It takes 15,000 casualties to train a major general

It takes 15,000 casualties to train a major general


So pronounced Marshal Ferdinand Jean Marie Foch, a french general, military theorist and the Supreme Allied commander of World War One!  A hundred years ago,  the ‘war to end all wars’ devastated Europe and in particular much of Belgium and north west France. The numbers of casualties on both sides were staggering and the obscene loss of life is still impossible to get one’s head around with most of the victims in their late teens and early 20’s.

I have just recently returned from a memorable (and poignant) tour of the major battlefields of WW1 — courtesy of GTI, an Irish company that specialises in small group tours not only in Europe but also worldwide. I was part of a group of travel agents and journalists who were taken to see the major battle sites of the 1914-18 war with names that resonate with most people — The Somme and Passchendaele. The countryside is still quite rural to this day and the gently rolling landscape probably still looks much as it did 100 years ago with freshly ploughed fields and picture postcard villages. The countryside is also dotted with literally hundreds of cemeteries that are immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We based ourselves in Ypres, a beautiful town whose eastern entrance is dominated by the hugely impressive Menin Gate that was built in 1927 to commemorate soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient and whose final resting places are unknown. The walls of the giant monument are covered with  more than 54,896 names. Each night, a large crowd assembles before 8.00 p.m. to hear the Last Post ceremony sounded in honour of these lost soldiers. I had the rare privilege to lay a wreath at this ceremony and it was heartening to see the hundreds of school children in attendance. The site of the Menin Gate was chosen out of respect for the hundreds of thousands of men who passed through it on their way to the battlefields of Flanders.

Such tours are not necessarily for everyone but should be of interest to anyone over the age of 50 or indeed anyone interested in history in general or WW1 in particular. We stayed in the 3-star Novotel Ieper Centrum which is an excellent property located literally three minutes walk away from the Menin Gate itself and just two minutes to the main town square which also features the largest (non-church) gothic building in the world which was almost completely destroyed during the Great War and which was so lovingly restored that nowadays it looks like it has been standing there for the past 1,000 years. Our guide for the three days was an amazing gentleman called Dermot Curran — a retired teacher from Co. Kilkenny who has an encyclopedic knowledge of not only the Great War but much else besides! GTI are located at Park House, Donabate, Co. Dublin and may be contacted on 01 8434734 or via www.gti-ireland.com

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