A Tour of Flanders Fields

I thought I’d wait for today to post this article about my recent tour of Flanders Fields.

Today was a special Remembrance Day for me. It’s not that I haven’t stopped to remember those who died in the Great War in previous years, it just meant a lot more to me this year. I stood today and wondered how many people were wearing a Poppy and how many of those people knew why they were in fact wearing it.

Last month I was lucky enough to spend a day touring Flanders Fields and visited Essex Farm Cemetary where it is believed Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote his famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields the poppies blow’ from the bunkers of the Advanced Dressing Station. McCrae was second in command of the 1st Canadian Field Artillery Brigade but a doctor by profession, thus becoming the brigade surgeon. Following days of treating gas victims and the death of a close friend he composed his iconic poem noting the Poppies growing amongst the disturbed soil across the battle site and around trenches.

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Soon after its publication McCrae’s poem became the most popular poem on the First World War. In part, due to the poem’s popularity, the poppy was adopted as the Flower of Remembrance for the war dead of Australia, Britain, France, the United States, Canada and other Commonwealth countries. In recent times it has been sold to raise money for the families of the soldiers lost in the war.

John McCrae’s story is one of many that can be appreciated with a trip to West Flanders. Whether it is part of your family history or not it is a incredibly eye-opening experience and one I suggest every Australian does at some point in their lives. Not only does it help you to understand how the war was fought and the scale of death, it helps you respect those who fell, especially on days like today.

The Flanders region is home to countless cemeteries, memorials and monuments mostly centred around Zonnebeke and the city of Ypres (Ieper). Ideally you’d want a car and a full day to cover the significant sites, our guide said it’s a stretch fitting everything into two full days. We kicked our tour off at Vladslo, the most important German cemetery from the First World War where hundreds of black stones lie in the grass containing twenty names, twenty rank specifications and twenty death dates. At the back of the cemetery stands the famous Käthe Kollwitzsculpture ‘The Mourning Parents’, a tribute to her son Peter who lies in the cemetery.

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Half an hour drive away inside the Zonnebeke Chateau Grounds is the Memorial Museum of Passchendaele. Passchendaele was one of the most gruesome battles of the First World War in 1917 with over half a million casualties for a gain of only a few kilometres. The museum focuses on the material aspects of these soldiers with attention paid to uniforms, historic objects, battlefield archaeology and artillery. Visitors than head downstairs to the Dugout Experience replicating life underground before reading up on the contribution of different countries and heading outside to the reconstructed network of German and British trenches.

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Located less than 2 miles away from Passchendaele is the Polygon Wood Cemetery and a memorial dedicated to the Fifth Australian Division who heroically fought under heavy artillery fire alongside New Zealand soldiers in the Battle of Polygon Wood where over 5000 Australians lost there lives. Inside the cemetery is the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing, surrounded by many more graves of men ‘Known Unto God’. There are 2,103 burials at the Polygon Wood cemetery and only 428 of these are identified by name.

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We then travelled another short distance to Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the world. It is a beautiful but chilling home to 11,953 headstones of men killed in the defence of Ieper between 1914 and 1918. The majority died during the months of the struggle known as the ‘Flanders Offensive’ of 1917. Along the back of the cemetery is a wall that carries the names of another 34,863 British soldiers who have ‘no known grave’, men who died between 15 August 1917 and the end of the war. These names were originally meant to feature on engraved panels adorning the walls of the Menin Gate Memorial when it was constructed in the 1920s. Unfortunately, the memorial was too small to accommodate the list of the dead soldiers so the names were included along the wall of the Tyne Cot Memorial.

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Following Tyne Cot we travelled to Essex Farm and then into the town of Ypres (Ieper) to visit the In Flanders Fields Museum and finish the evening with the Last Post Ceremony at Menin Gate. It is fascinating to see Ypres alive and well compared to photos of the city following the war. The In Flanders Fields Museum represents the story of the First World War in the West Flanders front region and is located in the renovated Cloth Halls of Ypres, an important symbol of wartime hardship and later recovery when the city was rebuilt stone by stone in the 1920’s and thirties.

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What Ypres is most famous for however is The Last Post Ceremony under the Menin Gate which happens at 8pm every night. Yes, every single night of the year, it’s quite surreal. The road leading into the city is closed and crowds of people from around the world gather to pay their respects, with some laying wreaths of poppies for fallen ancestors. Unfortunately, the presence of cameras, phones and iPads detracts from the ceremony somewhat. Our guide said the best time to come is the middle of winter when it’s cold and raining. The absence of crowds makes for a far more moving experience – a great piece of advice and definitely something I’ll remember for next time.

The Last Post Ceremony was a touching end to a day I’ll always remember. It can be easy, thousands of miles from the battlefields of the Western Front to feel disconnected to those that gave their lives for us in the Great War. After a day spent touring Flanders Fields, finished under the Menin Gate, listening to the bugle play The Last Post, it is impossible not to be moved by the memory of the men that gave the ultimate sacrifice. Lest we Forget.

For  those that would like more information about visiting Flanders Fields head to http://www.visitflanders.com/

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James is the Founder and Editor of The Versatile Gent.

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