In Flanders Fields Museum
Grote Markt 34, Ieper
What better place to start our tour of Flanders Fields than in the hub of the WWI commemoration - the In Flanders Fields Museum. Instead of a ticket, we get a white bracelet with a red poppy. The recently renovated museum - located in the impressive Cloth Halls in Ypres highlights the story of the invasion, the trench war and the remembrance since the armistice, while focusing on personal stories. We take a deep breath and climb the bell-tower to have a look at what were once the battlefields.
Essex Farm Cemetery
After lunch we leave Ypres and head over to Essex Farm Cemetery and the Advanced Dressing Station, where the Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote his world-famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields‘, the day after his friend was buried here. While looking out for some poppies in the distance, we discover the grave of Joe Strudwick. He was only 15 years old.
German Military Cemetery
We drive 8 km/5 miles from Boezinge to the village of Langemark. Here is situated one of only four German war cemeteries in Flanders. Behind the monumental entrance lie more than 44,000 soldiers, half of them in a mass grave. Among them over 3000 cadets and student volunteers, which explains why the cemetery is also known as the ‘Studentenfriedhof‘. The bronze statue of four mourning soldiers by Emil Krieger is very impressive. Slightly larger than life they immediately capture the eye, the moment we enter the graveyard.
The Brooding Soldier
After a short drive we reach the ‘Vancouver’ crossroads where the Canadian Forces Memorial stands in a park. The memorial, also known as “The Brooding Soldier”, commemorates the 2,000 casualties of the Canadian 1st Division who were killed in battle after the German gas attack of 22th April 1915. It is a 33 feet high tower of white granite with the helmed head and shoulders of a soldier at the top of the tower. The soldier has his head bowed and is in the pose of a serviceman standing with “reversed arms”. He is resting his hands on the rifle butt and the rifle is pointing with its barrel to the ground. A traditional military salute to the fallen. Poignant detail: the soldiers’ head points in the direction from which the chlorine gas cloud came.
We head back to Ypres for a meal and a visit of the Menin Gate - by far the most famous Commonwealth war memorial in Flanders Fields. On its white walls are engraved the names of 54,896 soldiers, whose bodies were never found (another 34,000 are commemorated at Tyne Cot Memorial in Passchendaele, because the Menin Gate was not big enough to hold all the names). Since 1928, at 8pm each and every day the Last Post is blown here. We arrive at the Gate and we already see the buglers coming. Any moment now...
The Last Post
The four buglers - in the uniform of the voluntary fire-fighters of Ypres - stand in line. The first notes sound like a call. Its symbolic value sends shivers through anyone listening. If we can’t call the soldiers back to life, let’s send them “a final farewell at the end of their earthly labours and at the onset of their eternal rest”, as it reads on www.lastpost.be. There are many video clips of the ceremony on YouTube but as one comment on the videos says: “You must have seen this once in your life. If you are not moved by it, you’re made of concrete.” We can’t but agree…
Hill 62 - Sanctuary Wood
The road we are taking - ‘Maple Avenue’ - leading us into the trees of the Canadian war memorial Sanctuary Wood, was once part of the Canadian front line. At Hill 62, the highest point of Sanctuary Wood, an impressive Canadian memorial dominates the area. It was the scene of fierce fighting in June 1916 but now offers peaceful views of the towers of Ypres.
Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917
Berten Pilsenstraat 5a, Zonnebeke
We now get to the heart of the Third Battle of Ypres or ‘Passchendaele’ as it is more commonly known. The name is a symbol of senseless military violence. The dugout tunnel with communication and dressing post, headquarters, workplaces and dormitories, gives us an idea of how the soldiers had to live underground, like moles, because there was nothing left above ground. It’s impressive, as is the Museum with its collection of historical artefacts, images, movies and dioramas. We end our visit to the museum outside in the trenches before heading into the park that surrounds the museum.
Tyne Cot Cemetery
With its arched wall and colonnades in white stone, the Missing Memorial of Tyne Cot Cemetery instils respect. This is the largest military cemetery of the Commonwealth in continental Europe. Almost 12,000 soldiers are buried here. 12,000 white crosses, row after row. We stand in awe. On the Memorial Wall are the names of the 34,957 missing soldiers who fell after15th, August 1917. It’s almost inconceivable.
Flanders Field American Cemetery
Wortegemseweg 117, Waregem
We end our tour on the only American war cemetery in Belgium and walk in the footsteps of President Obama, who visited the cemetery on 26th March 2014. The peaceful Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial has 368 tombstones in white marble from Carrara and is located in a beautifully maintained park spread over four acres. In 1927 Charles Lindbergh flew over this cemetery in his Spirit of St. Louis to salute his fallen compatriots and to scatter poppies over their graves.
Crest Farm Canadian Memorial & Canada Gate
This marks the place where the Canadian Corps saw fierce fighting during the Second Battle of Passchendaele and won possession of the high ground at Crest Farm.
Canada Gate is the second of two so-called “portals of remembrance.” The first monument, installed last year on the Halifax waterfront in Canada, marks the departure from Pier 2 of 350,000 soldiers who boarded ships bound for the battlefields of Belgium and France. Canada Gate marks the arrival site of many Canadian soldiers.