Although I’ve been reading about WW1 in preparation for this trip I knew there was no way I could begin to feel the immensity of war, especially the Great War, without actually being in some of those places where such sacrifices were made.
We decided to start our trip in Ypres, Belgium – not a place that my grandfather visited, but a town ravaged by five battles during the course of the war, and the location of the Menin Gate and the ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’.
The Museum was amazing; it was incredibly emotional. A brilliant presentation, with videos of actors describing the plight of individuals using diary excerpts in the first person. I watched one of a Belgian refugee who had to take his wife and children and whatever he could carry and leave his farm. He was told he may never be able to return. Other impactful displays were of artifacts found in the ground during an excavation – 1000s of buckles, bullet casings, etc. The sheer size of the catastrophe is unbelievable. The Museum works hard in its displays to present the facts without glorification; to show the true nature of the horrific loss of life, as well as the damage done to survivors and to those that witness the destruction and tragedy.
We also climbed the 231 stairs to the belfry of the Museum building which is in the Cloth Hall, rebuilt after bombing in the war. It gave us great views over a very foggy Ypres.
Our next stop was the Tyne Cot Cemetery, 9 km from Ypres and the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in the world. I’m sure we will see a number of these cemeteries during our trip and I imagine that the impact will be the same no matter how many we see. Row after row of white headstones in stark contrast against the green grass of France; grass that was churned into mud as far as the eye could see during the War. It’s the sheer number that impacts me the most. 11,961 men are buried or commemorated with markers in this cemetery. A further 35,000 with no known graves are listed on the memorial.
The culmination of our Ypres visit was being present at 8pm to witness the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, a huge memorial listing 54,000 men from Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and United Kingdom who died in the Ypres Salient and who have no known grave. Again, the numbers are incomprehensible. People start to gather at least an hour before the ceremony and the babble of conversation turns rapidly to sombre silence when the ceremony starts. The fact that this ceremony is held every evening, and has been so since 1928, gives hope that while people still remember the sacrifices of the War, perhaps sense will prevail in the future.
– All Photos in this post were taken on 23 October 2016 –