In Flanders Fields

Published: June 8th 2017
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Geo: 51.2094, 3.22523

We left fairly early this morning to meet Raoul, our guide for the World War I battlefields. We started in Ypres, or Ieper (or Wipers, as the British called it), a small but strategic town that was completely - completely - destroyed during the war. After the war, the townspeople rebuilt the city as it was, so it still looks quite old. The German army never actually made it to Ypres, though they came within about 30 minutes' marching of it.

There are 150 British and Allied forces cemeteries in the area around Ypres; most of them are quite small and situated by the side of the road or in the middle of a field. There are only three or four (can't remember) German cemeteries. After the war, the Belgian government gave the Allies the use of the ground on which the cemeteries stand in perpetuity. They gave the Germans land for only 25 years. When the 25 years were up, the Belgians demanded their land back (most of it was farmland), so the Germans dug up the smaller cemeteries and consolidated the remains into three or four larger cemeteries. All of the cemeteries, British and German, were once battlefields. Soldiers from both sides were buried more or less where they died.

We first stopped at a cemetery that commemorates John McRae, the army surgeon who wrote the famous poem "In Flanders Fields" after the death of a friend. It's a beautiful poem that gave rise to the wearing of poppies as a way to remember war dead. It sounds at first like it will be anti-war, but it turns into a call to avenge the death of one's countrymen. It was pretty amazing to be in the spot that inspired it.

Then we visited the local German cemetery. Unlike the British cemeteries with their white, upright headstones, the German cemetery had only flat markers and a large mass grave. It's not a pit, but instead a vault containing rows and rows of boxes buried eight across and three deep full of the remains of German soldiers. Some of the names of the soldiers are known, but they were the ones who had to be reburied when the Belgians reclaimed their land, so they don't have individual markers. Surrounding the mass grave are stone tablets with thousands of names inscribed. And many of the dead in that cemetery are young boys who were told by their schoolteachers that they should help their country; after all, the war will only last a few months. The untrained boys were essentially massacred by the more experienced, adult Allied troops. Hitler visited that cemetery in 1940 and praised the sacrifice of the young Germans. As Raoul put it, "Hitler gave a speech that was all blah blah blah. Hitler was very good at blah blah blah." I asked Raoul whether to the extent any of the dead were Jews (and Jews were definitely welcome in the German army during the Great War), Hitler had them dug up and disposed of. Raoul said even Hitler didn't go that far.

Raoul talked about the first use by the Germans of chlorine gas. They initially accidentally gassed themselves. When they finally figured out about wind patterns, they managed to send a cloud of chlorine gas toward the French line. The French, of course, couldn't imagine what this cloud was that was wafting toward them, so they were unafraid. Then they inhaled and suffered the slow, vicious death by suffocation. Some of the French troops saw what was happening to their comrades and ran for it. It's tempting to make a crack about the courage (or lack thereof) of the French, but Raoul said that history has treated those who fled kindly. After all, who would stick around to die after seeing the horrible death the gas inflicted? Later, the Germans used mustard gas, which burned instead of suffocated.

We had lunch in a cheese factory. Farmhouse-style bread, cheese, two kinds of ham, those tiny little crunchy pickles, and apples were served up on cutting boards. It was all delicious, and our table got into a discussion with the guy serving us. He had lived in Orlando and worked for Disney (which he praised as a terrific company, despite the brainwashing), Italy, Australia, Turkey, England, and three or four more countries. He made some comment about Ivery being colored, which we all widened our eyes at, and he had to explain himself. It was obviously an innocent comment due to a lack of understanding of the connotations of the word "colored," and I think the poor guy was mortified to realize he may have offended Ivery. Ivery just laughed and said he'd been called far worse than that.

We had two more stops in the afternoon. First, the British cemetery called Tyne Cot.
Pristine white stones, soldiers "known only to God," a wall of remembrance, and sorrowing angels in what used to be a battlefield near Passchendaele. British forces never succeeded in taking Passchendaele, and now some of them are buried where the Germans had built bunkers to view the flat lands below. We then went to Hill 62 at Sanctuary Wood to see the only remaining trenches. When the current owner's grandfather returned from the war, he found his fields full of trenches and bomb craters, and he decided not to fill them in and plant crops. So we were able to see the zig-zag trenches, some of which were as muddy as they would have been in 1916. The trenches have gotten shallower over the years because while the owner maintains the site, he doesn't want to do anything artificial to it. He did have to shore up a few trench walls some time ago, otherwise they would have caved in; otherwise, the place is authentic. Also on display was a General Purpose Wagon, which would have been pulled by horses and used to ferry supplies. It was often abbreviated to GP, and then further truncated to the sound those two letters make: jeep.

After the war, the Treaty of Versailles imposed war reparations on Germany. Germany didn't pay off the final installment until October 3, 2010. Headlines in German papers that day read, "It's Finally Over."

Quite a sobering day, but very interesting given that I could probably only spout a few facts about World War I. Plus, I saw a tiny wee toad in the German cemetery.

When we got back to Bruges, most of us went to De Halve Maan brewery for a tour. The guide, Inge, was hilarious and gave us a very entertaining presentation on this particular brewery's methods. We even went up on the roof briefly, and we also had to go down stairs backward because they were so steep. At the end, we were all given a glass of Brugse Zot and we had a good time sitting around laughing and trading travel disaster stories.

Dawn, Jeff, Carolyn and I decided to get dinner, so we chose a restaurant in the guidebook based on the fact that its menu consisted of "peasant" food, including pancakes. When we got to The Flemish Pot, we realized that it was going to be a lot fancier than peasant food, but we stayed anyway. I had some really good sausages with boiled potatoes and applesauce, and another beer. It cost €25 but since I hadn't had to spend any other money today, it was worth it.

Oh, and we found out that the tour member I mentioned yesterday has, indeed, left the tour. Apparently, she checked out of the hotel this morning and never did talk to Rolinka or Heidi.

I leave you with John McRae's poem, "In Flanders Fields":

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.


6th May 2013

Thank you for sharing the poem--I couldn't recall it other than knowing I've read it before--and for your descriptions and impressions of the cemetaries. My paternal Grandpa served in WWI and was, indeed, mustard-gassed. He did survive the
war, but with obvious health issues after so passed on at a fairly early age. I have a story about him waking up in battlefield that I'll share with you.Great to hear where the word "jeep" came from!! I always wondered about that. So cool about the free chocolate the other day. Made my mouth water. I might have to run out and buy some Theo chocolate today...

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