Remembering World War I in Flanders
By Monique Burns
It’s a gray day in West Flanders. Cold and drizzly. Not unusual for early spring in Belgium’s westernmost province. The brooding weather seems particularly fitting for my visit to the Essex Farm military cemetery just outside Ypres, the Frenchified name for Flemish Ieper. A once prosperous medieval textile center, the town later became the centerpiece of the Ypres Salient, a crescent-shaped line on the Western Front where some of World War I’s bloodiest battles were fought.
Getting to Ypres—or Ieper—is easy. Trains run regularly from Brussels via Ghent, a pleasant hour-long trip. When I arrive at Essex Farm, several groups are visiting, including a high-school soccer team from England. With the kick-off of Belgium’s Great World War I Centenary in 2014, this cemetery—along with hundreds of other military cemeteries, and many new or revamped museums—will attract thousands to West Flanders’ Westhoek region from Great Britain, Canada, France and the U.S., not to mention from Australia, India, New Zealand and other countries that fought for the British Empire. Officials expect visitors from the more than 50 nations that participated in the conflict as well as visitors from other countries.
At Essex Farm, I stand near the Advance Dressing Station, cold concrete bunkers where wounded soldiers were brought from the front to be patched up. In May 1915, Canadian doctor Lt. Col. John McCrae, a former McGill University and University of Vermont professor, watched as a 22-year-old former student was buried after being blown to bits by an artillery shell. Determined that his friend’s death not be in vain, McCrae sat down and scribbled 15 lines of verse, beginning with two of the war’s most quoted: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row.”
The medical bunkers at Essex Farm are empty now. The battlefield is gone, replaced by a military cemetery marked with two icons that distinguish all major British Commonwealth World War I cemeteries: the “Cross of Sacrifice,” a high stone cross with sword affixed, and the altar-like “Stone of Remembrance,” a 12-foot-long white slab atop a pedestal. Each stone is inscribed with only the words, “Their Name Liveth for Evermore,” taken from an early Hebrew text by writer Rudyard Kipling, who lost his only son, 18-year-old Jack, in the war. Here, too, are row upon row of white headstones, including one of a 15-year-old Canadian rifleman, decorated with small Canadian flags and small wooden crosses emblazoned with crinkled red paper poppies with black centers.
Over the next few days, I will relive World War I through its battlefields, cemeteries and museums. A history buff, I am drawn to places like this. But there’s more to it than that. As a child visiting Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and, decades later, as an adult visiting Gettysburg, I felt the same sense of peace I now feel standing in Essex Farm Cemetery. An acquaintance thinks I must have been in the military, perhaps an officer, in a past life. Perhaps. Or perhaps I am comfortable here because I share some of the same values as many who sleep in these fields. Words like “honor,” “courage” and “perseverance”—which, sadly, we dare not say in civilian life these days lest we be branded “old-fashioned” or worse—can be expressed here in the silence. We can commune with those who were brought up with an understanding of those words and who tried to live—and, ultimately, died—by them.
The day before, at the Flanders Field American Cemetery in Waregem, 30 miles east of Ypres, I felt the same sense of peace. The 368 graves are arrayed so neatly around a central chapel that it feels more like a garden than a cemetery. But you’ll find no poppies here, not live ones anyway. Poppies grow best in rutted-up soil, which is why so many red poppies dotted the fields of Flanders during the war years and why the poppy became a World War I symbol. On Memorial Day 1927, nine days after completing his historic solo transatlantic flight, Charles A. Lindbergh flew over the cemetery in his famous plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, dropping red poppies over the graves. After the war, Professor Moina Belle Michael, a Columbia University graduate and a professor at the University of Georgia in Athens came up with the idea of selling silk poppies to raise funds for disabled veterans. By the time the “Poppy Lady” died in 1944, she and other volunteers had raised more than $200 million.
Inside the tiny chapel, the black-and-white marble altar is flanked with American flags, and the mosaic ceiling is adorned with a golden lamp and doves of peace. A hopeful setting, to be sure. But the tragedy of war comes close as I read the 43 names of the missing dead inscribed on pink marble panels. They are not alone. In World War I, of some 10 million military deaths, hundreds of thousands remain missing, their graves, as the saying goes, “known but to God.” For them, there never were and never will be relatives standing before headstones, communing in the silence, leaving behind artificial poppies or fresh bouquets.
The last World War I combat veteran died in 2011, and the soldiers’ immediate families have passed on, too. But distant relatives still come here, perhaps to see the grave of a great-uncle, gassed by the Germans in April 1915 at the Second Battle of Ypres—the first time poisoned gas was ever successfully used in warfare—or of their great-grandfather’s fifth cousin, a radio operator in the field until he was mowed down by a tank, yet another innovation in this most modern of not-so-modern wars. Others like me, with no direct familial connections, come here to better understand this war and to pay homage to the sacrifice of our fellow Americans. The Superintendent’s Office, with its tan velvet upholstered wing chair, fireplace and burnished wood furniture looks as cozy as your grandmother’s living room. But how the mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers who came here to be welcomed, then escorted to their loved ones’ graves, must have grieved!
Grief was not limited to the families of Allied troops. North of Ypres, near Diksmuide, in the solemn German cemetery at Vladslo are “The Grieving Parents,” two side-by-side sculptures of a kneeling mother and father carved from heavy stone cubes that seem laden with grief. That’s how the sculptor, German Expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz, must have felt after learning that her 17-year-old son Peter, who rests here, had been killed. Much closer to Ypres, at the German military cemetery in Langemark, lie other Peters, Hanses, Gerhardts and Johanns. Langemark is known as Der Studentenfriedhof—The Students’ Cemetery—because 3,000 student volunteers lie buried here. It was said that these students, among 25,000 students fighting in the Battle of Langemarck, part of the First Battle of Ypres, attacked the Allies singing “Deutschland über alles.” Though the singing has been discredited as a myth, British soldiers reported that hordes of child-soldiers rushed into their fire. The German propaganda machine made much of this “Massacre of the Innocents.” Indeed, Hitler came to Langemark in 1940 to pay his respects to the young soldiers, only a fraction of the 44,000 Germans buried here.
At Langemark, there’s little frippery and few flowers. German military cemeteries tend to be oppressively somber. Cross through the heavy stone archway, and you find two simple rooms, one with a map, the other with a simple oak plaque listing buried soldiers with unidentified graves. Just beyond looms a chilling sight—an enormous mass grave filled with more than 24,000 souls. Among them is Werner Voss, the 20-year-old German flying ace, second only to Manfred von Richthofen, the flamboyant “Red Baron” who also never made it to age 30, but whose fame continues undiminished and has even inspired a line of frozen pizzas here in the U.S. Decorating the lawn is a bronze sculpture of four mourning soldiers by the late Munich sculptor and graphic arts professor Emil Krieger as well as a design element peculiar to these German cemeteries: trios of thick, dark basalt-lava crosses, their arms truncated like crusaders’ crosses.
What do children think to see these headstones? Death is a difficult enough concept to explain to children. How much more difficult it must be to explain the concept of dying for one’s country—or, in this case, dying for someone else’s country, but for a shared principle. How difficult to explain the concept of death with honor!
Children are probably more at home at the In Flanders Fields Museum in the Grote Markt, Ypres’ central square. A recent expansion added 50 percent more space to the museum as well as high-tech exhibits. At the entrance, you can buy a white plastic bracelet adorned with—what else?—a bright red poppy. More than a pretty souvenir, it’s an interactive device that allows you to trace the stories of four individuals, civilian and military, at the museum. Just as compelling are the big black-and-white photos of battle scenes, a realistically sculpted war horse laden with ammunition, and early 20th-century oil paintings depicting the war. A father and son pause before a display of colorful recruiting posters. (Interestingly enough, World War I was the first war in which advertising was really used, thus promoting civilian advertising after the war and helping spur today’s consumer society.) Steps away, a father and daughter gaze at displays of uniforms. A small boy leans over an interactive battlefield map in the center of the room while a white-haired man, perhaps his grandfather, points out various towns and troop positions.
The children seem, at turns, fascinated and bored. Given the choice, they might rather be at a local theme park like Bellewaerde on the edge of Ypres or PlopsaLand along the North Sea. But it’s fitting that they be here, along with their parents and grandparents. War, after all, is a communal event binding us together as human beings. It makes families of people who are often considered quite disparate but who really aren’t. Just think of those young Cambridge University grads fighting alongside Senegalese tribesmen on these hills and battlegrounds. So different and yet so very much alike, with mothers and fathers, wives and children, waiting at home for their safe return. And, just as children lost fathers and mothers during World War I, so, too, will some of today’s children. As evolved as we human beings are, we have not yet reached the point—as the Biblical prophet Isaiah put it—where “Nation will not take up sword against nation nor will they learn war anymore.” But we can hope, can’t we? Just like government authorities in Flanders who have woven messages of peace and reconciliation into many 2014 commemorative events. Just like long-ago citizens who believed that this, “The Great War,” would be “The War to End All Wars.”
Who can countenance the carnage? Yet we remember. I am remembering now, standing beneath the great Menin Gate, that massive World War I monument built in 1927 by the British to honor their missing soldiers. So many were missing that after inscribing 54,896 names here the Brits ran out of room and had to inscribe another 34,984 names—not including those of New Zealand and Newfoundland soldiers—at nearby Tyne Cot Cemetery, the world’s largest British Commonwealth Cemetery and one worth visiting for its beauty as well as its historical significance. The Menin Gate, or Menenpoort, dwarfs the surrounding medieval-style buildings in Ypres, a city so devastated by the war that it had to be entirely rebuilt.
Tonight, as on every night since 1928, buglers from the local volunteer fire brigade, along with a piper in full Highlands dress, will sound The Last Post, a tribute to the fallen. There will be brief speeches and the laying of wreaths by various groups. Beside me stand a group of Aussies, one with a trademark Crocodile Dundee hat, whose countrymen and women paid a huge price in this war, and are remembered, along with New Zealanders, at annual ANZAC Day commemorations on April 25. Before me, standing at attention, are two Scottish Army cadets, a teenaged boy and a girl, dressed in natty tam-o’-shanters with pom-poms and plaid trim, and starched green uniforms in a camouflage print—a pattern developed by the French during World War I and later adopted by other Allied troops. The mood is solemn, but a twitter of anticipation runs through the crowd. When it’s their turn, the cadets march forward and lay their wreath of red poppies. Returning quietly to their places, their pale pink cheeks flushed with pride, I cannot help but wonder what this night has meant to them. I sense that it has been a defining moment in their young lives, and that, like the long-gone soldiers they honor, their journey to Flanders has not been in vain.
IF YOU GO
Of roughly 15 Ypres hotels and a dozen bed-and-breakfast inns, here are two good choices:
Novotel Ieper Centrum, Sint-Jacobsstraat 15, B-8900, Ieper, 32- 429-600. This three-star hotel has well-appointed contemporary rooms and a brasserie, steps from the Menin Gate. www.novotel.com
Hotel Regina, Grote Markt 45, B-8900, Ieper, 32-57-218-888. The stylish small hotel, whose excellent restaurant serves innovative Belgian cuisine, faces the In Flanders Fields Museum on the Market Square. www.hotelregina.be
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.