In Flanders fields the poppies blow
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.
–In Flanders Fields, John McCrae (1915)
An oppressive blanket of heavy cloud loomed overhead as the three of us climbed into the car. We needed an early start to beat the traffic into Brussels. Still, it was a slow beginning as we crawled along the highway along side everyone else. But unlike the rest of Belgium, we were not going to Brussels. From Limburg we were going all the way to the other side of the country. To the “Western Corner”. To Flanders Fields.
Flanders Fields is perhaps one of the most well known fronts in Europe from the Great War. Hundreds of thousands of men from all participating countries lost their lives, many to achieve only an extra few kms of land. It seems that the strategy at the time was to throw as many men at the enemy as possible and cross your fingers. As you can imagine it never ended well.
Battle fields, monuments, graves, trenches and old bunkers lie strewn between farmland and small communities. Everything is so poorly signposted that we often had to stop and ask directions. Even the locals don’t seem to know where anything is. One bunker we found had become a barn, swallowed up by a neighbouring farm. If we didn’t have a Flemish girl with us we would have been completely lost. But in the end we did find what we were looking for.
My other companion was a Canadian guy so we went to a big Canadian monument which commemorated the first soldiers to be attacked by the Germans with chemical weapons. Their only defence against the gas was wet handkerchiefs.
We also found a few New Zealand monuments and grave sites. Many of which were never identified. Seeing the rows and rows of men who had never been named was a sobering sight, particularly when you think of their families back home who would never know how they fell or where they were buried.
We went to Passchendaele, a bloody campaign that after months of fighting and slaughter was eventually won by the superior strategies of the Canadians. In the words of Siegfried Sassoon (1918) I died in hell, They called it Passchendaele.
We ate some Passchendaele cheese and left.
In the city of Ypres is the Flanders Fields museum. An incredibly modern, moving and informative place. A lot of the information is interactive and in quite a few languages which was helpful. As you enter you can choose to log into the computer and after filling in a few details they match you with four true stories of people who participated in the Great War. You discover what happened to them as you move through the museum. Amongst mine were a young man from New Zealand and a British nurse who used her hospital in a German occupied area to help the allies. The museum ends with a popular quote from the time: that the Great War was “A war to end all wars”. You then walk past a list of dozens and dozens of the devastating wars that have since followed.
To finish our trip we headed to a huge arch way in Ypres with the names of tens of thousands of soldiers who’s bodies were never found. Here, under this giant monument, volunteers play the last post. It was packed with spectators. This memorial happens every night at 8, and has done since 1929, interrupted only by WWII. That much commitment to keep the memory of these fallen men alive is incredibly moving.
War is such a horrific waste of human life. Lest we forget what happened in Flanders Fields.