death now gathered into the graveyards where those comrades lie.
All our Armies on the Western Front passed through Ypres. The Ypres League is the brotherhood of all ranks - British, Belgian, French and American - who served there. The annual re-unions of officers and men belonging to the League which it is proposed to hold would gather up locally the spirit of those five years of history.
Membership of the League is open to all who served in the Salient, and to all those whose relatives or friends died there, in order that they may have a record of that service for themselves and their descendants, and belong to the comradeship of men and women who understand and remember all that Ypres meant in suffering and endurance.
Life membership, £2 10s. Annual members, 5s. Special charges are made to those who cannot afford the 5s. subscription.
Do not let the fact of your not having served in the Salient deter you from joining the Ypres League. Those who have neither fought in the Salient nor lost relatives there, but who are in sympathy with the objects of the Ypres League, are admitted to its fellowship, but are not given scroll certificates.
There is also a Junior Division, to which children (and certain other near relatives) of those who fought in the Salient have a right to belong. Annual Subscription, 1/- up to the age of 18, after which they can become ordinary members of the League.
Among the Objects of the League are:-
I.- Commemoration, comradeship and help.
II.- To arrange special facilities for travel and transport of members.
III.- To furnish information about the Salient; to mark historic sites, and to compile charts of the battlefields.
IV.- To secure the erection of an outstanding memorial of the Defence.
V.- To diffuse amongst members information on all matters connected with the battlefields. VI.- To establish, maintain, regulate and control groups of members throughout the world, through corresponding members.
VII. - To establish cordial relations with the dwellers on the battlefields of Ypres.
What Has Been and Is Being Done,
I. & IV.- Commemoration is visible on every side. There are the cemeteries. There will be the Menin Gate and other Memorials. The League will add a fitting memorial to complete the work when funds permit, and the time has arrived.
The idea of comradeship amongst the members of the League is strengthening daily and many men and women, whether members or non-members, are helped advice or in some practical way, and their letters of thanks are a certain indication that the League's efforts are not wasted.
The scroll certificate designed by Bernard Partridge is one of the most touching and beautiful commemorative drawings which can be imagined. It is sent to all members who served in the Salient or lost relatives there.
The thirty-first of October in every year is celebrated as Ypres Day. This day marked the crisis of the First Battle of Ypres in 1914, when our line was re-established at Gheluvelt, thus deciding the fate of the Salient.
The Ypres Book of Valour - a history of notable deeds contributed by all regiments - is in process of compilation.
II. An Ypres League Pilgrimage Centre at Ypres has been established, and all members of the League are invited to spend some time in the Rest Room, where every comfort and information will be provided. There are also two or three bedrooms which can be occupied at very reduced prices by those too poor or too old or shaken to bear hotel life.
The Centre is shared with the St. Barnabas Hostels Society, with which the League is co-operating very closely in all pilgrimage matters. At this Centre it is proposed to form a museum containing maps, guide books, pictures, a complete list of cemeteries and their location. Here too, advice and sympathetic help will be given to all visitors.
At present members of the Ypres League are well satisfied with the hotel accommodation available, while complete repose can be obtained by making use of the Rest Room at the Centre.
This temporary Pilgrimage Centre is a beginning, from which much may develop.
A perfected travel arrangement has been organised. Members ate invariably satisfied with the arrangements for visiting cemeteries. Parties can go privately or as a pilgrimage. Small pilgrimages of 30, 40 and 50 are taken out monthly during the summer. It is only necessary to join one of these to realise the appreciation of its members for the sympathy and kindness extended from all sides.
Where in any place there exists a group of members exceeding 100, one of the poorer members may be selected and arrangements made by Headquarters for his or her participation in a pilgrimage free of charge.
The League representatives in Belgium are active members of our Association and take care that all members visiting Ypres are able to carry out every part of their intended programme.
III.- (a) The League was invited, through the Belgian Touring Club, to participate in the erection of the 240 red granite pylons, which will stretch from the Swiss border to the sea, and which will mark the extreme line of advance of the German invasion. The League has paid for seven of these pylons in the Ypres Section; they have been erected on the following sites:
I. On the St. Jean, Wiltze Road, leading to Shell Trap farm.
2. Near Potijze on the Zonnebeke Road.
3. Hell Fire Corner on the Menin Road.
4. The railway crossing by the Zillebeke River on the Hill 60 road.
5. Near Trois Rois on the Lille Road.
6. A point near Voormezeele on the Kemmel Road.
7 Near Vierstraete on the Kemmel Road.
(b) A Guide Book- "The Immortal Salient" - has been compiled with the assistance of the War Office and the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence. It provides a historical record with maps, in addition to being a complete guide to the Salient of Ypres. Price 5/- (Publishers, John Murray).
(c) Sign-Boards have been erected to indicate forty historic points in the Salient, such as Polygon Wood and Hell Fire Corner.
V.- THE YPRES TIMES, the journal of the Ypres League, contains information of the greatest interest. It is issued free to members quarterly and can be obtained from Headquarters for 7d. post free. Most of the back numbers can still be obtained at 1/-. It has been issued regularly since October, 1921.
Registers containing the names of all those buried in the Salient are being gradually compiled by the Imperial War Graves Commission. These registers are purchased by the League as they are published, and can be referred to at the head office, or copies can be obtained, price 3/- They contain the names of the dead with their numbers and regiments, and, wherever possible, the name of the next-of-kin.
The Ypres League supplies badges, the scroll, beautiful artificial wreaths, many publications, photographs, booklets and post cards, etchings, songs, prints and maps, a complete list of which can be had on application.
VI.- Groups of members- British, Belgian and American - have been established throughout
VII.- Our relations with the dwellers on the battlefield are most cordial.
To defend the Ypres Salient cost the lives of 250,000 soldiers. The Salient, more than any other battle ground, represents in a peculiar degree the things to be commemorated. It was here that the "old contemptibles " exhibited their qualities at ]east as much as they did at Mons, on the Marne or on the Aisne. It was here that the Territorials and New Army showed what they were good for, and if the Canadians stood out conspicuously, troops from every part of the Empire and Overseas also won their laurels in the Salient.
The formations which escaped duties in the Salient at one time or another, must be few in number. Other sections have their claims to special memory, but Verdun and Ypres stand out unrivalled for dogged tenacity. The defence of Ypres kept the War within bounds - the collapse of Ypres would have proved a blow to our mastery of the sea, and all that that meant to the Allies.