In the footsteps of Private William George Dunlop
I met Reg and Suellen at Brussels Midi station, after their journey from London on the Eurostar, and drove to Ieper (Ypres) which was to be our tour base. After booking into our tour hotel we walked to the Town Square for lunch. Over lunch I introduced Reg and Suellen to the 1914-18 Great War and the Ypres Salient, which was the canvas over which we would be touring.
After lunch we began our tour with a visit to the Menin Gate Memorial to pay our respects to William George Dunlop. He has no known grave and is one of the 54,322 soldiers without a known grave killed in the Ypres Salient before 16th August 1917 commemorated on the memorial. After paying our respects Reg placed a small wooden remembrance cross by his name, a simple but moving moment, and I presented Reg with a certificate to commemorate William George Dunlop’s service.
Following our visit to the Menin Gate we drove to the Essex Farm Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Cemetery and the location of the preserved Advanced Dressing Station where John McCrae wrote the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. From Essex Farm we drove to the preserved trench network of the ‘Yorkshire Trench’. This trench was discovered in 1992 when the nearby factory was being build and later featured in the BBC Meet the Ancestors Special called the ‘Forgotten Battlefield’ that was broadcast in 2002.
From the Yorkshire Trench we drove to nearby Pilkem where we began our exploration of the Second Battle of Ypres at the French Memorial to the French 45th (Algerian) and 87th (Territorial) Divisions. These two French Divisions were the Allied Divisions against whom the Germans unleashed the first major ‘Gas Attack’ on the Western Front.
We then drove to the ‘Kitchener’s Wood’ memorial where we discussed the taking of the wood by the German soldiers of the II Battalion the 238 Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment and its recapture by the 10th (Calgary Highlanders) and 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalions from the First Contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. A short drive later and we were at the Canadian ‘Brooding Soldier’ Memorial at St Julian where we concluded our discussion of the Second Battle of Ypres and the halting of the German assault. That evening we attended the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate where the buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade play the traditional salute to the fallen each evening at 8 p.m.
Our second day was our big day, the day on which we followed in the footsteps of William George Dunlop and discussed the Battle of Messines. We began at Hill 60 the most northern of the 25 mines that were dug as part of the preparation for the battle. 19 of these mines were detonated at the beginning of the battle and it is said that they were heard as far away as Dublin. From Hill 60 we drove to the Spanbroekmolen ‘Pool of Peace’, the largest of the Battle of Messines mines, where we discussed mining and counter-mining operations before visiting the New Zealand Memorial in nearby Mesen. Here we discussed the opening of the battle and the actions of the New Zealand Division in particular before driving to Ploegsteert for lunch.
Following lunch we returned to the battlefield visiting the Ploegsteert Memorial to the missing and the Hyde Park Corner and Royal Berkshire CWGC Cemeteries enroute. Our first battlefield location of the afternoon was another CWGC Cemetery, this one being the Toronto Avenue CWGC Cemetery which is in the forward edge of Ploegsteert Wood near St Yvon (St Ives). Here we discussed the move of the 3rd Australian Division from their billets in the rear area to the frontline ready for the attack on 7th June 1917. They were gassed as they moved through the wood sustaining a number of casualties and delaying their arrival until just before ‘zero hour’ (the time that the attack was launched).
From Toronto Avenue CWGC Cemetery we drove to the site where the Australian 37th Battalion had spent the early hours of the battle waiting in their Assembly Trenches. They were to be part of the Second Phase of the attack scheduled for the afternoon of the 7th and it was in the 37th Battalion that Private William George Dunlop had served. Here we stood within 100 yards of where he had waited, being shelled by the German artillery, before advancing into the battle.
We then drove to the Irish Peace Park from where we had a grandstand view of the 3rd Australian Division battlefield. After orientating ourselves to the battlefield we discussed the morning attack and how it progressed across the open-countryside in front of us. One of the most surprising things for Reg and Suellen was not our ability to discuss the battle, but our ability to orientate ourselves to the battlefield as most of the farms that had existed had been rebuilt in their original locations.
Following our discussion of the morning battle at the Irish Peace Park we drove to the nearby Bethleem Farm East CWGC Cemetery. This is located between Bethleem Farm and Septieme Barn which is the area that our research identified as the place where William George Dunlop was killed. Documents that Reg had indicated that this was also the area in which he was buried, though his grave was later lost and it is not known whether his remains were ever recovered. He could now lay in one of the many graves marked ‘A Soldier of the Great War’ or may even still be lying in the fields nearby under the Flemish soil. It was here that we discussed the afternoon attack by the 37th Battalion and the death of William George Dunlop. Here Reg and Suellen spent time walking around the graves of the cemetery and we all took stock of what we had achieved. To stand earlier where he had waited to join the battle had been something special, but to stand within what was probably 50 or so yards of where he was killed and later buried was something else.
Our period of following in his footsteps over we returned to our tour hotel for a celebratory drink not just in memory of William George Dunlop, but also to celebrate my 50th Birthday where I had been privileged enough to follow in his footsteps. To record their pilgrimage I presented both Reg and Suellen with their followed in the footsteps certificates to commemorate the day.
Our third day was spent looking at the events that took place at Polygon Wood during the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) when the 5th Australian Division captured the wood. Following this visit we returned to Brussels where I dropped them off at the station to catch their return Eurostar train to London.
This was an excellent tour in the company of two great companions where we were able to get close to William George Dunlop and remember his war.
Ian R Gumm