visiting Flanders Fields, Belgium

Monday, October 27, 2014

This year marks one hundred years since the beginning of the Great War, also known as WWI, in which more than 9 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died.

At the start of this month I visited Belgium with my parents and we decided to dedicate one of our days to visiting Flanders Fields - the name given to the Great War battlefields, where so many men lost their lives.

It was a gruelling, emotional day, with a full itinerary - twelve stops in total. Throughout the day I found it hard to believe that the peaceful country villages and lanes we were walking and driving through were the scenes of such devastation not so long ago...

1. Poelcapelle British cemetery
The third largest cemetery in Flanders Fields and contains the bodies of almost 7500 soldiers. 84% of these men are unidentified and their headstones bear the inscription 'Known unto God'.

Poelcapelle British cemetery, Flanders Fields Belgium
Poelcapelle British cemetery, Flanders Fields Belgium

2. Georges Guynemer Memorial
Georges Guynemer was a French pilot of the Great War who shot down 53 German plans and three balloons. He was killed during the battle of Passchendaele in 1917 and his body was never found.

This sculpture - the 'Guynemer Stork' mirrors the stork emblem that was painted on the French aircraft so they could recognise each other in the air. It is flying in a North-East direction - the same direction Guynemer was last seen flying before he went missing.

Georges Guynemer Memorial, Flanders Fields Belgium
Georges Guynemer Memorial, Flanders Fields Belgium

3. Langemarck German Cemetery 
The second largest of four German cemeteries containing 44,000 bodies, including almost 3000 German students who died during the Battle of Langemarck, also known as the 'Massacre of Innocents'.

German headstones are very different to those in the Commonwealth Cemeteries - each plot is marked by a flat stone inscribed with a name if known, and Oak trees tower overhead as a symbol of strength.

Langemark German Cemetery, Flanders Fields Belgium
Langemark German Cemetery, Flanders Fields Belgium

4. The Brooding Soldier at Vancouver Corner
A memorial column that marks the battlefield where 2000 Canadian soldiers lost their lives and were buried nearby during the first gas attacks in 1915.

The Brooding Soldier at Vancouver Corner, Flanders Fields Belgium
The Brooding Soldier at Vancouver Corner, Flanders Fields Belgium

5. Gravenstafel, the New Zealand Memorial 
"From the uttermost ends of the earth". On October 4, 1917 during the advance on Passchendaele, the New Zealand troops took this section of the ridge where this memorial stands today known as 't Gravenstafel or "Grab and Stumble". Only 10% of the NZ forces survived the assault, and in terms of lives lost in a single day this is still the blackest day in New Zealand’s post-1840 history.

For my family this was one of the more significant stops of the day as Dad's father (my grandfather) was a soldier in the Great War.

Gravenstafel, the New Zealand Memorial, Flanders Fields Belgium
Gravenstafel, the New Zealand Memorial, Flanders Fields Belgium

6. Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial Wall
This is the largest Commonwealth cemetery.  Almost 12,000 soldiers are buried here and another 35,000 are listed on the memorial wall at the back of the cemetery. It also houses the memorial to the Australian 3rd Division.

Tyne Cot Cemetery is the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world, for any war. No name is listed twice in this cemetery.

Driving towards Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial Wall, Flanders Fields Belgium
driving towards Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial Wall, Flanders Fields Belgium

The grave of a unidentified New Zealand soldier in Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial Wall, Flanders Fields Belgium
the grave of a unidentified New Zealand soldier in Tyne Cot Cemetery 

A corner of Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial Wall, Flanders Fields Belgium
a corner of Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial Wall, Flanders Fields Belgium 

7. Polygon Wood
The site of two cemeteries and two memorials. One memorial is for the Australian 5th Division.  The other is for those of the New Zealand Division who held the Polygon Woods sector from September 1917 until May 1918 but who have no known graves.

Polygon Wood, Flanders Fields Belgium
Polygon Wood, Flanders Fields Belgium

Australian troops at Polygon Wood in 1917, Flanders Fields Belgium
Australian troops at Polygon Wood in 1917, Flanders Fields Belgium 

8. Hooge Crater Museum
A private museum dedicated to the history of the Great War.

Images of the Great War at Hooge Crater Museum, Flanders Fields Belgium
images of the Great War at Hooge Crater Museum, Flanders Fields Belgium

Although one hundred years have passed the war still effects the lives Belgium farmers who live on this land today. It is common for farmers to find battle shells and hand grenades called 'heavy potatoes' as they plough their fields. The Belgium bomb squad visits the area weekly to collect these remains of the war and dismantle them.

Missiles and war posters from the Great War at Hooge Crater Museum, Flanders Fields Belgium
missiles and war posters from the Great War 
at Hooge Crater Museum, Flanders Fields Belgium

9. Hill 60 Preserved Battlefield 
Hill 60 was the scene of bitter fighting between the German and British between 1914 and 1918, and during this time changed hands several times. In the Broken tunnels beneath this green area many British and German soldiers are still buried today. On the top of the Hill is the remains of a Allied pillbox.

Hill 60 Preserved Battlefield, Flanders Fields Belgium
Hill 60 Preserved Battlefield, Flanders Fields Belgium

Pillbox on Hill 60, Flanders Fields Belgium
Pillbox on Hill 60, Flanders Fields Belgium

10. The Menin Gate
The Menin Gate bears the names of 54,389 officers and men from United Kingdom and Commonwealth Forces who fell in the Ypres Salient before 16th August 1917, and who have no known grave.

The Menin Gate, Belgium
The Menin Gate, Belgium

Names inscribed on The Menin Gate, Belgium
names inscribed on The Menin Gate, Belgium

11. The Yorkshire Trench and Dugout
This trench was excavated and reconstructed by a group of amateur archaeologists in 2003.

The Yorkshire Trench and Dugout, Flanders Fields Belgium
the Yorkshire Trench and Dugout, Flanders Fields Belgium

The last stop on our tour, this cemetery sits on a dressing station site where wounded soldiers were treated on the front line. There are 1,199 burials in this site, but only 102 are unidentified and one of the youngest soldiers to die in the war - Valentine Strudwick, a 15 year-old from Surrey is buried here.

Essex Farm Cemetery and Dressing Station is also the site where Dr John McCrae wrote his famous poem In Flanders Fields in 1915.

burial site of Valentine Strudwick - one of the youngest soldiers to die in the Great War
burial site of Valentine Strudwick - one of the youngest soldiers to die in the Great War

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
{John McCrae}

If you ever get the opportunity to visit Flanders Fields I highly recommend doing so. I learnt a lot about the Great War, our history and those that lost their lives. It was an emotional day and one I won't forget in a long while.

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4 comments

  1. No better place than Flanders Fields to be confronted with the horror and the result of war...

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    1. Agree. Definitely helped me appreciate the loss much more than reading about WW1 in a book.

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  2. Wow, what an incredible day. Reading this brought back memories of my visit to Gallipoli Peninsula and Turkey and the graveyards there - so emotional and heart-breaking to see.

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  3. Nice write-ups and tributes. My Grandfather participated in Operation Hush in Flanders, which is when and where the Germans first used mustard gas. He was regular army in the British Army when the war started and his unit spent most of the war in France fighting in multiple locations. The stories he told - and I wish I had listened more . . .

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