Parts of the Palingbeek remain relatively unknown, even today, to many visitors to the battlefields of the Great War in Flanders. Even those who come to pay their respects to the men buried in the British cemeteries on the high ground of the Bluff, to the west of the Palingbeek, are often unaware that, on the other side of the hills to the east, there is much of interest to be found hidden away in the woods.
Actually, the plan was to return to Polygon Wood. Or at least I thought the plan was to return to Polygon Wood. We’d talked about it some weeks previously, and we’d all enjoyed an afternoon there once before, several years ago now. On this trip, Baldrick and I had already spent a day to the north of Ieper, and a day in France (time limits ensure that I can, if necessary, be pretty relentless when it comes to exploring Flanders Fields, and Baldrick, bless him, sometimes has his patience tried to, but never quite over*, the limit) so I could hardly complain if the five of us all went out for a couple of hours to enjoy the sunshine. And anyway, the two cemeteries at Polygon Wood would keep me busy.
“We’re going to the Palingbeek.” “You what?” “The Palingbeek.” “What’s a Palingbeek?” “It’s a place with woods and places for kids to play.” “No Polygon Wood then?” “Nope. The Palingbeek. You’ll like it.” After the adventures of the previous two days (coming to a Big Note website somewhere near you next year) I was hardly in a position to object, indeed it would have been positively churlish to do so.
So we went to the Palingbeek instead.
I really shouldn’t have worried. As we neared our destination I realized where we were heading and that the likelihood of finding something of interest to tell you all about was becoming more than a possibility.
You see, Baldrick and I had visited the Palingbeek before, just not this part of it, and without knowing, at the time, its name.
The Palingbeek roughly covers the area between the railway line from Ieper* to Comines in the north, and the old Ypres-Comines canal in the south, about four miles, as the crow flies, south east of Ieper itself. To get your bearings, in the wooded area to the north east of the map you will notice The Caterpillar, where you will remember we visited the mine crater one snowy day not so long ago, Hill 60 is just across the railway line at the same point, and five cemeteries that we visited during our Tour of Zillebeke are also marked to the west of the map.
*Ieper today, Ypres back then.
This trench map from April 1917 shows how close the front lines were along the low but strategically important line of hills known by the British, north of the canal in the Palingbeek, as the Bluff. When we visited the Bluff previously, we followed the front lines north as we visited the three battlefield cemeteries* close behind the British front line. On this occasion, as we parked the car in the huge car park (the large grey area you can see on the information board map) and headed off in an easterly direction into the woods, I was already well aware that we were somewhere in the German rear areas, and you can see on the trench map that the German Third Line trench system was once sited around here. I wonder what, if anything, we will find?
As we began to wander the woods I was, as you can imagine, keeping my eyes peeled for signs of warfare. Nothing here but an old culvert in the foreground, but does the ground in the background beneath the trees look somewhat uneven? Pitted, maybe? Maybe.
Ah, an old trench? No, I don’t think so. Just a natural water channel, nothing more.
And nothing here either, apart from just natural beauty. And we like natural beauty. The Palingbeek today is a place for walkers, joggers, lovers of nature, and golfers (yes, there’s a golf course here too, just across the canal). There’s a large cafeteria near the car park, and in the woods, places for kids to do what kids do, accompanied by shrieking voices, bubbling laughter, and the shout of an occasional parental recall.
So as we crossed this ride we could already hear the sound of voices, and just beyond, in a clearing at the edge of the woods, dozens of people,…
…their kids scrambling up wooden climbing frames and push-me-higher swings, all of which suited Lucas, the only official child in our party, admirably (photo above courtesy of Baldrick).
So with the other adults happily ensconsed on a bench watching the kids playing, I took the opportunity to explore a little on my own. Starting with whatever it is that I could see up there through the trees.
Well, there’s a large chunk of concrete at my feet…
…and this is clearly the remains of a bunker.
Before we go any further, here’s a Google map* showing the Great War sites around Zillebeke, the Palingbeek in the bottom right, with the positions of the major trench systems in the spring of 1917 marked, although this would have looked little different in either of the previous two years. Our walk is indicated by the pink line. The photos you are currently looking at are approximately at the point where the route crosses the German Third Line. Our walk goes south and then west along the canal. Click the box at the top left of the map for more details.
*If you’re using an old browser this may not work for you. Solution. Update your browser.
Well that’s an interesting start. And just a few yards away…
…the remains of another bunker.
As I started to look around…
…I spotted pieces of a third bunker…
…and began to notice the nature of the ground hereabouts; little hillocks, dips…
…in fact if you stripped away all of the foliage, this would be a bit of a moonscape, don’t you think?
Beneath the greenery, this is a man-made landscape, a landscape fashioned by two and a half years of bombardment, British shells blasting away at the German Third Line and the communication trenches that served it. The Palingbeek saw almost continuous action until June 1917 when the Germans were pushed off the high ground, from Hill 60 just a little way north of here, as far south as the village of Messines, so it is hardly surprising that the ground still bears evidence of those catastrophic times.
Above & following photos: A little deeper into the woods, the remains of more bunkers.
And yet another, down in this dip.
The roof of this bunker has split longitudinally and collapsed the structure; one fears for the occupants at the time, if there were any. Maybe they are still there.
Looking along the split in the bunker’s roof towards what appears to be a large crater beyond.
So far I had only explored for ten or fifteen minutes, and I hadn’t wandered at all far from the kids’ play area. At times I could still hear the odd shriek, rather surreal whilst examining a ruined bunker.
Anyway, I’d better get back to the others. This is another view of the remains of the first bunker we encountered.
A little later we all headed back into the woods to continue our stroll.
Of course, one of the problems in photographing a place such as this is that the inundations in the ground tend to look flattened out in the finished picture, so hopefully my interpretation of these photos will help. Can you make out the crater?
The ground here slopes away to the east as we began to descend the leeward side of the Palingbeek hills.
And then I came across this slight ditch…
…and nearby, another one, but this one is much clearer. These are the remnants of communication trenches, and you can see quite clearly the spoil heap on either side created when this particular trench was dug.
Not only that, but if you look at the trench map below, another from 1917, incidentally, and you again pinpoint the German Third Line, you will notice what at first sight appears to be one, but on enlarging the map becomes two communication trenches running almost north to south from the third line trench down towards the canal (bisecting the words ‘Oaf’ & ‘Drive’). These may well be the same two trenches, the remains of which you see pictured in the previous and following photos.
Looking back up the hillside, you can see that the slope is at times quite steep, and still pitted with bumps and hollows.
If you haven’t looked at the first trench map in detail, it’s time you did. Clearly marked are a series of planned British barrages on these rear areas, progressing further east at fifteen or twenty minute intervals. It is just one example of how life in these areas to the east of the Palingbeek, although out of direct line of fire, was hardly much safer for the defenders here than it was for their colleagues in the front line.
We briefly left the woods…
…and strolled down this grassy ride…
…before re-entering the woods,…
…passing the remains of yet another concrete structure,…
…and finding our way down to the canal.
The Germans built a number of bridges across the canal, one of them just about here.
Yours truly contemplates events of very nearly a hundred years ago.
Our walk now continued west along the northern bank of the canal…
…but after only a few paces we encountered this information board. You can see another of the German bridges in the larger photograph, and a sad row of white crosses, the men buried there now long since removed, along the bank of the canal.
And up on the hill behind, the remains of the bunker from where, presumably, the photo was taken.
British artillery would have frequently lobbed shells over the hills to harass the German rear area here on the lee slope of the Palingbeek, and, despite the foliage, it is still possible to see the effects of this on the landscape, particularly at the bottom of the slope nearest the canal.
On descending the hill again…
…we once more continued our walk alongside the canal…
…which began to peter out the further west we walked.
To our right, away from the canal, the slope of the hill still bears the scars of war.
Note the crater in the centre of the picture.
Wherever you look, the landscape reveals the marks of warfare, the mounds and hollows still giving the ground a scarred, somewhat unnatural, appearance.
Another information board, this time dealing with the construction of the canal.
The trench maps show that tunneling took place in this area and, moving off the path…
…the forest floor is still far from easy to navigate.
Another shell hole…
Difficult to see, I know, but the greenery in the centre grows in yet another shell hole…
…and this shot looks down into a huge depression, presumably the result of something very big hitting something very combustible.
Nearing the end of our walk…
…we found the remains of yet another German bunker. Wooden stairs lead from here up to the cafeteria and, yes, what else could you ask for, a bouncy castle.
Above & below: Add your own annotation.
And that, folks, ends our afternoon walk in the Palingbeek. I hope you enjoyed it. We most certainly did. In fact, we liked it so much, we returned a few years later to
explore some more.