2018 marks 100 years since the guns fell silent and the war to end all wars finally came to an end.
Five years ago I discovered my great cousin, Milnes Scott, lay in a cemetery at Bucquoy, just outside Arras, Northern France. Killed during The First World War, that visit was emotional, but one I have repeated and hope to do so again.
So, when I stepped out of the car at Ypres, I knew in an instant this trip would give me abiding memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Visiting Ypres reinforced my understanding of the great sacrifice our country gave on the altar of freedom between the years, 1914-1918. The sheer scale of the carnage of devastation is barely comprehensible.
You cannot help but be moved by the rows of names on the Menin Gate at the entrance to the historic, little medieval town of Ypres, or by the rows of headstones and the names of the unidentified or missing on the granite walls at Tyne Cot, a little farming settlement now the largest British war cemetery in the world.
They say old soldiers never forget. Well, I witnessed that first hand. After the bugler sounded the last post at the Menin Gate in Ypres, old soldiers and ordinary citizens alike, including I am pleased to say schoolchildren, march forward proudly to lay their poppy wreaths and to salute these amazing young men who gave their lives so gallantly in the cause of freedom.
In the crowd, I stood silently as a choir gave a beautiful rendition of the Lord’s Prayer before the buglers stepped forward to sound the Reveille.
The nightly sombre ritual choked-up us all who were there.
The mood then lifted as the band of Scots Guards played their immaculate tribute to the fallen.
My fellow travellers and I designed our stay to take in the Great War battlefields and memorial sites of the Western Front in Flanders. We visited the landmarks associated with the third battle of Ypres, known as the Battle of Passchendaele.
This battle lasted from July to November 1917. An allied attempt to stop the German advance that saw casualties of 500,000 men on both sides. 500,000 casualties in one battle!
Many of those killed lay in the beautiful cemetery at Tyne Cot. This place offers space for quiet reflection among the many rows of seemingly endless white headstones.
I tracked down the relative of my wife, George Hill. George was killed in the battle but his body was never recovered. Truly Devastating. Can you imagine George's family being told his injuries were so catastrophic they could not identify him.
George fought valiantly for his country with his friends from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He is remembered on one of the many memorial walls. I found his name and had a quiet conversation.
Many of the gravestones are marked ‘A soldier of the Great War, Known only unto God.’ Of the 12,000 men buried at Tyne Cot, 8,300 still remain unidentified, George Hill is one of them, but he is remembered equally for his courage and sacrifice as are all his comrades.
What is beautiful about this part of Flanders is that among all these historic sites there are houses and a working countryside. Here, people live and work their everyday lives unaffected and thankfully untouched by war.
As I walked among the numerous memorials and monuments, I came across many personal tributes from the families of these young men.
I spotted one cross that simply said: ‘To Harry in loving memory’ that could have easily been left by me for my little boy, enough to break your heart.
Perhaps the highlight for me was the trip to the In Flanders Field Museum.
The way the exhibitions are set out is superb. It takes you through every major part of the Great War with a dazzling array of interactive panels, models and displays of authentic memorabilia.
As the sun was starting to burn through the clouds, I prepared to leave Tyne Cot. I glanced one last time at all the boys who lay beneath the ground and my mind wandered back to the old war memorial in my local church.
On that memorial was an inscription, it read: ‘Forget us not, O land for which we fell.’
Old soldiers never forget and neither should we. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we shall remember them.
Jonathan Milnes Scott