Friday, October 4, 2013

Belgium: Ypers, In Flanders Fields



     We live in Wallonia.  When you tell that to most Belgians, they tend to scrunch up their noses and tell you that Flanders is better.  From an outsiders point of view, the country seems very much divided.  Sure, in the United States, we have North and South or East and West.  Sure, if you are from New York, then your accent is much different than if you are from Alabama.  But here in Belgium, it isn't about an accent. If you live in Wallonia, then you speak French.  If you live in Flanders, then you speak Flemish.  I do not really know which is better.  The more I get to know both areas, the more I like them both.  Except for the roads...I have to admit the roads in Wallonia, thus far are terrible!

     Anyway, we have ventured to a few places in both Wallonia and Flanders.  In an effort to make sure that each family member gets to see something that he/she really wants to see, last weekend we made it Dad's choice and headed to Flanders.  Dear Husband, a history buff, had located a tiny town which was completely destroyed during World War I and was painstakingly reconstructed.  Today, the town of Ypres (in French)/Iepers (in Flemish), has declared itself a City of Peace.  Its museum is dedicated to the futility of war.

     The museum is called "In Flanders Fields" and it is housed in a spectacular building in the town's Grand Place/Grote Markt/Main Square.  The name of this museum may sound familiar to you as it is the name of a famous poem.  The poem was written by a Canadian doctor and artillery commander, Major John McCrae.  During the second battle of Ypres, a young lieutenant who was serving in the same unit as Major McCrae was killed when an artillery shell landed near him.  As the Chaplain had been called away, MAJ McCrae had been asked to conduct the burial ceremony.  Later that evening, it is thought that he went back to his tent and began his draft of this poem.  If you have never read the poem, I urge you to seek it out.  It is simple yet poignant and provides a telling example of the horrors of that war to end all wars.  "In Flanders fields the poppies blow...between the crosses, row on row..."

     The town of Ypres was stuck in between the battles of the British and German forces.  Later in the war, more Commonwealth soldiers were committed to these battles.  The first chemical attacks took place here and little by little the town was destroyed.  At the end of the war, the British were against the rebuilding of the town as  a young Mr. Churchill wanted the area to be a remembrance - a zone of silence.  But by 1920, the town was being rebuilt and it was decided to rebuild the town as it had once been.

     Another site that is particularly moving is the Menin Gate that stands at the entrance of the old town.  The massive stone arch is a moving memorial dedicated to the Soldiers of the British Commonwealth who fell and have no known grave.  There are over 54,000 names etched into the stone work divided by country and unit.  As you walk through the gate, wreaths of poppies, flowers, candles are placed upon the stairs by those visiting the site.  Each evening, since 1928 at precisely 8:00 pm, the traffic is stopped in front of the Gate and "Last Post," the traditional final salute to the fallen is played by buglers.  While we could not stay late enough to experience this moving tribute, the Gate itself is probably the ultimate reminder of the devastation of war.

     While Dear Husband loves to investigate all things historical, I have to admit that my interests are in other things.  However, I am glad that we experienced one of his choices.  I think that we all learned and were moved by the whole experience.  (Well, maybe not Dear Daughter...but at 12 years of age, perhaps history isn't yet her thing.)

The Museum "In Flanders Fields"

View of the town from the Clock Tower

Names of the Fallen on Menin Gate




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