Saturday, 1 March 2014

A Visit to Flanders Fields

When one hears "Flanders" one often makes the immediate association with the Great War. A young doctor by the name of John McCrae wrote a famous poem called, "In Flanders Fields", which every school child is tasked with reading, and thus poppies, mud, trenches, and Flanders are things that bring to mind the Great War. One hundred years ago, on July 28, 1914, the First World War officially began. One hundred years ago - it really isn't that long ago, is it? I will not pretend that this blog post will not be a sombre one. I found the time I spent around Ieper incredibly moving and very interesting, and would like to share it with you.

One hundred years ago...When these sorts of anniversary's come about lots of commemorative events are set in motion. Currently the BBC is awash with programming about the Great War. I've always been curious about seeing Flanders, wondering what it must look like now after 99 years of rebuilding and modernity have occurred. On my sojourn to Belgium I decided a visit to Ieper (Ypres) was a must. The Front Lines.

I had to change trains twice to get to Ieper, even though by a car it's only an hour on a main road from Brugge. My second train was late by about five minutes, so I missed my connection and had to wait in a dismal train station in Kortrijk. The rain, mere drizzle when I left Brugge, was now bucketing down, and I had a sudden vision of what our men might have experienced back in 1914. The cold, driving Belgian rain. It was not hard to imagine a poor Tommy (British soldier) standing in the rain in a Greatcoat, waiting to be shipped off to the Front Lines. As it was, I waited an hour for the next train, missing my chance to visit the "In Flanders Field Great War Museum".

This is the Cathedral the town of Ieper rebuilt
By the time I arrived in Ieper, the rain had stopped and the sun had come out. (I always have been lucky with the weather...). I had booked a tour through a small local company, and I was joined by a Swedish family of three who seemed impervious to the cold. Our guide, Jacques, was extremely knowledgeable about the history of the Great War, the battles around Ieper specifically, and had a fantastic stock of stories from veterans that he had met through his work. Having met up at the Grote Markt in Ieper, Jacques said that even though the centre of town looked old, it was in fact only 80-90 years old. It had all been rebuilt after the war because all that had been left was rubble and mud. He showed us a picture of the Cathedral as it had been in 1919 - the town rebuilt it in 8 years. Incredible!

We started at an ADS (Advanced Dressing Station) near an important canal, called "Essex Farm," where Dr John McCrae wrote the aforementioned poem. Our guide pulled out maps and photos, showing us just how close the trenches of the Allies and the Germans were in this particular area (they converged at one point, leaving only 18 metres of No Man's Land (about 60 feet)! Can you believe it? Being an ADS, there was a cemetery attached with about 1200 men, one grave being a boy of 15. He'd lied about his age to join up.

A Flander's field - look at that mud!
We discussed the use of gas; when it was first used, how it was used and so on. Awful. We were in a minivan, driving down country lanes "behind German lines". What is incredible is how flat the area really is. Of course it is now full of farms, fields, small villages and the rest, but one can still see how it might have been. (And the mud is still as sticky!)

Jacques stopped the car and pointed - there in front of us, looming in such a flat landscape, was Passschendaele Ridge. We approached from the "German side" and began to understand the advantage of high ground - even a few metres is enough. We drove along the death trap that had been the Menin Road and through "Hell Fire Corner". Near the top of the ridge is the vast Tyne-Cot cemetery - it is built around German bunkers on the land that the Australian and New Zealand troops captured in 1917 at a terrible cost of lives. Below lies the Ieper Salient (a salient is a term that, in this case, is used to describe the bulge that juts out from the Front Line trenches) which is also vast. Over 35,000 men are buried there, the majority unknown.

Tyne-Cot Cemetery
Jacques, our guide, was very keen to stress the importance of the work that is done to keep up the graves and cemeteries (in which there are hundreds in the area of Ieper alone). 'It means so much to the families when they visit, to know their loved ones are being looked after,' he said. During our tour, listening to him relate the history, the battles, hearing him reel of the numbers, the cemeteries and dugouts and scars of trenches spoke for themselves.

We visited a museum on Hill 62 (as in 62 meters above sea level and therefore a strategic point). They had tons of memorabilia found in the fields by farmers, and things donated by families of soldiers. They also had photos, seen by peering into wooden boxes, of the most ghastly things. Pictures that were not published in any newspaper at the time. The death and destruction was immense. All mud and rubble and boys with gaping holes that left you thinking, "where's the rest of them...?"
Trenches at Hill 62

It was not an easy thing to see; I focused on the facts and figures, putting aside emotion until I could fathom it later. I spent the afternoon with a lump in my throat, freezing, and more than a little overwhelmed. The vastness of it...the massive loss of life...numbers that cannot fully be understood until you see the white stones, row on row on row, going on until the horizon. I made a point to wander through the headstones, reading names and wondering where they were from and who they had been. Boys, 19 and 20 many of them; mother's sons every one.

Perhaps you may be asking is this really "taking a holiday"... but, I find it important to see: history comes alive when one visits places like this, and one can see how it is so much a part of the local people's lives - even still today. The care and respect that is taken in looking after the area is truly remarkable. And even though I went home covered in mud, still freezing, and feeling a bit overwhelmed, I had enjoyed myself immensely because I had learnt a great deal. And not just about history. About ourselves as well. History shapes us, whether we like it or not, and it is only by gaining understanding about our past can we even hope to succeed in the future.