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|
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!|
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.
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.