visiting Flanders Fields, BelgiumMonday, 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'.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
8. Hooge Crater Museum
A private museum dedicated to the history of the Great War.
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.
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.
11. The Yorkshire Trench and Dugout
This trench was excavated and reconstructed by a group of amateur archaeologists in 2003.
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.