When The War Is Over

Trip Start Sep 07, 2008
Trip End Oct 10, 2008

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Where I stayed
Charlotte's House B&B, Ypres

Flag of Belgium  , West Flanders,
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Today we headed just down the road to the town of Ypres, which is pronounced Eepra or if you are British, Wipers. If you have ever read any of the history of WWI you will know this is where the Western front was situated. The front formed an arc from the coast near Calais all the way down to the Swiss border and was the site of many of the casualties in WWI. We started our day by visiting Tyne Cot cemetery, which is a huge cemetery where nearly 12,000 Commonwealth soldiers are buried. At least half of these are unidentified and have on their gravestones the inscription, "A soldier of the great war. Known unto God." When you arrive you can't see the cemetery itself and you walk down to a museum where there are a collection of photographs and an explanation of the Australian troops role in the Battle of Passchendale. It is quite a sombre place, made more so by the voice recording of a British schoolgirl that is reading out the name and age of each of the soldiers in turn.
It was pouring rain outside when we walked down the path to the cemetery. Neither of us was quite expecting the sight that greeted us as we rounded the corner. There were white headstones, all in perfect alignment, stretching for hundreds of metres in all directions. I guess I hadn't really taken in just how big an area almost 12,000 graves would fill. We both stood there for a moment in awe before we were able to go in. It is a beautiful place, quiet and peaceful despite the many tourists roaming through the grounds. There are two German pillboxes, which are like bunkers that were built on the ridge when it was held by the Germans. It was strange to see the remnants of German strongholds in amongst so many Allied graves. There is a very simple but moving memorial in the centre which has the words, "Their name liveth for evermore" inscribed on it and it was covered in poppy wreaths with messages attached. It was both moving and thought-provoking to see the sentiments expressed by other visitors to this place.
We drove through the countryside known as Flanders Fields, which is where the trench warfare that made this part of the war so unique occurred. It is all now returned to farming land but you can still get the impression of what the landscape would have looked like to those young boys away from home for the first time fighting in a war on the other side of the world. The heavy rain, despite giving me a nasty case of trench foot from my leaky shoes, lent the whole experience an even more sombre and eerie feel.
Arriving in Ypres in time for lunch, we were immediately impressed with what a picturesque little town it is. Completely gutted by shelling during WWI it has been rebuilt to preserve the style of buildings that were present before the war. The Cloth Hall on the main market square is a magnificent Gothic building, apparently the largest Gothic building not built for religious purposes in the whole of Europe. It almost gets overshadowed by all the recent history of the town, but Ypres was once a flourishing medieval city due to its cloth and lace trade.  The buildings have a strange mixture of the Belgian stepped gables and almost a Parisian influence in some of them. All makes for a pretty spectacular sight though. Perhaps the highlight of our walk around the old city was Menin Gate. It was originally one of the gates into the old city with a fairly unexciting design, however after WWI it was rebuilt in the same style as London's Wellington Arch and is lined by the names of all the missing Commonwealth soldiers from WWI. More about the gate later, as every night something very special happens there.
We spent the afternoon brushing up on our WWI history in the "In Flanders Field Museum" which is housed inside the Cloth Hall. It was really interesting to read about this part of WWI from a Belgian perspective as I guess in the past I have only really been told the Australian or British version of events. It was really interesting to hear how the locals were affected by the war being waged in their backyard and to also realise how grateful the locals are to the Commonwealth troops for protecting their neutrality which would otherwise have been taken from them by the invading Germans. There is a section of the museum which is quite hard hitting where a voice reads two poems to you whilst you stand in the middle of a room surrounded by suspended gas masks. The first poem is the very famous " In Flanders Fields" by John McRae. Which starts off...
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row. Etc etc
The second poem we had never heard before and was called "Dulce et decorum est", which means "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country". Quite an incredible poem as it vividly describes the effects of a poison gas attack and ends by repeating the title with a real undertone of cynicism and sadness. In all a great museum, although a lot of reading to get all the information on board and even we were fading by the end despite of interest in the subject matter.
Our home for the night in Ypres was a B&B called Charlotte's House that I found on the internet. We were the only people staying here tonight and had the pick of all 3 rooms. It also meant that we had full use of the rest of the house including the kitchen and lounge rooms all to ourselves. What a treat after tiny hotel rooms for 3 weeks to have a whole house to relax in. We didn't stay long as we headed back out into the downpour to explore more of this incredible part of the world. We drove to the neighbouring town of Poperinghe and Langmarke, both of which are very different, as Poperinghe (or Pops as it was known) was a rest stop for Allied troops on their time off, and Langemarke was behind German lines.
Today was a tough day of sightseeing both because of the rain and also the intensity of the subject matter. We relaxed in our B&B with a few Belgian beers and mulled over our day so far. It wasn't over yet as we headed back out just before 8pm for the main reason we had decided to stay in Ypres in the first place. Every night since 1928 at 8pm at Menin Gate they play the Last Post. After the war a group of locals decided that they wanted to do this as an ongoing reminder of their appreciation to the sacrifices made by Allied troops in saving their country from invasion. It was quite incredible to see a group of about 200 people crowded under the gate on a very rainy night almost 90 years after the war had ended paying their respects to the fallen. There were more than a few Aussies in the crowd and luckily for us a group of dignitaries and Australian soldiers in dress uniforms present. On occasions such as this the whole service is performed rather than just the Last Post and we were lucky enough to be there on one of those nights. A very moving experience and one that I hope continues to be visited by as many Aussies as possible in the future.
In all the excitement I realised later that I had dropped my favourite hat, which I had respectfully taken off for the service. Despite the rain, Matt convinced me we should walk back and look for it even though 2 hours had passed when I realised. I couldn't believe it when we got there to see my hat sitting there under the names of the soldiers on a ledge under the gate. I felt so lucky and grateful that someone had left it there for me to come back and find. Nice to see there are good people left in the world.
Tonight is our last in Belgium as tomorrow we head back into France for the remainder of our trip. I have really enjoyed Belgium, especially the quaint little towns we have discovered. My previous experience of Belgium had been a short visit to Brussels with a beer, a waffle and some chocolate before heading off to somewhere a little more exciting. For that reason we changed our itinerary at the last minute and decided to see the smaller towns of Belgium instead.
I must say I have discovered some of my favourite things on this trip right here in tiny little Belgium. I have become a very big fan of Lambic beer especially the cherry variety. Then there is the chocolate which is to die for. Not to mention the waffles which are the best I have ever tasted, especially when you order them in a restaurant where you can enjoy them with cutlery on a plate, instead of trying to wrestle one on a little piece of cardboard with a plastic fork. The simple things in life...
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