Chapter 7: Battlefields, Belgium and Bruges

How does one begin to describe the immense emotion generated by visiting the Australian battlefields of World War I in Belgium and Flanders?  Perhaps one has to begin and end with some fortifying beauty and Belgian chocolate.  So I shall deal firstly with the Belgian bookends, Bruges and Ghent.

Bruges, yes “still in f..k..n Bruges” for those who quote In Bruges, is an idyllic, canal-based town in Flanders.  The buildings are dolls’ houses with their Flemish tops and tiny doorways. The major monuments are impressive, well-preserved, clean, and described in multiple audio and text languages.  Some scaffolding presently covers the front of the delicious Mairie but its aching beauty shines through the steel façade.  This gorgeous city typically attracts 8 million visitors per annum which makes it a High-Tourist Destination.  It’s easy to see why.  The mood is calm, the atmosphere is relaxed and the people are multi-lingual and friendly.  Bruges is the kind of place that encourages you to stroll around holding hands.  So we did some of that.

We visited the Belfry but didn’t climb this one, numerous cathedrals and the old shopping bourses, plus myriad canals and some quiet spaces too.  We drank hot chocolate sitting outside in the sun.  Even when it’s zero degrees with snow on the ground, Bruges was still busy but delightfully non-crowded.  I imagine it would be horrendous in the high season.  There would no hand-holding then.  We bought some chocolate.  We could have bought a truck full.

Days later, as a respite from the emotions of the battlefields, we sought out Ghent, and found another beautiful, but different, city.  Ghent is grander.  Every building is larger, and the castle and steeples are exactly like Disneyland.  One expects to bump into Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Belle around each corner.  Actually, Elsa from Frozen reigns here as the temperature remained steady at zero degrees.  We were warmed by the sun and bought some more Belgian chocolate.  Ghent is worth a day of hand-holding, but not in high season.

In between these bookends of beauty, we visited dozens of battlefield sites and WWI war memorials in Flanders and in France.  We had studied these and wanted to visit out of curiosity – and to pay homage of course.  After all, we were old-hand “Dawn-Servicers”.  But in talking with others who’d been there, I was always a little perplexed why they always seemed to end up teary and very passionate about their experiences.  I had seen grown, calm, Senior men shed tears talking about their trips here.  

I now understand why.  This is a not-to-be-missed pilgrimage that all Aussies should make, indeed all people of the world should make, to bring home history’s lessons and finally eradicate war.  And they should all bring some tissues. 

(While much of this already has been published on Facebook, here is a synopsis for my Blog-only readers.)

We began in Belgium where the three Battles of Ypres (“Ieper”)were fought from 1914 to 1917, taking the lives of more than half a million soldiers.  The Commonwealth defended a line near Ypres that stopped the Germans reaching the sea.  The Ypres Salient was contested, exchanging hands three times, until the British Army won Passchendaele in 1917 and held the line again in 1918.  That Army comprised Brits, Aussies, Canadians, South Africans and Indians.  While the Brits were professionals or conscripts, every Aussie was a volunteer.  (The Conscription Bill was twice defeated in Australia).  That sinks home.

The Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, and others, describe in shocking detail how the soldiers lived.  Shell fire whistled constantly overhead, and large explosions shook the ground nearby.  Soldiers were continually tense not knowing if that whistle was the shell that would end their lives.  No one could sleep for the noise, and sleep deprivation was huge.  Gas was first used here in 1915, and men ate their horses to survive when supplies ran low. The trenches easily filled with water in this flat land; mud, cold, heat, foot-rot, rats and lice were the order of the day.  One story describes how a Captain on his horse suddenly entirely vanished into a shell hole filled with mud.  They rescued the Captain but the horse was never seen again.

These are the stories you all know.  You’ve seen them often enough in the movies.  One can still be horror-stricken but relatively immune at this point, because they are anonymous soldiers.  Compared with what follows, one is kind-of impartial and can stay outside of it, recognising it is a piece of history long gone.  It’s when you visit the graves and start naming names that it gets you, and the tears begin. 

The major memorial is at Tyne Cot where the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has a cemetery and a memorial to the missing.  11,900 soldiers are buried here, of whom 8,370 are unidentified.  Simple words,  “Known Unto God”, adorn their gravestones.  A further 35,000 names are engraved on the Tyne Cot Memorial, standing at the furthest point of the Commonwealth advance before victory, near two German block houses the armies sought to capture.

The number of graves weighs heavily as you stroll among them…and then there are the names.  Lined up by Division, name after name, brothers and fathers with the same names, sometimes three from one family.  Numbers on silent gravestones show their ages were 19 or 23 or 20 or 45.  These were real men who didn’t mean to die.  The scale of the deaths and the sheer, stupid waste of these young lives finally sinks in, and I weep in this serene, imposing and freezing cold cemetery, where only our boys are colder than I am.

When I read this famous poem on one memorial, I sob again:

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.

                                    John McCrae

We must allow them to remain asleep.

We spent some time in beautiful Ypres, admiring the Cathedral and the Cloth Hall, both rebuilt after WWI, and walked the ramparts of the medieval town on a sunny day.  Fortified by a meal of country pate, soup, bread and beer, we waited inside a warm place for the 8:00 p.m. ceremony at The Menin Gate.

This memorial gate was not the gate the Armies marched through, but it is positioned on the same eastern road that many left Ieper from, for their last time.  Designed in 1921, this triumphal arch was built in 1927, and contains the names of 55,000 men who died but were never found in the blood and mud of the battlefields.  This is a huge monument to “The Missing”.  The inscription inside, worded by Rudyard Kipling, reads, “Here are recorded names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient, but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death”.

And generously, since 1927, every night at 8:00 p.m., without fail, (except a small period during WWII when it was in German hands), the people of Ieper remember and honour those who fought for them.  They deliver a nightly tribute in the form of a moving Last Post service.  Sometimes it is larger when dignitaries are visiting and want to lay wreaths; several Australian politicians and many from other nations have been photographed doing this.  Other nights it’s for regular folks who just want to lay a wreath, pin up a poppy, stand in homage or just listen to the spine-tingle of the plaintive bugle. 

It’s over in about five minutes, and life goes on.  But for those precious five minutes, on this night witnessed by around 250 people, in minus two degrees and snow, as school children laid wreaths saying Lest We Forget, as three soldiers marched and presented arms, as a solo bugler poured his heart into the Last Post, we stood again with our scared boys in their sleep-deprived, hungry, freezing, bloody and louse-ridden boots, and we gave them love and honour in the tears that streamed down our cheeks.

Lest We Forget.

Chapter 8: Fromelles and the Battle of the Somme

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