© Visit Flanders
Zoom in on Flanders in northern Belgium as WWI turns 100
No poppies were blowing on that damp spring day; nor for that matter did I see crosses row on row, the original wooden markers having been replaced by stark white gravestones long ago. Even in their absence though, it was impossible to remain unmoved in Flanders Fields (visitflanders.com). Maybe it was the unseasonable chill, maybe the residual effect of some old, collective ache. In any case, the pressure of history was palpable. Touring Belgium’s westernmost corner as the centenary of World War I approached, I could feel it in my bones.
The emotional impact is not immediate since, at first glance, the pastoral countryside with grazing sheep seems like it could have been painted by Brueghel. When you look closer, however, battle scars are apparent — and not only because 150-plus military cemeteries and memorials dot the area. The land itself, still mine-pocked in parts, bears witness: farmers continue to unearth undetonated shells and human remains on a regular basis.
Moreover, road signs read like a grim chapter in history textbooks: picture Passendale (aka Passchendaele), or Passion Dale, the Valley of Suffering, which for Canadians has become synonymous with unspeakable loss; Langemark, where Germans troops added “chemical warfare” to the military lexicon by releasing 135 tonnes of chlorine gas in 1915; or Hooge, where soldiers of the British Empire first encountered the hellish “liquid fire” of flamethrowers that same year.
Ground zero, of course, is Ieper (toerisme-ieper.be), which rhymes with “deeper,” but is better known to most of us from our school days by its French name, Ypres. Strolling around its Grote Markt, you could again be forgiven for thinking that Ieper had been untouched.
Grand public buildings represent a compendium of architectural styles from Romanesque to Renaissance, while classic step-gabled residences, many converted into cafés or shops, provide an intimate counterpoint. The overall effect is so pretty you almost expect rotund, red-faced burghers to step out of a Golden Age canvas and onto the cobbled square.
Ask locals about the buildings, however, and they’ll explain that they were originally erected between the 13th and 17th centuries — “originally” being the operative word. They were levelled by bombardments during the three battles that bear this city’s name.
Had Churchill prevailed, they would have stayed that way. Believing that “a more sacred place for the British race [did] not exist in the world,” the future prime minister suggested that “the whole of the ruins of Ypres” be preserved as a memorial in 1919. The Flemish clearly felt otherwise; returning evacuees soon began rebuilding, faithfully recreating flattened edifices and even reopening old quarries to source matching stone.
Tellingly though, the dominant one — the Cloth Hall, which ranked among the world’s largest commercial buildings in medieval times — is devoted to the In Flanders Fields Museum (34 Grote Markt, Ieper; inflandersfields.be; adults €9, young adults 18-25 €5, kids 7-18 €4). Recently redesigned, it introduces the “War to End All Wars” by combining arresting artifacts with up-to-date technology, including touch screens, video projections and microchip-equipped poppy bracelets that personalize each visitor’s experience. Temporary installations (such as one concerning medical care at the front, open now through June) are staged as well.
After perusing the exhibits, get the lay of the land by climbing the Cloth Hall’s 70-metre-tall belfry for views over the entire Ypres Salient. During the Great War, holding the Salient — a bulge in the Allied line bordered on three sides by German-held territory —was crucial; from the tower’s vantage point, with the heights, hollows and France beyond spread before you like a giant topographic map, it’s easy to see why.
To understand the price paid, go to the burial grounds themselves, starting with Essex Farm Cemetery. Two kilometres north of Ieper, it contains the graves of 1200 Commonwealth soldiers, the youngest being 15-year-old rifleman V. J. Strudwick.
There’s an added resonance for Canadians because, directly to the left, bunkers mark the location of the Advanced Dressing Station where Guelph-born brigade surgeon Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae penned the war’s most-memorized poem in response to the death of his friend Alexis Helmer in May 1915.
Nearby Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world, proves that McCrae’s haunting injunction to “take up our quarrel with the foe” was heard and heeded. Allied forces captured a small pillbox-style guard station here in 1917, transforming it into a rudimentary first-aid post. (The concrete structure would later be incorporated into the towering Cross of Sacrifice at the behest of King George V). Soldiers who could not be saved inside were laid to rest around it, and their numbers quickly multiplied as the mud rose and the death toll mounted on other battlegrounds. A few kilometres away in Passchendaele, 2300 Canadian casualties were incurred to gain a mere 1000 metres of ground on October 30 alone. Over time, 11,954 WWI servicemen would be interred at the cemetery, the vast majority of them unidentified but, as their headstones attest, “Known unto God.”
The last post
There’s no shortage of related sites in the immediate vicinity including the 11-metre-tall Brooding Soldier monument at Vancouver Corner in Saint Julien; the Hill 62 (Sanctuary Wood) Canadian Memorial at Mount Sorrel, which is approached via a maple-lined avenue dubbed Canadalaan; and the private Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 (5 Berten Pilstraat, Zonnebeke; passchendaele.be; adults €7.50) in Zonnebeke. Here, displays are complemented by a walk-through replica trench and a dugout that extends some six metres below ground that makes you feel claustrophobic.
Yet arguably none is as moving as Ieper’s Menin Gate Memorial: the classically-inspired triumphal arch unveiled in 1927 to honour Commonwealth soldiers who went missing in action in the Ypres Salient between July 1914 and mid-August 1917. Neither the miniature Maple Leaf flags tucked into the stonework nor the “thank you” notes left here by schoolchildren can fully prepare you for the sheer number of names — 54,896 all told — inscribed upon it.
Poignant by day, a visit to the Menin Gate can be emotionally wrenching at night. Each evening at 8pm, traffic on the road running under it — the same road so many soldiers traversed en route to the front — is halted for the Last Post ceremony. At the one I attended, bugles were played, wreaths were laid, a poem was read and tears were shed… mine among them.
I wept in part for my grandfather who had served with the Royal Canadian Artillery’s 12th Siege Battery. Badly wounded just on the other side of the French-Belgian border, he never made it this far; nevertheless, his hushed tales of trench life (tales that were all the more powerful because they were infrequently told) seemed to encapsulate the resilience of the human spirit.
While I am not a person who is naturally drawn to that bunting-hanging, cymbal-banging brand of patriotism, I wept out of a genuine sense of national pride, too. After all, the First World War’s baptism by fire helped forge my country’s identity and earned Canada a new level of independence.
But I wept in gratitude as well for the people of Flanders who, despite having worked so long to rejuvenate the war-cratered landscape and rebuild their bombed-out landmarks (the Cloth Hall, for one, wasn’t completed until 1967), still refuse to “break faith” with those who died. Instead they have resolutely chosen to remember.
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