In Flanders Fields the poppies grow..

Trip Start Mar 17, 2012
Trip End Mar 20, 2012

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Where I stayed
What I did
The Menin Gate
Sanctuary Wood Cemetary
Hill 60
Hill 62
Paschendale 1917 Museum
Tyne Cot Military Cemetary

Flag of Belgium  , West Flanders,
Sunday, March 18, 2012

Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

It seems worth writing the entire poem in.Its been that sort of day.

After a frenetic-ish day 1 getting settled into Bruges (or Brug-ge as is the case) the plan for day 2 was a lot more sombre. The freedom of having the car allows us tto trek out and visit the In Flanders Fields museum in Ypres (Ieper) and at the same time visit some of the memorable locations of WW1. The battlefields and trenches of Paschendale.
We had a lovely continental breakfast and headed out, disturbing the hotel manager briefly to let us out of his garage - I am starting to note that Belgians seem quite miserable but actually have a very dry, quick wit which could be mistaken for otherwise. It's something I have started to try and live by a little - not judging people immediately, but make the effort to try to understand them first. I have friends quite willing to pre-judge and to stereotype as I have in the past myself, without ever really visiting these places. As has been the case on many places we have visited, it tends to be the English that are the real miserables - I think my blog has been a good demonstrator of that. The hotel manager at first seemed droll, withdrawn and a little tired but when he showed us out helping me to reverse into the very tight road we had a quick exchange about his own driving which showed him to be more fun and relaxed.

The drive to Ypres took 45 minutes along long roads across very flat terrain. Cyclists in lycra seemed to be everywhere using the route alongside the motorway as a racing track. Very popular here it seems.
Ypres town was nearly deserted (Sunday) and I annoyingly paid for parking which we realised shortly after I need'ent have. Its Sunday..Dur. 
We walked along to the Menin Gate and all around it; a very fitting, very grand memorial to 55000 British/Commonwealth soldiers that died in battle but have no known graves. The gate stands above the houses all around and is one of the main entrances to the town, an entry across the water that surrounds the inner town and a route used by the soldiers out of Ypres onto the salient into battle. Once again, it was very sobering right up until the point when a group of lads drove through the gate wearing Arab gowns, with pastelled on beards waving table tennis rackets, 4 of which riding a quad bike and one scooting alongside on a childs scooter. A little bit unusual and out of place. They were seen shortly after knocking back beers in the pub, clearly a stag do of some kind.

Our trip to the In Flanders Fields museum was short lived as it is undergoing renovation until July. Damnit. Typical. We did however pick up a leaflet for another museum in a local town called the Paschendale Museum so we would visit there instead later.

Stretching Tom to his most useful, we asked him to find us a couple of Hills to the south of the city. He was having none of it but he could find us the town adjacent to the Hills (Zillbeke), after which we were on our own. Thankfully, the very useful sign invention quickly helped us find both Hill 60 and Hill 62, two very bloody locations of WW1. At Hill 60, we went for a short walk amongst the mounds and hollows formed by endless bombardmentover the trenches and tunnels and watched as a couple of children played amongst it all with not a clue. It was quite fitting.
 I found the experience a little difficult to take in, being a place where people died at the peak of their lives fighting, not a graveyard where people are laid to rest. It all seems a little surreal now - just a bit of turf in the middle of Belgium surrounded by a few houses and bars.
Hill 62 adjacent to Sanctuary Wood Cemetary off the Menin road has a memorial to the Canadian dead and views across to Ypres. Any raised ground in a land of flat was clearly instrumental in any victory and so was fought for constantly here.
The cemetary was the first I have been to of it's type. Rows and rows of white gravestones, perfectly aligned, classified in rows with a letter and a number due to the sheer number present. I was glad to be able to stand alone amongst the rows as Kate stayed in the car as it made the experience quite personal. It sent shudders down my spine seeing row of row of;

'A Soldier of the Great War' 'Known unto God'.

I've never really got the unknown soldier thing before - It's sunk in now.

We went from this mini-tour to the Paschendale Museum and in classic Martin and Kate style read pretty much everything in sight. It was a very good museum only slightly ruined by a student tour group which had us pinned in a room for 20 minutes as they passed through. The museum has a great deal of information regarding the local conditions of the war, the progress through different phases, the results (aerial photos showing before and after of the area) and a mock up of the Dugouts built underground which housed the soldiers while they weren't in the trenches (this is what you see on Blackadder 4). The dugouts were a little freaky as there didn't appear to be anyone elsein them at the time me and Kate were there, and so you would turn a corner to be greeted by a posed models and war noises. I was a bit jumpy. Kate was freaked out by the prospect of it collapsing and I had to remind her that we were only in a mockup in the basement of the museum.

We both learnt something about Tanks that we never knew, and that was where the name 'Tank' came from. Who would have thought - so simple.


Our final stop was the Tyne Cot Military Cemetary. It's the largest Commonwealth cemetary in the world and it certainly does the trick of making it all very real. The cemetary is a few miles North West of Ypres and stands on the site of the Tyne Cot dressing station which was captured by the Australians in 1917. It is set on one side amongst a few houses but sheltered from them by a high wall and on the other overlooking the open green countryside through the white graves. It is from the countryside end that you enter the cemetary looking at the back of all the gravestones. When you see the front of them you start seeing a lot of unknowns, a lot of British, a smattering of Canadians and Australians and a couple of Germans. Some graves with a pile of stones atop are those of the Jewish dead; a meaning which has apparently been lost in time but more recently relates to those who have visited and paid their respects. Looking into this I have also found that it could mean adding weight to the grave to keep the souls in check and at peace or to show that the person is still one of God's 'sheep' (A shepherd would count his sheep using pebbles in a sling, one pebble for each sheep).
Its been a long time since the Great War but for me this well kept, well tended cemetary shows the respect that those lost will always deserve. This cemetary contains 12000 burials, with many more named dead engraved on the walls surrounding. With 150+ cemetaries in the area, it is difficult to get a sense of perspective - but it is worth considering how disgusted we are nowadays when 1 person dies in battle.

We drove back to Bruges after an interesting but quite emotionally draining day. I for one felt shattered and Kate's lilting head and closed eyes on the majority of the trip back confirmed she was a bit gone too.

Not to be forgotton.
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