By Jeanie Keogh
Standing on the same soil that was overturned to make trenches and graves, I paid tribute to Remembrance Day in Ypres, Belgium on November 6. It was a unique feeling to know that soon all over the world, wreathes would be placed on memorials thousands of kilometres away from burial grounds, prisoner of war and concentration camps. And here I was, where the very bombs dropped and mines exploded.
Ypres is about an hour-and-a-half West of Brussels. One thing to note when travelling in Belgium is the names of cities. It is a bilingual country made up of French and Flemish speakers. In the predominantly Flemish regions the signs are only in Flemish so for most of the drive for Ypres will read Ieper. Rest assured, everyone speaks English as it is a neutral language often spoken to lessen the political tension. From Brussels/Bruxelles, take the E40 to Ghent/Gent, switch to the E17 to Kortrijk/Courtrai and then take the A19 to Ypres/Ieper. If you prefer to take the train, the company is SNCB. This is likely more affordable and convenient than renting a car but you will want to check with the train controller before you board the train in Brussels as several trains going to different destinations use the same platform.
I didn’t look into organized tours as I opted to go solo. However, there are English operated day tours that cost about €30-€35. For history buffs, there are plenty of cemeteries and memorials to visit and the trip could take longer than a day if you’re intent on seeing everything. My historical journey took me to the Flanders Fields Museum, the reconstructed Yorkshire trench and dug-out on the outskirts of town, and culminated at the Tyne Cot cemetery in Passendale just outside Ypres. The whole trip took about 4 hours. Slightly longer if you wish to visit the Canadian memorial in honour of the 2,000 dead of the First Canadian Division. The Flanders Museum is the only part of the trip that is time-sensitive. It is open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. (winter) or 6 p.m. (summer) until November 14 when it closes for renovations. It reopens June 10.
The museum in Ypres, or Wipers as it was called by anglophones, was an impressive building in the centre of the market square. It was nearly decimated in the first few months of the war. From the exterior, I could still see where stone statues might have been blasted off at the knees, a very concrete reminder of what happened to many in the German-occupied city.
Upon entering the museum, visitors were handed a ticket with the name of someone who served in the war to carry with us as we walked through the exhibit. Helen Fairchild, born November 21, 1884 was the name on my ticket. Coincidentally, she was the same age as I when she joined the war movement and her birthday was five days after mine. I learned that in 1917 she contracted an acute liver disease while serving as a nurse in hospital and died in 1918.
A five-minute drive – or bike ride – out of town, I found the Yorkshire trenches in the industrial park amidst wind turbines and factories. The trench was discovered by chance in 1997 when development was beginning. 205 bodies were exhumed. Though the sandbags are made from concrete and the stairways leading underground were barricaded, the foetid water that filled them recalled a vivid image of the many diseases that claimed lives.
The final stop was Tyne Cot cemetery in Passendale. The woman at the museum tourism centre sent us there because it is the largest WWI Commonwealth burial ground on mainland Europe. It is the final resting place to 11,956 soldiers and 34,957 commemorated soldiers whose bodies were never found. It is about 15 minutes north-east of Ypres, situated between two farms. There is no specific Flanders Field, I learned. The region is called Flanders and the surrounding fields are where heavy fighting took place. I was also told that Belgians don’t call it Remembrance Day but Armistice Day and it’s not commemorated as much as in Canada, even though it is a holiday.
Since Europe isn’t a grid, GPS is helpful for the navigationally-challenged. A note on driving in Europe – roads are narrow but drivers have an intuitive and very polite sense of right of way. When the road is too narrow to pass, drivers wait on the side of the road for oncoming traffic to pass. Be aware that in Belgium, cars approaching from side streets on the right have priority.
From a distance, Passendale cemetery could be seen because the famous white Portland stone tombstones stood out in stark contrast to the lush green countryside. Walking alongside the grey stone wall to the entrance of the enclosure, an automated voice stated each soldier’s name, age and the date he died. The path lead to the information centre, which was an unadorned, square concrete building with a metal door built in the style of a bunker. Inside, there was a video screen with images of each soldier. A display case shows the typical war artefacts – an old shoe, a gun, a rusted helmet with bullet holes, empty casings and shells.
What was most notable about the museum and the cemetery was that the curators chose to highlight the futility of war in addition to its’ tragedies. So often, war is depicted with subtle propaganda that presents the heroism, glorification and justification for perpetuating combat.
In the Flanders Museum, a quote from Winston Churchill in a private letter dated 1914 reflected that there might be different solution than continuing war – “What would happen, I wonder, if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike and said some other method must be found of settling this dispute.” On the grey wall of the cemetery wall was a quote from a soldier’s fiance – “The thought that Jock died for his country is not comfort to me. His memory is all I have left to love.”
In the last room of the museum, in large letters, a troubling statistic is printed: As of 2008, there have been 126 armed conflicts since “the war to end all wars” as World War I was declared by the League of Nations in 1920. Visitors leave with their mind no longer on the Great War but on today’s wars and it becomes absurd that with all the seemingly impossible developments in nearly 100 years, we have not found a better way.