FLANDERS FIELDS IN "THE GREAT WAR"
WWI Monuments and Museums of Belgium
“In Flanders Fields” became known in the years following World War I to mean the hundreds of thousands of dead left behind in the grassy plains of Westhoek region of central Belgium known to soldiers of England as Flanders from 1914 to 1918. The red poppies which sprouted from the soil upturned by the digging of fresh graves in makeshift cemeteries came to be recognized as symbols of the sacrifice of soldiers. It was here that the world first discovered the utter brutality and ultimate futility of trench warfare with the most deadly battles of World War One. Up to half a million men would die in a battle to gain less than 2 miles of ground under heavy shelling and futile charges on entrenched positions. For war buffs and history tourists the area of north west Belgium is dotted with a war memorials, monuments and museums, from haunting statues to cemeteries for English, French, Canadian, Austrian, French and German dead, and trenches that have remained much as they were. The “War and Peace” project in Westhoek Belgium has tied together the war sites for ease of touring and visiting with routes that can be followed by foot, car, or bicycle. The In Flanders Fields Route with some of the most important cemeteries and monuments of the WWI battlefields begins and ends in the town of Ypres.
Ypres (or Ieper) was known for manufacturing cloth in the middle ages and had long been fought over between the French and English. But in 1914 German forces rolled across the plains in the first years of the war. The English commonwealth came to defend. Ypres was almost completely reduced to stubby stone rubble by artillery, almost unbelievable to visit today as much of it has been rebuilt to a beautiful grand town. The In Flanders Fields Museum shows original films of the devastated town and the battle fields of “no-man's land” of the Ypres Salient, along with letters and displays evoking the time. A special card allows visitors to follow the stories of individual real people. In connection with the museum, the Yorkshire Trench, an original dugout intended to defend the city has been restored by archeologist to its wartime state, to experience what the trenches were like. A series of information plaques give visitors a representation of the trench warfare experience, what war was like in the trenches as bombs exploded above and machine gun bullets traced overhead. The Essex Farm Cemetery is located near the Canal Bank where the guns of the 1st Canada Artillery Brigade were placed in 1915, and from where Canadian Medical Officer John McCrae was inspired to write a poem “In Flanders Fields”, which came to signify the bloody futility of the war, even though it had 3 brutal years left to go. The Documentation Center holds 6,000 books, topographic maps, photos, newspapers and magazines about WWI. The exploration route takes you past the German Military Cemetery at Langemark, the Canadian Memorial in Sint-Juliaan, Hill 62 and Kemmel Hill. Back in Ypres, the Menin Gate is the most well known monument for the British Commonwealth in Flanders in WW1. It bears the names of over 50,000 soldiers reported missing in the war. Every evening at 8pm a ceremony called “The Last Post” is held at the stone arch when traffic stops and buglers play a memorial salute.
The Yzer Front Route leads through the polder lands between the towns of Nieuwport and Diksmuide. The “Trench of Death” and “Our Lady’s Corner” along the Yzer River are places to find war relics and another restored trench museum memorials. The “Town Link” is a series of buttons in the sidewalks marking sites through the town of Diksmuide with tales and images of the town's destruction and rebuilding. The King Albert I Monument is at the junction of the canals in Nieuwport.
Other towns to visit are Mesen where the Irish Peace Park and Peace Tower, honoring Irish dead, the Messines Ridge Memorial at the British Cemetery, the New Zealand Memorial commemorating New Zealand and Australian soldiers and a small history Museum in town and a youth hostel at the Peace School. Poperinge, nicknamed “pops” in the war has the Talbot House where a popular club for soldiers was established by Reverend “Tubby” Clayton. The club was enjoyed by over a half million soldiers between 1915 and 1918. The upstairs chapel remains as it was. You can actually stay in the Talbot House for some authentic experience. At the town hall is the Death Cell where condemned deserters were held before being shot at dawn at the execution pole in the courtyard. I imagine it was preferable to spend the night at the Talbot House than in the death cell. In Zonnebeke is the Memorial Museum of Passchendaele (remembered for the gruesome battle of “Passiondale”). The museum, located in the the town castle has a walk-through German trench and a British dug-out headquarters with displays of uniforms and other historical objects and dioramas. The Tyne Cot Cemetery nearby is the largest burial ground of British Commonwealth soldiers in the world (see Passchendaele 1917 & Tyne Cot).
The only American cemetery in Belgium from WWI is located in Waregem, 25 miles from Ypres. America came into the “war to end all wars” in 1918 for the last offensives. The Flanders Field American Cemetery at Waregam is the smallest in Europe. But it wasn’t only allied solders who spilled blood in Flanders Fields, there are a number of German cemeteries as well, usually much more stark and forlorn than the ultimate “victors”, though its hard to say that anyone actually “won” this war.
For other war cemeteries in Europe - in Belgium Ardennes Battle of the Bulge WWII Sites - and German Cemetery Recogne in France The Somme and Belleu Wood-Marne.
It is possible to find the location of the war dead on the web. For Great Britain and Commonwealth soldiers in all wars www.cwgc.org for German soldiers www.volksbund.de and American War Cemeteries www.abmc.gov. © Bargain Travel Europe
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