Story by Ilona Kauremszky
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
It is the incredible calm of this brisk autumn morning that is strangely breathtaking on my visit to Flanders.
As streaming sunrays filter past a herd of grazing cows the freshly fallen dew paints the grass beneath their hooves into a mystical shimmer. The scene feels ethereal, otherworldly. I suddenly understood what artists describe as the Flemish light and why master painter Peter Paul Rubens and others were mesmerized by it.
It’s difficult to fathom that a century earlier this bucolic countryside in Belgium’s northern part in Flanders witnessed some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War which took place 1914 to 1918. It’s also difficult to imagine these pastoral landscapes dotted by charming country villages as muddy killing fields, except they were.
All vets who fought in the “War to End All Wars,” which was the term used then to describe the First World War have sadly passed away. Now ironically the only last remaining living witness is the land itself. The upturned farmers’ pastures once pitted by artillery shells and by the stench of warfare have returned as fertile farms.
The commencement of the WWI Centenary (2014-2018)
Now the pilgrimages marking the First World War Centenary have begun in earnest. Ancestors are returning in search of personal connections. Groups are visiting and vacationers bypassing busy Brussels veer onto these quaint country roads or the popular cycling routes with their various battlefield themes.
I always wanted to see where the poppies grew. When I went to Flanders last November for Remembrance Day I was half expecting to see them growing in the fields.
[box_light]Finding the roots of Remembrance Day[/box_light]
Except there isn’t a marker designating Flanders Fields and there weren’t any poppies either. Springtime is when the fields flourish with the blazing red wild flowers. The iconic symbol to us Canadians is attributed to one man in particular: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae who penned the world renowned poem, “In Flanders Fields.” The Canadian doctor who was on the battlefront was stationed at Essex Farm and wrote it in May 1915 after the passing of a dear friend.
You can see the location in plain view that drew McCrae’s inspiration. Head to the Essex Farm Cemetery, located at the historic site in the Ypres Salient to see a military cemetery alongside a memorial to Dr. McCrae and a medical dressing station that was used until August 1917. The primitive concrete bunkers are carved into the earthen slope roofed in thick grass. Bullet holes have pitted the dressing station’s threshold. The dankness in this narrow chamber is bone chilling. A makeshift memorial of miniature Canadian flags, crosses and paper poppies line the dark floor.
As I was half-heartedly searching for Flanders Fields, I discovered it was everywhere. The term itself has become emblazed in many Canadians’ hearts because of the poem. Flanders Fields helps us to reflect on those gallant Canadian lads, many of whom were mere teenagers, who bravely volunteered to fight for “King and Country.” In 1914 Canada was only 47 years old – a young nation with eight million people Newfoundland wasn’t even part of the country but as a separate colony it had its own Royal Regiment.
Ieper or “Ypres”
Flanders has countless memorial sites bearing strong Canadian connections that one can visit. The medieval looking city of Ieper (formerly known in French as Ypres) is a good launch pad. Hailed as a huge textile depot during the Middle Ages with its stunning Flemish Renaissance-style architecture, Ieper was destroyed in the war but in a massive post war undertaking has been rebuilt to its original splendour.
For an in-depth WWI overview head to the Cloth Hall, home of the museum aptly named after McCrae’s poem. The In Flanders Fields Museum houses artifacts and incorporates multimedia to illustrate the changing battered landscape. Aerial photographs culled from 1914 to present day play vividly over a huge map. In other spots watch holographic-style videos of period-clad actors portraying people who tell their stories with personal items on display. Those interested in battlefield research can visit the onsite library known as the Knowledge Centre, while others can climb the belfry for a splendid view of the countryside with the vast cemetery plots in the distance.
The Menin Gate
In the evening I made my way to the Menin Gate in Ieper to witness the Last Post Ceremony which has been performed nightly since 1928 (it’s only ever been interrupted during the Second World War). Performed by members of the volunteer fire brigade it remains a respectful tribute to the fallen soldiers, those who fought in the bloody battles around Ypres. Over 250,000 soldiers from the British Commonwealth died there and more than 100,000 souls have no known grave.
Traffic screeches to a halt. I stood beneath the outer arch of Menin Gate, bowed my head and listened to the soulful notes of the bugle pierce the darkening sky. Chiselled in stone enveloping me like a protective shield were the names of the lost unknown soldiers, many of whom are from Canada and Newfoundland. I scan the countless names that go on and on and follow the long panels flanking the staircase that led up to a sea of grass. I blinked twice because everything felt surreal.
A wave of paper poppies that were small mementoes with private notes scribbled on them from well-wishers were swaying in the autumn Flanders breeze. Maybe it was a breath from up on high that helped them flutter.
Whatever it was I had yet again found peace in this place that aptly has become known as “The City of Peace.”
More About Flanders
For more information: www.flandersfields1418.com.
By bike: There are over 1000 km of routes around Flanders. Cycling maps are available (6 euros) from local tourist offices or viewed at www.flandersfields.be.
By car: Order the car brochure “Life at the Front”. Click here for a copy.
By rail: Take daily rail service from Brussels International Airport to Ieper. For rail and ticket information see click here.
Last Post Ceremony takes place at Menin Gate every evening at 8 pm. View the memorial with its staggering list of 54,896 soldiers who fell in the Ypres Salient before August 16, 1917 and sign the visitors book in the brass box.
The 122-room three-star Novotel Ieper Centrum Flanders Fields hotel near the Market Square is family-friendly. Standard rooms from 95 euros per night double occupancy. Wi-fi (extra charge), breakfast not included.