Monday, October 5, 2009

In Flanders Fields

The War to End All Wars.

It was a nice thought, anyway. And today it was the backdrop for my emotionally draining nine hour tour which would take me on a journey from Bruges to Ypres, through Flanders Field past cemeteries, monuments, battlefields, and entire towns rebuilt from rubble.

Picked up at the hostel, the mini bus was driven by Philippe Uyttenhove-Evans, one half of Quasimodo tours – the perfect was to spend a day in Bruges, while escaping the medieval compound of Bruges. If you're in the area you can call them toll free at 0800-97525, or email them at / (you can tell I've been impressed by something when I act as their infomercial as well. To be honest, this might just have become the best thing I've done on my trip thus far.)

Half an hour later, the perfect chance for catching up on much needed sleep, we arrived at the monument in honor of the Canadian Armed forces. Most imposing, and perhaps the most impressive World War I monument in the area (next to the Irish one, which is under renovations right now, and thus doesn't count do to it being surrounded by scaffolding), the monument features a soldier, towering overhead, head hung low, hands resting on his rifle.

The monument features the names of integral cities from the Great War, and arrows pointing in their directions, such as Passchendaele and Ypres. Around the back of the tower, is a tiny box containing a visitor book, which can be removed, and signed. Comments left, we reboarded the bus and headed for our next destination.

As there are so many sites of significance in the area, Philippe attempts to tailor the tour for his current audience. If you have a relative buried in one of the surrounding
plots, he'll make sure to stop there. And if you tell him what country you're from he'll make sure to point out places of note. As we had some kiwis on the tour, we headed next to the New Zealand monument in honour of their troops. They were soldiers with the highest death rate per capita. They fought hard, and gave all they could for a country so far away from the front.

Shells, and shells, and more shells rained down from the sky for years on Belgium soil, as they stood between the invading Germans, and the French. Honouring a treaty that led to the destruction of their country, they stood strong against the imposing dark. The ground was turned from farms, fields, and villages into a landscape of liquid clay mud. The type of liquid clay mud that would absorb the impact of a falling shell, rather than causing it to detonate.

Though the war is nearly one hundred years in the past, the remnants are still found to this day. When farmers first plow their fields for the season, they often come across explosive crop. Unexploded shells, some of which contain deadly gas, still as deadly today as it was a century past, are found and carefully moved to piles at the side of the road, awaiting pick up by the Belgium military for disposal, and dismantling. It's said that one hundred years from now the people of Belgium will almost be done disposing of the German left overs.

Our guide showed us pictures of the very land we were driving over as it appeared in nineteen seventeen. It's near impossible to picture the beautiful landscape infront of us as the same deadly pits studied in grade ten history. Near impossible to picture, the idyllic pasture where cows grazed, one containing an eighteen year old boy trapped in the mud, having fallen off his wooden path, begging for his comrades to shoot him, rather than allowing him to drown to death. Almost as impossible, I'm sure, as it was for Belgium soldiers to fight in the hellish pits that once were their serene homelands.

And then we ended up at Tyne Cot cemetery. Where the sheer enormity, and number of graves becomes overpowering for even the most hardened traveller. Walking the row on row of markers, one is overcome by how many simply read “A Solider of the Great War. Known Onto God.” So many bodies were found, but never identified. So many dead, and discarded – moved but by the grace of god, if you will, to a final resting place here between Passchenaele and Ypres. How many of them were amongst the quarter million dead, in an attempt to move five miles forward – all to have it given up again only a short while later?

But then it was lunch! A giant ham sandwich with mustard, and some vegetables! Drinks were not included, but a bottle of Jupiter ran only one euro fifty. And where was this lunch to be held? At the Hooge Crater War Museum. Quite possibly the b/est private museum in all of Flanders. The tour also included a ticket for a look inside, passing the various guns, uniforms, shells, grenades, and tools utilized throughout the many campaigns.

The one hour break allows for a moment of peaceful reflection, and a recomposing of thoughts. Much needed at this junction. And then – fun time is over. It's on to Hill 60.

Hill 60 so called due to its height above sea level, is one of – if not the – only preserved World War I battlefield in Belgium. Standing in the crater we were told how Allied troops spent over a year digging miles of tunnels under the hill in order to set up twenty for caches of explosives strategically under the German lines. All at once they were ignited causing fire to spit from the ground below, in the largest man made earthquake in history. The hill was transformed into a crater, and the Germans were instantly turned into ash, blinded, and otherwise incapacitated.

Around the crater exists an allied bunker, built on top of a preexisting German one. It was at this point that I wondered if Germans are allowed to feel pride about their military accomplishments. When I think of the Canadian troops it is not without a sense of pride for my home country. When I think of their loses it causes me certain heartache. It's hard to rationalize that in order for them to make their gains, an untold number of Germans had to die. And those that were killed were only done so by those trying to survive. Still – history has proved our troops fighting the just fight, for the betterment of all, allowing freedom to reign. Whether this is true or not, I can not say. But when Germans think of their gains, and their accomplishments, as an invading army do they allow themselves the same pride for a campaign well planned and executed?

There was little time to think of this, as we were soon at Polygon Woods. Here was the monument for the Australian forces. It was them who dug the much needed tunnels under hill 60. And here, too, is yet another cemetery for the many dead from what was perhaps the worst times in human history.

We were educated on the gas attacks launched on the people in the surrounding area, from Germans opening a container, and letting the wind carry it to the French troops – who immediately ran away, leaving the Canadians to stand strong and defend against the oncoming attack, to the development of the gas shells that plague the Belgium landscape. The one thing that was glossed over in my history classes was told to me now. The allies used far more gas weaponry than was used against them. Strange how we seemed to have left that part out.

Next was the Irish monument, constructed just over a decade ago. It is a reconstruction of the tower that used to line the Irish waters, surrounded by poems and words of wisdom from the Irish soldiers. Not least evoking amongst them was one stone that read as follows:

I wish the sea were not so wide
that parts me from my love.
I wish the things men did below
were known to God above.

I wish that I were back again
in the glens of Donegal.
They'll call me a coward if I return,
but a hero if I fall.
-Patrick MacGill, London Irish Regiment

Were this monument not under construction it would be, by far, the most impressive. But – with ladders, and marquees surrounding it, that honour still remains, successfully, with the Canadian one.

Next was the city of Ypres. It was suggested that the entire town be left in rubble, as a reminder of the horrors of war, for all that passed it by. But the people of Ypres would hear none of this. They dug out the medieval plans of their village and took to rebuilding it exactly as it once was. A mark that they were not so easily defeated. Though it would have been amazing to see a town reduced to nothing from the ravages of war, as that's something so few of us can actually picture, the rebuilding led to the construction of Menin Gate. A giant arch listing the names of fifty five thousand soldiers, missing, bodies never recovered, or identified.

So many soldiers were buried in the craters where they died by their friends, yet never found. Sometimes because those makeshift graves were soon to disappear, and other times because the one who did the burying did not live long enough to report its location, nor whom it contained.

But then a break to explore Ypres. Taking a moment to marvel at the medieval church, built only eighty years ago, I thought on just how impossible it was to judge the age of something by appearance alone. And I also made my way to the waffle shop for a banana cream Belgium waffle. Delicious! Waffle consumed, head cleared, we moved on to our final two stops.

The first was a reconstruction of a world war trench, on the location where the most complete Dug Out was discovered. Unfortunately, the city will not fund this find, and reconstruction. The dug out remains flooded, and inaccessible, while the reconstruction is open to the public, all funded by private donations, and the creators themselves. What makes this a truly upsetting thing is that the city was granted seven million euros for World War One education. They pumped all of it into the In Flanders Field museum, which already had a ten million euro fund to begin with. To preserve the dug out and bring that part of history back to life would only have cost one hundred thousand of those seven million euros. Non were put aside.

It's almost as if the city would like this location forgotten, industrial complexes and wind farms being built up around it. The buildings being placed directly on top of an estimated three hundred soldiers bodies buried in the earth below. In Belgium there are no laws about archaeological investigations before new land is constructed upon. And that makes money for the city. A large line of people qued up to enter the windpower tower. Only our bus paid attention to this site, within line of sight.

And then we were headed to our final stop. Essex Farm cemetery, where a dressing station once stood, filled with the scent of death, and decay. Today the station still exists, surrounded by graves, one of which belongs to a boy who fought, dying only one month before his sixteenth birthday.

So what is it about this dressing station that makes it so important? That necessitates it being our tours final stop? It was the location where a soldier from Guelph, Ontario, Canada named John McCrea was stationed. And it was there that he penned a poem that would outlive him, being recited by school children around the world, and finding itself being printed on his home nations ten dollar bill.

“We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunsets glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Field.”
-John McCrea, 3 May 1915

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