Bruges is a gorgeous place. As I walked through the pretty Belgian town’s centre, the famous Market Square bathed in the early morning sunshine, it reaffirmed the thought that this is my new favourite place. Before I got the chance to visit last week, it had honestly never occurred to me what an essential European destination it is – now, I’d recommend it to anyone and everyone.
In much the same way, I might never have elected to visit the battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders Fields. The fact that the next four years will see a great number of centenary commemorations serves as a wake-up call – there’s no better time to visit and to remember. I was under the mistaken belief that it just wouldn’t appeal to me, but the In Flanders Fields tour proved me so utterly wrong. As we set off from Bruges on that crisp, early morning I was immediately engaged by our tour guide Jan, who told us that near 600,000 soldiers had lost their lives in this region alone during the Great War. It’s a completely unfathomable figure.
At least, it felt that way at the beginning. We started the tour at Vladslo Cemetery – perhaps the most well-known of the German gravesites. Within the cemetery walls it actually feels quite serene. Simple stones line the ground and it doesn’t seem like too many; yet, on reading the stones, you soon discover that each stone marks the grave of twenty men. In fact, in this little spot, well over 25,000 German soldiers are buried. The figures once again begin to overwhelm. Watching over the site are the famous statues of the Grieving Parents made by Käthe Kollwitz. They capture that same sense of overwhelming grief with an extraordinary beauty in craftsmanship, a labour of love for Kollwitz whose own son’s grave sits in front of the sculptures.
Tyne Cot Cemetery stands in stark contrast to Vladslo. A vast sea of white headstones commemorate around 12,000 fallen soldiers from the Commonwealth forces who fought in Flanders, with the prominent Cross of Sacrifice standing proudly in the middle of it all, built upon an old German pillbox. The impressive and ornate Memorial to the Missing to the rear of the cemetery lists the names of 35,000 soldiers whose bodies were never found. Tyne Cot is, by far, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world and is a suitably awe-inspiring monument to those lost in both the Battle of Broodseinde and the Battle for Passchendaele. It’s an iconic site that, more than any other, must be seen to be fully appreciated. It’s a famous quote worth repeating here, when King George V inspected the cemeteries in the early 1920s, he said –
We can truly say that the whole circuit of the Earth is girdled with the graves of our dead. In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.
The tour from Bruges is an extensive trip around the battlefields and monuments – though it’s self-evident when you’re on the tour that an extraordinary number of cemeteries are scattered all over Flanders. The surrounding landscape has been permanently scarred by war, as is clear when you visit places such as Hill 60, where two prominent craters in the earth mark the site of exploded landmines.
Yet in many ways the battlefields are some of the more peaceful stops along the way – the Trench of Death isn’t as scary as it once was, merely a good chance to see the cramped conditions of a war bunker and get a sense of life at the Front. Backing onto the picturesque Ijzer River, it’s difficult however to imagine the terrible events that unfolded in and around this one place. At Essex Farm, you can either visit the gravesite or instead take a moment to stop and read John McCrae’s famed and poignant poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.
Set in the rebuilt Linen Halls, the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres is a real highlight. It’s easily the most intriguing and unsettling museum I’ve ever visited – its exhibitions are not a sugar-coated presentation of the war. It’s gruelling, at times gruesome, and an absolute must-see because of it. When you enter, you’re given a wristband fitted with a microchip, which you then load with details of your age, gender and nationality. At several portals around the museum a screen that only you can see will then offer up a unique war story that, determined by your background information, will hold a special kind of personal resonance. The stories of devastation, typically loss of life, put a human face on the horror you’ve just then been learning about. It can be all quite tough to take.
Almost entirely demolished during the war, Ypres itself is a fascinating place to visit. The town has been painstakingly reconstructed to capture some of the same old-world charm that makes Bruges so appealing. The jewel in the crown, as far as Ypres is concerned, is the world-renowned Last Post Ceremony at the town’s Menin Gate – frankly a breath-taking sight all lit up at night and the perfect setting to match the reverence and gravity that ebbs through the town during the service. Every night at 8pm, without fail, volunteers from the Ypres fire service sound the traditional bugle call and poppy wreaths are laid. To see silence descend on the large gathering of people who, like us, had come from far and wide to witness it was really quite special in its own way. It is the quintessential exercise in remembrance and a fitting end to an extraordinary day.
By the end of our tour, I felt happy to be returning to beautiful Bruges and the comfort of my hotel. It’s certainly true that the tour makes for a long day, much of which is characterised by a great deal of solemnity. It’s well worth it though. Any amount of time or effort put in is greatly outweighed by the benefit of having experienced the place where it all happened first-hand. It can be emotional, though actually I found it captivating on an intellectual level more often than not. One thing moved me above all else however; at the Tyne Cot memorial centre, a clear and softly-spoken voice reads the names of the war dead, followed by their age. The sheer number of young lives cut short utterly saddened me. It was, for me, the defining moment of the trip.
Everyone reacts differently to moments on the tour such as this. Objectively speaking, is it any more sad that so many of those soldiers were my age or younger when they died? Possibly not. But this isn’t an objective experience. It’s an intensely personal experience; in the Great War, almost no family was left untouched on some level by the tremendous loss of human life. Whether you’re moved to tears whilst visiting that hallowed ground isn’t important – I was, many aren’t – it’s simply important to pay your respects, and to never forget.