In Flanders Fields

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Europe » Belgium
August 8th 2015
Published: June 22nd 2017
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Geo: 50.8511, 2.88569

We started off with a leisurely (and welcome) buffet breakfast before jumping into a cab bound for the Avis rental car place on the outer part of town. Our rental was a VW crossover. It was still a six speed stick shift, but this time all the parts were on the sides of the car we were used to. It took us about an hour to make our way to Ieper (French spelling Ypres), sites of several of the most deadly confrontations of the First World War.
When we got out of the car, what looked like a medieval city took our breaths away. Little did we know that the damage from WWI pretty much destroyed the medieval city to the extent that Winston Churchill suggested it be left in ruins as a memorial. But this was not good enough for the people of Ieper. On closer examination, most of the town was rebuilt between 1920 and 1922 in a style to replicate what had been lost, with the addition of many memorials to those who had lost their lives during the five year stalemate between 1914-1918 that cost over 500,000 lives. The main memorial was the gate into the city that listed the (known) names of the British soldiers who gave their lives. This archway didn't provide enough room for the names. Many more were honored at the Tyne Cot cemetery, outside of town.
We spent the first several hours inside the In Flanders Fields museum. This had been recommended by Rick Steves and has been the best well laid out museum we have yet seen on this trip. Barb enjoyed one of the opening exhibits that explained the role of nationalism and militarism and their impact on the start of war. This exhibit showed propaganda used by various nations, including a German children's board game and a British children's storybook that contributed to national pride and a sense of duty to country that helped lead the populations to support war. Rich enjoyed the various exhibits on the evolution of weaponry and warfare, for example how the French uniforms changed from flamboyant at the beginning to a much more toned down, practical, more camouflaged light blue. Jeannette was taken by the story of French, British, German, and Belgian soldiers putting aside their nations' differences to come out of the trenches and celebrate Christmas together in 1914. Jake was fascinated by video footage of a lost trench that was uncovered in the 90s. Having been entombed in mud and water, the artifacts that were pulled from the trench looked like the war that took place 100 years ago happened just yesterday.
Throughout the museum, actors, dressed in period gear, provided video accounts taken from the diaries of actual soldiers, nurses, and doctors. We each wore an electronic bracelet that triggered stations throughout the museum to provide characters and writings in English for our convenience.
Jake and Rich climbed over 231 stairs to the top of the belltower. When they entered the carillon chamber, it was like clockwork as the chimes began to play just as they walked in. The top offered a panoramic view of the surrounding area and many pictures were taken.
The entire morning sent a strong message about the folly of war, and how when the industry and industrial technology of war includes human cogs, just how badly things can turn out.
Next we enjoyed lunch in an outdoor café. Barb, Rich, and Jeannette had traditional ham and cheese paninis, while Jake opted for apple fritters and ice cream. There, we plotted out our afternoon drive and gave Siri time to download maps/directions from the restauraunt's WiFi.
Our next visit took us through some more modern residential areas and then through some narrow rural roads, shared with tractors full of hay, families on bicycles, and a horse and rider. Around the bend and the hill we soon saw rows and rows of white tombstones. We then arrived at Tyne Cot cemetery, which was established under the orders of King George V to honor the fallen soldiers of the British Empire (known and unknown) who fell in Flanders Fields. More than half of the tombstones read “A Soldier in the Great War Known Unto God.” This site remains one of 150 such cemeteries maintained around the world by Great Britain.
From there we drove on to the Passchendale Museum site. Though the hours were listed as open until 6pm, the last entry was given at 4:30. We arrived at 4:38. So, whatever. We walked the grounds of this site, which the British thought would be taken quickly and ended up in a stalemate lasting five months. One exhibit that was open was about the communication technology and propaganda of the Great War. We learned that Morse Code was used via radio from airplanes to provide coordinates for mortar launches in addition to many other techniques of communication including a flag alphabet, courier dogs, and homing pigeons. Areas of the grounds bore remembrance to the carnage of the previous century as the outlines of former trenches were visible as well as small, circular ponds that took up the space where mortars once fell.
After a peaceful ride home, we opted for an Italian dinner of pasta, pizza, and steak and began planning out tomorrow, which should include a canal boat tour, brewery tour, and some shopping/browsing time.
Goodnight, readers, until me meet again.


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