In Flanders Fields
By Toby Saltzman
Crowds lining the inner arch of Menin Gate in Ypres bowed their heads in reverence as buglers played The Last Post at the ceremony that commemorates soldiers who perished in the Great War. Silence saturated the air as the master read a verse from For the Fallen, ending with: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.” Waiting for his cue to walk forward to lay a wreath in remembrance of fallen Canadians, my mind swirled with images of innocents at war the voices of my dead parents describing horrid scenes. Though the walk across the archway and up the steps to the monument where I laid the circle of poppies and whispered a personal prayer took mere minutes, it felt like breathless ages. In my lifetime of experiences around the globe, this moment of tribute to those who sacrificed themselves for a better world will linger forever in my heart.
The world’s only continuing nightly ceremony to honour the fallen, the Last Post ceremony has run continually at Menin Gate since 1928, stopping only when Germany occupied Belgium from 1940 to 1944. Menin Gate stands splendidly at the riverside entrance to Ypres, marking the place where some five million British and Canadian soldiers once entered the medieval city en route to the fields of Flanders, eager to show their fighting mettle, never imagining that some 250,000 would never leave.
Almost a century has passed since the First World War sparked after a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz-Ferdinand – heir to the Austria-Hungary throne – in Sarajevo. Four years of bitter battles pitted the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria) against the Allies, which included the British Empire, France, Russia and Belgium, who were later joined by Italy (1915) and the U.S. (1917).
On Aug. 4, 1914, the Germans invaded Belgium, demanding access through the country to attack France. The details of ensuing battles and military tactics gone awry are the stuff of painful history: of Belgians flooding the Ijzer Plain to block German offensives; of disastrous battles in Ypres, Langemark and Passchendaele; of Germans employing poison gas (and Canadians trying to neutralize it by covering their mouths with urine-soaked rags); and of the Allied breakthrough in Flanders. Legends abound of the brave dedication of Canadian soldiers.
By the time Armistice was signed at 11 o’clock on the 11th day of November 1918, more than half a million soldiers were dead or missing; more than half of these from the British Commonwealth, including British, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders as well as soldiers from colonies including Moroccans, Algerians and Indians.
By then, the Flanders region was devastated. Ypres was decimated to ashes. Now known by its Flemish name as Ieper, it symbolized the meaningless slaughter of youth. Locals who had fled returned to rebuilt as an identical copy of its former medieval city. Its massive Gothic Cloth Hall capped by a towering belfry reflected Ypres prosperous past as a centre for the international cloth trade.
Today, the Cloth Hall houses the In Flanders Field Museum. It tells the story of the consequences of Great War in Flanders with an ingenious combination of dioramas, poignant displays and interactive technology that is activated by a microchip embedded in a poppy bracelet that is given to each visitor. Visitors can follow their country’s soldiers through various battles or delve into the WWI Research Centre to research family members. Hardy types can climb the belfry tower for panoramic views of the Ypres Salient area.
Flanders is sprinkled with hundreds of cemeteries, monuments, trenches and relics that have historical and personal significance for people who gravitate here from around the world to visit ancestral grave sites or where their forefathers fought.
Among the most popular sites is the Essex Farm Cemetery and the Advanced Dressing Station dugout shelter where Canadian military doctor John McCrae tended to wounded soldiers. Here the 1st Canadian Artillery Brigade stood in April 1915 before suffering heavy losses after the German chlorine gas attack. Here is where – on the dark night of May 3, with no candlelight to alert the enemy – McCrae penned the poem, In Flanders Fields. The red poppy – which thrives in crusty turf – eventually became a symbol of the sacrifice of war.
Lest visiting cemeteries sounds morbid, their aura is quite the contrary: they are serene and welcoming places to stroll and reflect on the sacrifice of young lives lost in a tragic times, not to mention those fighting in current wars.
Given a couple of days, certain sites should not be missed.
The Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial occupies a battlefield near Waregem where the U.S. 91st Division fought during the Ypres-Lys offensive in 1918. It is bordered with four rectangular patches of grass where marble crosses neatly stand row on row: in the corners of each patch, a marble Star of David signifies an unknown soldier of Jewish faith. Visitors may pause in a nondenominational chapel to meditate beneath a mosaic ceiling that depicts doves of peace flying toward a light in heaven. Try to visit the house inside the gate: erected during the Second World War, this is where mothers would come to learn of their sons’ fate before retrieving their bodies. On the wall is a picture of Charles Lindberg flying over the cemetery in 1927, just nine days after his solo trans-Atlantic flight, to salute his countrymen by dropping poppies from his plane during a Memorial Day ceremony.
Among the most somber in Flanders is the German cemetery in Langemark. It was here that the Massacre of the Innocents (the student battalions of 1914) took place. Some 44,000 are buried here, most in mass graves.
A short drive away, Saint Julian is the site of the Canadian Forces Memorial called The Brooding Soldier. A towering statue, his head bows in sorrowful remembrance of 2,000 solders of the First Canadian Division who died in fighting after the Germans spewed gas in April 1915.
The costs of war sear the heart at the Tyne Cot Cemetery in Passchendaele. Britain’s largest war cemetery in mainland Europe, its visitors centre showcases dreaded wartime conditions. It offers vast views of the peaceful, almost idyllic countryside. Looking out, imagining the battlefields, you can’t help thinking: Never again.
If you go:
The Last Post Ceremony under the Menin Gate in Ypres occurs every evening at 8 p.m.
Flanders Fields Country – also known as Westhoek – is easy to explore. Although the native tongue is Flemish (Dutch), almost everyone speaks English.
For information and maps that outline the routes of battles (such as routes that trace the advance of Allied forces to the battle of Passchendaele), go to www.visitflanders.us
The landscape is fairly flat, a breeze to drive, or navigate by Solex (motorized bicycles) or scooters that are available at most areas.
Where to stay in Ypres: