In Flanders Fields

Trip Start Apr 04, 2007
Trip End Oct 22, 2007

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Flag of Belgium  , West Flanders,
Saturday, October 13, 2007

As we prepare to depart Ypre on one of the tiny, run-down local trains, we are truly sorry to be leaving after an eye-opening and emotional visit to this beautiful little town with its bloody and violent history. It turned out to be unnecessarily difficult to get here from nearby Caen, and involved a tram, a train to Paris, two metros, a train to Brussels and a final train to Ypres (pronouned Eeeper, for those of you struggling with all those consonants!) We arrived in the town just as the sun was setting and eventually arrived at our B and B which we had booked the night before, only to discover that the sweet but befuddled elderly owner had misheard our arrival time and had given our room away when we didn't appear by lunchtime. Luckily, she still had a single room spare, so we checked in and headed straight down to the Menin Gate war memorial for the nightly playing of the Last Post.

The Gate turned out to be a huge memorial with the names of more than 54, 000 Commonwealth soldiers who lie in unmarked graves across the Ypres Salient, the deceptively peaceful looking fields surrounding the city which were the sight of some of the bloodiest battles of WW1. Close to a million men died on both sides in this one spot over several months of fighting - the names on the memorial are those whose bodies were never found after falling and disappearing into the muddy wasteland of these battlefields. The massive stone arch was lit up in the gathering dark as we approached and joined the hundreds of other people already there. As it happened, the night we arrived was the day before the 90th anniversary of the morning offensive of 12 October, 1917 that was the single bloodiest day in New Zealand military history, and busloads of fellow Kiwis had turned out to pay their respects.

The ceremony at the arch included a group of Kiwi soliders led by Willie Apiata, New Zealand's newest Victoria Cross recipient. Among the other dignitaries were several former All Blacks, at least one of whom was teary-eyed as they laid wreaths at the memorial. Amid the crowds of Brits, Dutch, Belgians and Kiwis it was a bit hard to see over all the heads, but when the anthems were played and the Kiwis in the crowd softly joined in 'God Defend New Zealand', it was eerily beautiful in the vast monument. In all the pressing, a Dutch schoolboy actually fainted on Dan, so after offering some first aid we decided to move on as the ceremony began dispersing, faint notes of bagpipes and bugles still lingering.

The next morning, after a cold shower and warm breakfast with a couple of other Kiwis who were staying at the same B and B, we headed out to explore the town of Ypres itself. Painstakingly rebuilt from the ground up, not once but twice after two successive wars bombed it into oblivion, Ypre is a beautiful and peaceful place today, hard to reconcile with the many photos of bombed-out, smouldering wreckage and swamp from the war years. We started at the tourist info centre and after some debate decided to book a tour of the battlefields, which are somewhat spread out around the city and a bit inaccessible unless you have a car. We had some time before the tour started, so our next stop was the fantastic 'In Flanders Fields Museum', an interactive archive of video, sound, multimedia, sculpture, art and artifacts that attempts to recreate the experiences of soldiers in the 'Great War'. One of the most chilling exhibits was a voice reading the Wilfred Owen poem 'Dulce Et Decorum Est', about a chemical gas attack on British soldiers, while around you disembodied gas masks hung in clear cylinders that filled up with sickly green gas and made hissing noises - the overall effect was horrible and very powerful.

We headed out of the museum and stopped in the square for a warm, fluffy waffle (Belgian, of course!), then met up with our mini-van tour group and garrulous Irish guide. A career solider himself, our guide told us he had lost three great-uncles at Passchendaele, as well as his grandfather who had survived the trenches but committed suicide after returning home to Britain. Needless to say, his personal interest in the history of the area was huge. He was also incredibly knowledgeable about the area and, through a series of photographs and anecdotes, recreated the bloody mire of the battlefields where today farmhouses stand amid crops and peacefully grazing animals. Our first stop was Essex Farm, the Dressing Station (like a very rough battlefield hospital or first aid post) where the Canadian doctor John McCrae wrote the now-famous poem 'In Flanders Fields'. Among the headstones in the spot, which is now a Commonwealth war cemetery, were several Victoria Cross winners, more than one mass grave , and one headstone surrounded by poppies and notes where a 15 year old British soldier named Valentine is buried, having pretended to be his older brother when the recruiters came so that he could go overseas to fight in the 'great adventure'.

We also stopped at a German cemetery nearby where, according to German military tradition, 'comrades in death' lay buried in graves of 20 to 30 soliders. Most chillingly, in the middle of the cemetary was a giant mass grave where, since the Belgians were unwilling to give any land to the German aggressors to bury their dead in Belgium, the remains of 25, 000 German men lie buried in a single pit. The sheer scale and slaughter of the carnage that took place here is just inconceivable. At Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the region, more than 12, 000 white headstones in serene rows face the cornfields that were the bloodbath of Passchendaele, and the graves of six V.C. winners lie within metres of the spot where they fought and were killed. Many of the headstones of unknown soldiers are marked simply, 'Known Unto God', after a poem by Rudyard Kipling, whose own son was killed in the war and his body never recovered.

As we drove along the quiet country roads of the area, we noticed piles of rusty metal propped up against power poles or lying beside ditches. Our guide explained that these were unexploded WW1 munitions which farmers had uncovered during their harvesting, 200 to 300 tonnes EVERY YEAR left out like milk bottles for the bomb squad to collect on their regular rounds of the farms. Our guide then casually pointed out an unexploded phosgene/ mustard gas shell and several grenades in one pile. These rusty old shells are just as dangerous today as when they were made; three people a year in the Ypre region are killed by these 90 year old munitions, and last year two Belgian bomb squad troops were killed in an explosion involving an ancient artillery round.

The area around Ypre is also a boneyard, with thousands of bodies of fallen soldiers who had just disappeared into the mud remaining in the ground just metres below the surface. As they are discovered, these remains are reburied in the war cemeteries that dot the area, often with full military honours if their country of origin can be determined. Other memorials and statues dot the landscape here also. At Brezinge, a massive granite Canadian soldier leans on his rifle and mourns his comrades, 8000 of whom fell to a gas attack on that spot; the first time the horrific chlorine gas was used in any war.

We carried on to Hill 62, increasingly struggling to comprehend the scale of what had occurred here, and drove through a line of maples with flame-coloured leaves which marked the site of huge Canadian casualties in heavy fighting over a miniscule hill on the landscape. At the nearby museum, crowded with screaming British schoolkids, the trenches and shell-holes remain. Blasted stumps of trees covered with paper poppies stand silent sentinel over the carnage that occurred here in this quiet place, where autumn leaves crunch underfoot and kids play loudly. Inside, horrific photos belie the history of this spot, this sliver of land where so many countries sacrificed their youth for the Motherland, both German and Commonwealth.

It was all too much to take in, really, we have no standard in our own lives by which to measure this scale of human loss and suffering, but we both felt that the ground was somehow sacred in this place and were glad we had come. We made our way back to the market square and the elaborate Cloth Hall in the centre of this resilient little town, humbled and reflective as we drove by cemetery after cemetery on the road back into town. Last night we again went to the Last Post ceremony, played every night without fail at the Menin Gate. Again, hundreds of people crowded the monument to lay wreaths and pay their respects, reminding the world that the sacrifice of those millions of men and women ninety years ago will not be forgotten.

All our best from Belgium,

Dan and Gabes
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